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The Castlemont offensive and defensive lines match up against one another at an October 1 practice.

Castlemont coaches create refuge for students as athletic programs stall

on October 22, 2020

The grassy area at Verdese Carter Park looks nothing like a football field. There are no yard markers to measure by or yellow uprights to kick through. But on a hazy afternoon in early October, there’s just enough space between dog-walkers and pickup basketball games to squeeze in a Castlemont High School football practice.

On July 10, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) announced that the fall semester would begin online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ten days later the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) delayed sports seasons until December at the earliest. For the first four months of the school year, usually peak high school football season, Castlemont players will be without official practices or games.

“I think the hardest part is just not being on campus,” said Castlemont head coach Ed Washington. “Your friends, your memories, the games, you know, the interaction with the relationship aspect of it. That whole thing makes up school.”

Castlemont is not the only school grappling with this disruption. According to the CIF, football is the most popular high school sport in California in terms of participation, with close to 90,000 student athletes playing state-wide. Nearly all of those student athletics have had their athletic careers put on hold because of the pandemic.

But Washington was determined to get his players prepared for the season and academic year, so they meet—somewhat unofficially—four days a week. These practices are possible because of an extense of “summertime rules” by the CIF. “What that means is that individual principals at each school then oversee their athletics programs,” said Brian Seymour, CIF Executive Director. “And schools are able, if they so choose, to have conditioning workouts with their coaches…under local county restrictions.”

Starting at 5 p.m., players line the far side of Verdese Carter Park for warmups. After sprints and a water break, the team splits into two groups for position-specific drills. Quarterbacks throw back and forth with receivers while lineman practice blocking formations. After it starts to get dark, the players crowd together and scrimmage on a field that’s too small to run any plays.

Practices have become an escape for many players. “It helps me get the negative things off my mind, with what’s going on around us like COVID, it’s been a cool stress reliever,” said Castlemont junior wide-receiver Victor Vega. 

“We’re probably missing about ten or twelve kids,” said Washington, craning his neck to count 23 players from a distance at an October practice. Washington, a Castlemont alum and West Oakland native, is in his second stint as head coach of his alma mater. He first held the position from 2014-2017, returning in 2019 with a new coaching staff after a few years break. The practices at Verdese Carter Park, while focused on Castlemont players, are open to any student who wants to join. 

“I want them to not be in the house and be doing something with their time,” said Washington. “We’ve been holding these workouts to make sure we keep them busy and out of harm’s way, just to try and do our part. We can’t do it all, but we can do our part.”

Instead of emphasizing only what happens on the field, Washington and his staff have established weekday practices as a building block for community. No matter the quality of play or amount of homework, Castlemont coaches are outside ready to coach and support whoever shows up, every Monday through Thursday.

Washington is attempting to build up a team that has minimal playing experience and only 13 returning players from the previous year – all while students are adapting to online classes and a delayed season.

“It’s been rough,” said Castlemont Athletic Director and alum Phillip Jones about the start of the school year. “So our big emphasis was just participation…with virtual learning it’s kind of hard to really get that full experience of socializing.” 

Washington’s main role at Castlemont is as a social worker, and Jones worked as a case manager before moving into the Athletic Director position last year. Both of them spend school days building relationships with students, providing them with resources and even reaching out in person during home visits. On the football field, Washington coaches his team with the same approach.

 “Listen fellas, make sure that you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. If you need help, resources, you’re going through something at the house…talk to us, talk to us. That’s the only way,” said Washington towards the end of the practice. 

Castlemont football and academic staff members focus their work on building relationships and being a resource for Castlemont students, whether that’s taking the time to connect with a parent over the phone, organizing college preparation materials for seniors or even leading a study hall. “Community building is something that we really tackle,” Jones said. He and Washington both emphasized the ‘full wraparound’ nature of their work, providing students with resources for school and home life outside of their work on the field.

At the end of Thursday practices, Washington usually organizes a team meal for the players. He partners with two Oakland organizations – My Other Brother and the OK Program – to feed his players. At the end of practice, barbeque and habanero-flavored chicken wings arrive just as players are packing up their cleats. 

Frank Damiles is one of two seniors on the team, and he is finishing his dinner as players begin to leave. He only recently began playing football after moving to Oakland from Nigeria last year.

“I’ve never been on the field, so I have more time to practice,” said Damiles when asked about how the delayed season is affecting him. “I have enough time with the coaches to ask as much questions as possible and I also have time for film [football game recordings] and all that, so I think it’s working to my favor.” Less than a year into playing football, Damiles now has his sights on playing in college.

Washington’s approach centers around helping students like Damiles succeed beyond their time at Castlemont. 

“Are you in this to coach football or save lives?” Washington often asks himself. He answers with no hesitation: “I got in this to do community service…I use football as a tool, you can teach a lot of life lessons through football.”

Jones still runs into former students and gets calls where they ask for interview advice or job openings in the area. “I could go to the grocery store and still see a few of my students…so our idea is that…we raise these kids and give them the proper channels, we make our community better in which we serve,” he said.

“A lot of people coach, and I coach for the wins, that’s great, but I coach for the better, the change of a young person…the full wraparound,” said Washington. “Football, that’s the last thing.”

As the October practice winds down, practice cones disappear and the makeshift football field at Verdese Carter Park becomes just another grassy area. The players come into a final huddle and begin to smell their weekly dinner sitting across the park. 

Football is the last thing on anyone’s mind, and Coach Washington is just fine with that.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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