Oakland Tech’s “Coach D,” 15 years in charge, pushes his players on football and family
on October 15, 2010
It’s Saturday, a day off for the Oakland Tech football team, but a familiar SUV still sits in the high school’s back parking lot, overlooking the Bulldogs home playing field.
Tech head coach Delton Edwards fills out the driver’s seat of his 2007 GMC Yukon XL and watches through his windshield as the Oakland Dynamites—the Pop Warner football team he grew up playing for—clash with Oak Grove’s visiting elementary and middle school peewees. Coach D, as he is warmly known among his program, is not coaching today, but he is always around. 24-7 and 365 days a year, he likes to say. “Always,” says the 48-year-old. “You know how you bond with something? A lot of those coaches, they were a big influence on my life.”
He keeps his eyes on the field. “I mean, just to see black men coming back, giving to the community, that just stood out with me,” he says. “Just to give some time back to the youth—a lot of time, for free.”
A Dynamite tears off a long run for a touchdown. The boy is maybe eight years old, a fraction of the size of the players on Edwards’ Tech team. “See them big old helmets with the little bodies,” he says, chuckling. But at that level, kids already have a lot of talent. “Oh, good move,” Edwards says. “Oh, he shook him.”
The afternoon sun bounces off of the sparkling sand-colored truck’s 22-inch chrome rims. The massive vehicle is easy to spot beside the dingy old gym. Just outside, tattered basketball nets dangle from their rims, water trickles from rusty drinking fountains, and the painted Home Of The Bulldogs logo can be read from across the high school campus.
Edwards, who still lives in Oakland with his family, has spent his last 15 years at Tech’s helm. His well-kept goatee, the white setting in on black, helps illustrate his place as the longest tenured football coach in the city’s public high schools. Come game time Saturday for the league-play opener against Fremont, Tech players know that their own coach’s experience will be one of their initial advantages.
And though the Bulldogs’ next game is seldom far from his mind—“I cry when football season is over, because it’s boring,” he says—Edwards sees football the way his father and his own former coaches did: as a vehicle for helping young men mature through education and community.
Edwards hopes the events that shaped his life can impact those of the boys’ positively. “I got into coaching more for that part, than the actual football part,” he says. “I think that the experiences I went through, and some of the experiences that my coaches went through, could benefit other young men. Because we all make those same mistakes. You’ve got to break that cycle somewhere.”
It’s not uncommon to see former Bulldogs back at the Tech field, in some cases many years after they’ve graduated, to pay homage to the program that inspired them to be better people. NFL running back Marshawn Lynch dropped by for a visit last week, fresh off a trade from the Buffalo Bills to the Seattle Seahawks; he graduated in 2004.
Jason Perry, who moved back to the area for his job after some time away from Oakland, calls Tech the “maypole of the community,” and likes to stop in and watch practices while walking the school’s track; he graduated in 1986. Fred Thompson, one of the top football recruits in all the Bay Area last year, can often be found on the sidelines exchanging barbs with current players while he awaits his eligibility to kick in at top-tier program Oregon State University; he graduated in 2009.
On top of that, almost every member of Edwards’ nine-man coaching staff is a Tech veteran—either someone Edwards once coached, or a player or coach who preceded him at the North Oakland high school. Even at the junior varsity level, where former varsity head coaches K.C. O’Keith (1984-88) and Wayne Brooks (1972-78) instruct the next crop of players, the staff boasts nearly a purebred Bulldog lineage.
“Most communities are closed because they don’t have an anchor,” says Perry, who was born and raised in Oakland. “Tech is more family-like than other schools. There’s a sense of belonging. And part of it is the way D coaches. He’s really approachable.”
Perry says “D” with respect, the way others in the Tech populace do. The players also know him as “The Preacher,” while others who go a little farther back refer to him as “Reverend Ike,” after a popular televangelist from the 1970s. Those who have known him longest remember the nickname “Magic Johnson,” after Edwards’ favorite basketball player, and with whom his best friends claim he once shared a likeness.
The Tech administration is also big on the Edwards-led football staff. “He’s been an institution since before I got here,” says Tech athletic director Jim Coplan, who has worked at the high school for seven years. “Maybe he has purple and gold in his blood.”
Edwards has his standard lean going again, as he watches practice from the 50-yard line: upright, but tilted backward ever so slightly, and almost always with his hands in his pant pockets. He is dressed in all black: Nike sneakers, shiny synthetic athletic trousers, an oversized shirt. An assistant blows a whistle to halt play. As Edwards saunters toward the awaiting defensive group, one out-of-position player watches him advance—6’3” tall, 400-plus pounds—and provide a lesson in intimidation as he lets a tirade rip. After some choice verbal cues to make an adjustment, there’s a reassuring pat on the shoulder, and off the player goes to give it another crack.
Edwards is not himself a former Bulldog. After moving with his family to Oakland from Freeport, Texas at the age of 9, and playing ball with the Dynamites, he rose through the ranks and eventually settled in as a two-way lineman—offense and defense—at Tech rival Oakland High School. After graduating in 1980, Edwards attended Merritt College, where he earned an associate’s degree and was twice named a junior college All-American as an outside linebacker. He went on to play for a year at the University of South Carolina, and studied criminal justice during his time there.
According to Tech associate head coach Virdell Larkins, Edwards was a legitimate professional prospect. But after his life called an unexpected audible with the birth of his first daughter Regina at age 19, he returned to Oakland to help raise her.
Meanwhile, he coached at Merritt, as an assistant at Tech, and then at McClymonds High School for two seasons. Then in 1996, Edwards returned to the Bulldogs to take the head job. He has been the backbone of the program ever since.
Edwards is intense, says his assistant Reggie Davis, who is the quarterbacks coach and has been on staff for nine years this season—but actually, Davis says, D is quite an emotional guy.
“He’s like an angry teddy bear,” says the 32-year-old Davis. “He’s the kind of guy where he’ll yell at you one minute and he’ll hug you the next.”
Davis, himself a 1995 Tech graduate, attributes the culture shift in the school’s football program directly to Edwards. When he was in school, Davis says, the coaches put very little emphasis on academic curriculum. There were no summer training programs or game films. The team didn’t win many games, either. The only tradition Davis recalls is the crowd’s taunting chants of “once again, 0 and 10” at the close of each season.
“I think the main thing he did was change the administration’s mindset,” says Davis.
“D stressed that he was here, and would be accountable for all of the players.”
Although Edwards has always pushed his players hard to study, three years ago he helped use an NFL grant to launch a mandatory study hall period that starts right after school, before practice. Results came quickly. Last year, the Oakland Athletic League (OAL) recognized Tech for having the highest grade point average among football teams in the conference. Seeing the positive results the program has yielded, several more Tech sports teams have since made the study hall mandatory, too.
Spreading the word on such encouraging things can be difficult, though, especially in a place like Oakland, where violent crime regularly leads the daily news.
“There’s so much positive,” Edwards says. “But people always ignore that positive. You’ve got some bad apples wherever you go. Most of the time, these people aren’t even from Oakland. So that’s the part that really kills you.”
To offset negative perceptions of Oakland—that it is just full of “thugs and killers,” as Davis puts it—Edwards has certain rules in place to dispel image problems for his team. For example: No sagging pants.
“It drives me crazy,” he says. “Why would you want to show your underwear to somebody? Like I tell my kids, the first impression always lasts in a person’s mind.”
At the core is Tech’s emphasis on family, starting with Edwards. For some players, the component of family is so important to their involvement in the program that they say they wouldn’t even compete in high school sports if not for Edwards.
“Coach D is like a dad to me,” says junior quarterback Greg Pierson. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t even want to play football. He keeps me going everyday, because if I keep pushing, I’m going to go somewhere.”
Josh Johnson, a 2004 Tech graduate and now the backup quarterback for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, agrees with the impact that Edwards has had in setting countless kids onto the right path. “That was my foundation,” says the 24-year-old Johnson. “They just made us accountable for getting good grades and being responsible, and helped us grow up as men. And because we’ve walked the same streets and hallways, now it’s our goal to make it back and help the community and do the same thing they did for us.”
Though Edwards acknowledges that fatherhood didn’t come easy at first, he has a full grasp of this role today, as the dad of seven, including two stepchildren. For more than 20 years, he has also served as an assistant at SPECTRUM special education center in San Pablo for behaviorally aggressive teens.
Associate head coach Larkins, a 1986 Tech graduate who has been with Edwards since the two took over the program a decade later, says it’s the family atmosphere that sets the Tech experience apart.
“We teach them life,” says the 42-year-old Larkins. “I think football builds a camaraderie with one another. It builds a brotherhood, and you build that bond for life. When you play for us, you’re family.”
It’s cost Edwards, people know. His own health isn’t great. His devotion to the players sometimes puts a strain on his home life. “He loves everybody like his own kid,” says senior wide receiver/running back Daron Duong, a hopeful college prospect. “He’s sacrificed a lot for us, by being on the field with us instead of being at home with his family.”
But he can’t walk away, Edwards says. His relationship with all of his players is strong, and his youngest son, 14-year-old Kesean, will attend Tech in 2011—the first time Edwards will coach one of his own children. “This is my purpose, to help other kids,” Edwards says. “I mean, everybody I’ve been around that coached me and I grew up idolizing, they did it until they passed away. And that’s what somebody said about me the other day, you know? ‘He’s going to fall out on the damn field.’ And I might do that because I’ve got that passion for kids.”
This summer Edwards was diagnosed with walking pneumonia, which laid him up at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland for a week. The remnants are still noticeable in his sporadic coughing spells. The illness kept him from his day job for two weeks, but—regardless of his coaching staff’s pleas that he be healthy before returning—he managed to make it to practice every other day. Edwards still keeps an oxygen tank in the back of his truck. It’s supposed to help his lungs recover, but he says his stubbornness keeps him from using it with much consistency.
“With him being sick, one thing I try to stay on him about all the time is making sure he is wearing his tank at night or whenever he needs it,” says Edwards’ former player Fred Thompson, who lost his own father to pneumonia in March 2006. “I just try to make sure, because it would really hurt me to have to lose him the same way I lost my dad because in some sense, I look up to him as like a father figure.”
But Edwards does admit that being the figurehead all the time can be a bit daunting.
“It just gets frustrating because it’s a job and it takes a lot of energy,” he says. “It burns you out because you’re like a father mentor to these guys 24-7.”
“Doctor, reverend, painter, carpenter, advisor,” interjects Edwards’ mentor O’Keith, now the head JV coach. “It’s a headache, but it’s a love type of relationship. You’ve got to love to want this. It’s hard work.”
Edwards’ phone rings. It’s Ryan Murphy, a freshman on scholarship at Oregon State who graduated from Tech in 2009. They speak for a few moments before he hands Murphy off to Damon Island, the defensive backs coach who also started with this group of coaches in 1996. “Them calls make you feel better,” he says. “That motivates you to stay. It seems like one of them knows when I’m down and out, like this one, and then he called.”
Still, though Edwards will be the first to say he’s far from perfect, he thrives in the role of vocal spiritual leader. The football field is his sanctuary. His players came up with the nickname “The Preacher,” because of his lengthy sermon-like speeches; his coaches went with “Reverend Ike.” He tackles tough subjects with his players, from having children at a young age, to dealing with divorce, to gang violence among friends—all things he’s faced in his own life. He’s survived his own gunshot wound, Edwards says. He was much younger, he had gotten into an argument, and the young man he was fighting got hold of a .22.
The wound was only to the leg, Edwards says. But it could have been much worse. “I think it’s vital to share some of things we went through as kids,” he says. “I take advantage of every day as a lesson, and every day you learn something new.”
And while the coaches lead the team in a pre- and post-game prayer, Edwards likes to think of it as more spirituality than religion. He says he’d much rather listen to gospel singer Marvin Sapp, when he’s feeling down, than head to church.
Now it’s Monday afternoon and Edwards barks at his team to split into two equal lines, starting at the goal line. In front of each group of players lies a two-by-four wood beam. The players look on curiously as they wait for further directions.
Earlier this fall, following convincing wins in their first two non-conference games—what amounts to a preseason—the Bulldogs hit a rocky patch, with back-to-back blowout losses. They want to get back on track Saturday afternoon, when they play league-rival Fremont High at Curt Flood Field in Oakland at 1:30 p.m. A win against the Fremont Tigers would also avenge two of last season’s three defeats, including a loss in the Silver Bowl, the OAL’s championship game. So Edwards is going to try to pull his team together today with an unusual drill.
This is a race, Edwards tells his players, not a relay. With palms down on the blond-colored wooden block and their bodies awkwardly crouched, they will have to push the piece of lumber on the ground 40 yards down the field, and then 40 yards back. In doing so, players will have to overtake their corresponding teammate in the other line. Edwards bellows that the loser must face a penalty—a stiff one—25 up-downs.
The players groan. Up-downs are one of the most detested of all football institutions, as they require players to run in motion before suddenly dropping to the turf as if they were infantry amid screaming bullets. (And that’s just one up-down. Only 24 to go.)
“The job of the day is to focus on the wood,” says Edwards in his trademark throaty rasp. “You have to learn how to defeat the wood.”
Edwards is in a good mood today, remarks one player being held out of practice due to injury. The coach has a smile going most of practice. But the team has work to do before Saturday.
”Go!” Edwards yells.
The pairs scramble at as breakneck a pace as the lifeless plank will permit. Everyone struggles, many falling on top of the obstruction. Teammates from their line cheer them on.
“This takes brain power,” Edwards roars. “This is like the real world! You’ve got to learn to adjust and adopt!”
The players from one of the two regiments are still having trouble. They seem to think the winning side has the better of the wooden beams.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with his wood,” says Edwards of a losing player. Then he gestures toward one of the winners. “He studied,” Edwards says. “And he adjusted.”
Finally Edwards calls his congregation in. The preseason is over, he says. It’s time to come together, or it’s going to be a long season.
“You all feel what I’m saying?” he asks.
“Sir!” the kneeling parishioners respond in unison.
He brings up the wood drill. Just an exercise, he’ll say later, in mind over matter.
“A piece of wood,” Edwards says, “what can it do to you? Besides hit you in the head. But then it would have to be off the ground to do that.”
Edwards heard a lot of players complaining about the task.
“How do you know you can’t do it if you don’t try?” he asks. “It ain’t about us being individuals. It’s about us being a unit. We supposed to come back as a family.”
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