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Phoenix Academy bringing high school football back to East Palo Alto

In mythology, a phoenix rises. In East Palo Alto, a similar uprising is afoot.

The East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, a 7-year-old charter school, is bringing high school football back to the city. The eight-man team’s debut is set for Sept. 13 at Ronald McNair Middle School.

“I never thought this was going to happen, because when I first came to EPAPA we had no sports and we were in a little warehouse,” said 16-year-old David Acosta, a running back. “It was crazy, it was hectic. … Now that this is all getting closer to our first game, it’s starting to feel like everything is falling together.”

“Ever since seventh or eighth grade, we’ve been begging for a football team,” said 16-year-old Chris Sandoval, the quarterback.

A member of the Aspire Charter School network, EPAPA, or Phoenix Academy, has been around since 2006, when it was founded with 22 ninth-grade students. There are currently 160 students in grades nine through 12, with 100 percent of the graduating classes — beginning in 2010 — earning admission to four-year universities.

Choosing to attend EPAPA after eighth grade, though, was far from a slam dunk for some of the boys, because of one major drawback.

“We were outside talking about how the EPAPA Phoenix Academy isn’t going to have any teams, isn’t going to have any sports and we were talking about changing schools,” said 15-year-old Marcos Quintero, projected to be a starting wide receiver. “But we stayed and then we’ve kept urging the principal and the teachers and everybody we can talk to about having anything related to sports.”

The toughest part so far isn’t the two-a-day practice sessions that began this week, with a two-hour practice beginning at 8 a.m. followed by a 90-minute session at 11 a.m. It’s raising the $15,000 needed for helmets, pads, uniforms, etc.

“What happens is, if we don’t reach close to our goal, then most of them will have to pay like $350 each to buy everything,” said coach Stephen Ashford, who like co-coach Dwight Cooper is offering his services pro bono.

To alleviate the burden on parents, the team started an online fundraising campaign called “Help Support EPAPA High School Football” at www.gofundme.com/3jphdw. The players spent Sunday in downtown Palo Alto passing out flyers with the link, asking for even a $1 donation from strangers.

“Now they know how hard it is, because this is all from the ground up,” Ashford said. “We’re literally doing everything to raise money. … Some of these guys, their brothers have been locked up and been involved in a lot of stuff that happens around here. At least for these few hours, we’re keeping them away from whatever they could possibly be getting into. And, hopefully, during the season, they’ll be too tired to do anything.”

Before accepting the challenge of building a football program, Ashford needed to see in the spring just how much the boys wanted it. So Ashford, who also is a P.E. teacher at East Palo Alto Charter School, which now enrolls kindergarten through sixth grade, asked Sandoval and classmate Jose Barragan to return the next day with at least 15 students willing to start a football team. Only nine showed up. Ashford gave the boys another 24 hours to recruit teammates.

“Just to see who was really committed to it,” said Ashford, who had 30 kids appear the next day, most of whom he taught since kindergarten. “And the first thing we said is the grades.”

A minimum GPA of 2.1 was required to play football. That wasn’t good enough for the coaches, who demanded at least a 2.2 GPA.

“I like to say that we’re trying to turn these boys into young men,” said Cooper, who along with his wife will coordinate an hourlong study hall before the football team begins its 80-minute practices. “We’ve seen a drastic improvement in behavior out of the vast group of boys we have — the principal has actually thanked us for that personally — and a vast improvement in grades. Some kids’ grades went up significantly as soon as we started. Some we had to work on. But everybody has gotten better. We’ve been around these kids for a while and this is something they’ve dreamed of. We try to tell them that it’s not just football, you have to be a student-athlete — and student is the first word in that.”

Unwilling to allow failure in the classroom to ruin their first taste of prep football, the playbook isn’t the only reading material on the players’ minds when teammates struggle to maintain their GPA.

“If they don’t have the grades, they can’t play,” said Barragan, a 16-year-old who will play tight end as well as linebacker. “And they’re a big factor on the team, so we’re just trying to help each other and get our work done before we go out and have fun.”

“It’s about becoming a family and succeeding in life,” Quintero said. “Thriving for excellence.”

Cooper also came up with the idea of “Tie Tuesday,” with players required to show up at school with a tie and dress shirt. It was more casual wear Tuesday afternoon at Martin Luther King, Jr. Park located near the bayshore wetlands in East Palo Alto. Ashford ran the drills on defense, while Cooper was in charge of the offense at the tail end of another exhausting two-a-day practice.

“I stay in contact with about everybody, and actually yesterday we had to go over some grades, they got their report cards,” Cooper said. “So I got a lot of, ‘Oh man, after I got out of practice all I did was go home and eat and sleep. I can’t move this morning.’ Some of them wanted to call off it. But they’re dedicated.”

To learn the intricacies of eight-man football, both coaches watched film of Portola Valley’s Woodside Priory, their opponent in the season opener. There also was a three-hour coaching course.

It doesn’t help that the majority of the roster was more familiar with soccer than football. At least Sandoval played for the Palo Alto Knights during his days in middle school as a running back and wide receiver. But the transition to quarterback demands him to memorize the playbook and learn how to call audibles at the line of scrimmage.

Don’t expect to hear him complain. This is what he’s begged for, to become a student-athlete. Now he’s hoping to rally the support of family, friends and even strangers as the first football team at Phoenix Academy hopes to galvanize its community.

“We’re just trying to get the people to come out for a couple of hours,” Sandoval said. “Just to smile about something and get their minds off other things that are going on around here.”

“If they were to come out and show support, that would probably show that East Palo Alto is more than bad stuff,” Barragan said. “There’s good stuff here.”

Email Vytas Mazeika at vmazeika@dailynewsgroup.com; follow him at Twitter.com/dailynewsvytas.

Phoenix Academy 2013 football schedule

9/13 Woodside Priory @EPA

9/21 Alma Heights

9/27 Stuart Hall @EPA

10/4 Trinity College @EPA

10/12 Crystal Springs

10/19 North Valley Baptist

10/26 Anzar

11/1 Pinewood

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