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Meadowcreek's melting pot molds players

2/28/2006

It was his first day on the job as head football coach at Meadowcreek High Schoo in Norcross, Ga., and George Pugh was giving a speech worthy of his mentor.

Bear Bryant.

Pugh knew he was addressing students at a school with an enrollment that includes one of metro Atlanta's heaviest concentrations of recent immigrants. He knew, too, that consequently his audience wasn't necessarily savvy about the details of American football. So he kept his comments basic.




Black History Month is a time to reflect on the changes that diversity brings to sports. Over the past year, ESPN.com has explored those changes and found it isn't only a matter of black and white:

• Racial harmony: The Linkimers embraced the differences among their family, while remaining indifferent about them.
• Closing the cultural divide: It's more than a seven-hour drive that separates Long Beach Poly and tiny Lee Vining. but students at the schools are closing the gap.
• Friday night fights: In Dearborn, Mich., an all-Arabic football team shows its opponents the way the game was meant to be played.
• No guts, no glory: Vanessa Lucero is out to prove that sports are only for boys until a girl joins in.
• A football melting pot: In Atlanta, football players learn more than X's and O's; they learn how to be American kids, too.


Still, the speech he gave came straight from the lessons he'd learned from that master orator, Bryant, at the University of Alabama. This undersized, under-experienced team would throw hard blocks, Pugh promised. It would swarm to the ball. It would make open-field tackles.

Pugh built to a conclusion that would be familiar to any Pop Warner veteran -- honor, guts, glory -- and then he asked for questions. There were none. So Pugh ordered his team to gather on the field by one of the goal posts.

Nobody moved.

A hand rose tentatively, somewhere near the back. A voice spoke up in an accent Pugh didn't recognize. Malaysian maybe, or perhaps Thai.

"Coach?" the student asked. "What is a goal post?"

"That's when I knew I was in trouble," Pugh said with a laugh. "We're talking kids from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Guyana, Ecuador, Panama, the Philippines. And I haven't even gotten to the U.S. yet. … The league we were in was a very competitive league, one of the best in the country. And I've got to go out there with kids who not only can't play football, but can't understand me because we've got a language barrier.

"I thought, 'Oh Lord, what have I got myself into?'"

Welcome to Meadowcreek High's on-the-job diversity training. The school breaks down the ethnic makeup of its student body this way: 32 percent black, 25 percent white, 23 percent Asian and 19 percent Hispanic. But Darlene Werhnyak, the school's athletic director, said the numbers can't even begin to describe her students.

"I think we've got 38 or 40 countries represented in our school," she said. "It may say 33 percent black, for example; but that means kids from Africa, the Caribbean and all kinds of other places where they don't necessarily play American football."

Pugh, who had just left a job as an assistant at the University of Arkansas, might not have known what he was getting into. But when he left Meadowcreek two years later to work as an assistant at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Pugh said he'd learned almost as much as his students.


Teaching football to these players meant more than just X's and O's. At times, it meant teaching them how to be American high school students.

"It was a real melting pot," Pugh said. "Every culture in the world was represented on this football team."

The Meadowcreek experience isn't the first time sports have served as a cultural forge. Immigrant groups have sought entry into American society through the playing field since the birth of organized sports. In his book, "City Games: The Evolution of American Urban Society and the Rise of Sports," Steven A. Reiss, a historian at Northeastern Illinois University, writes that for many new arrivals, "Success in sports was a step toward assimilation -- a means of disproving negative ethnic stereotypes, gaining respect from the outside community and cementing social relationships among street corner youth: a source of ethnic pride and feelings of community; and a possible vehicle for vertical mobility."

But in reality, sports haven't always promoted Americanization, Reiss said in a recent interview. Polish and Italian immigrants might have formed athletic clubs soon after they arrived in the U.S., but those clubs often were about reinforcing ethnic and national identities rather than transcending them, or fostering competition rather than cooperation between groups. Rather than help immigrants overcome negative stereotypes, success in sports instead often created new ones. The success of Jewish boxers in the 1910s, for example, meant that some people thought Jews were brutes.

"In the old days, if you were Irish, you lived in the Irish neighborhood. And if you were Italian, you lived in the Italian neighborhood," Reiss said. "The idea of 40 players coming together from 30 different ethnic groups? You don't see that in the past."


Pugh understood that both he and his students had a unique opportunity, so that's essentially the sales pitch he used to recruit players from the school's community. Learn the American game, Pugh told parents. It has as much to offer your child as soccer. Teach him to fit in with his new society. Raise young citizens familiar with the great national values of teamwork, discipline, innovation and sacrifice.

A sparse 18 players showed up for Pugh's first spring practice. But the coach is a man who, as a local columnist once wrote, "could sell holy water to the Pope." By fall, the team had grown to 80. Most of them, in accordance with Pugh's plans, were freshmen and sophomores.

"The first thing we did was introduce them to the weight room," Pugh said. "We were talking about playing an [elite] schedule; and, boy, were we not in shape for it."

But Pugh kept plucking diamonds out of the rough. Antonio Forbes, a 6-foot-3, 285-pound sophomore and one of the team's few non-immigrants, bided his time lifting weights while he spent two semesters earning academic eligibility. A visit to the soccer team's practice yielded Sagar Patel, a Pakistani freshman with an impressive GPA and a leg strong enough to kick a football 50 yards.

"Actually, the booster club president was friends with my dad," Patel said.

Patel needed work to learn the difference between kicking a soccer ball and kicking a football. But a lot of his fellow students were making similar transitions.

"We got everyone out there to teach them the basic stances and alignments," Pugh said. "It was as though we were talking about dance steps or something."

The coach also put in some extra classroom hours himself, studying Spanish.

"I learned to communicate," he said. "I understand Spanish better than I speak it. One thing I've found is you can communicate quite well through sign language."

But language was hardly the only challenge. The population around Meadowcreek is notoriously transient, as families often uproot themselves quite suddenly to follow jobs around the state and country. A player who showed promise one week might disappear the next. And football sometimes wasn't a strong enough lure to keep them in the district.

"Football is not a way of life for kids at Meadowcreek," Pugh said.

The team didn't win a game that first season, but that doesn't mean the program went without tangible successes. When Pugh arrived at Meadowcreek, 37 players needed summer school classes to be eligible to play. The following summer, the number was down to three. Pugh raised the bar.

"This past year, we played the top six teams in the state of Georgia -- five of them on the road," he said.

Again, the team's record was 0-10. And again, "the win-loss record was not reflective of the type of kids we had," Pugh said.

That second year, there were 11 seniors on the Meadowcreek team. Seven of them received college football scholarships. Only one team in the league had more, with eight. Forbes, who grew to 6-4 and 260 pounds, and posted a 40-yard dash time of 4.85 seconds, became a blue-chip recruit and signed to play defensive end for the University of Alabama. Though academic issues eventually sent Forbes to Itawamba Community College (the alma mater of Saints receiver Joe Horn, among others) for the 2005-06 academic year, he has no regrets.

"If it wasn't for Coach Pugh, I'd be back home working somewhere," Forbes said. "Everything he said is coming true, so I keep listening to him."

Underclassmen got in on the act, too. Running back Cameron Smith, a junior, became a hot recruiting prospect. Georgia Public Television named Patel an Academic Athlete of the Week.

"I don't know if Meadowcreek's ever had anyone go to the Ivy League before, and I was afraid to apply," Patel said. "But my coaches keep giving me pep talks about how you can accomplish things if you keep working. One of my coaches talked me into taking AP [Advanced Placement] computer sciences."

Despite his team's winless record, Pugh built a reputation at Meadowcreek strong enough for the recruiters eventually to come calling for him. He was persuaded to accept another coaching job on the collegiate level, this time as an assistant at UAB. But before he left Meadowcreek, he faced a final challenge. He was to locate someone who could take over and ensure that his efforts over the past two years wouldn't go to waste.

Werhnyak assumed that finding a replacement would be extraordinarily difficult. How many coaches want to struggle with language and cultural barriers? How many of them want to teach relative beginners?

She was wrong.

"We got 60 résumés," she said.

After they interviewed 14 candidates, school officials settled on Reggie Perry, a football and wrestling coach from Dunwoody High School in nearby DeKalb County. Perry was from a local school, so he was familiar with Meadowcreek's challenges. In fact, his wrestling teams at Dunwoody looked very much like the Meadowcreek football squads, filled with students from places such as Korea and China.

His first season (Meadowcreek went 0-10 again), Perry said, has taught him a few choice phrases in several Asian languages.

"Some people say I'm crazy for taking this job, but I say I'd be crazy not to," Perry said. "The kids help you grow, help you see the world in a different light, other than just your little perspective."

And even another winless season hasn't kept the football staff out of sight of the game's higher echelon. In mid-February, Perry's defensive coordinator last year, Vincent Brown, was hired to coach the Dallas Cowboys linebackers.

Asked if he had advice for Perry, Pugh laughed.

"He has to understand what he's getting into," Pugh said. "Some variables, you have no control over. If you understand it and you deal with it, you'll be all right. Not like me. I had no idea."

Aaron Kuriloff is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to ESPN.com