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Winning with Accountability for Life

When Russ Stoner took over as Head Football Coach at William Penn High School in York, Pa., in 2016, it was clear he had his work cut out for him. Not only had the team struggled on the field, going 0-10 the previous year, but players had shown little motivation in the classroom, with an average GPA of 1.6. On top of these challenges, student-athletes were constantly contending with the violence, crime, and poverty that have become all too common in the small manufacturing city.

Stoner’s first year was rough. During the home opener that fall, there was a shooting in the school parking lot. Later in the season, a disgruntled fan threatened to shoot Stoner. In week nine, one of his players was tragically murdered.

None of that curtailed Stoner’s plans to bring new meaning to the football program, though. He put a host of activities in place—study halls, community service outings, developmental workshops, team discussions—and demanded accountability. He used a simple mantra with players, “Be a good dude,” repeated verbally and through texts. But mostly, he gave players his time and his love.

Three years later, the 1.6 team GPA has improved to 3.0. An increasing number of team members are planning to go to college. And William Penn players are seen as role models and heroes in the York community.

On the field, the Bearcats went 11-2 last fall, winning their division and making the longest playoff run in program history. That followed a 9-2 year, after managing just one win in 2016. While fan support had previously been dismal, most games now bring in more than 4,000 spectators.

“When I got hired, I quickly realized that the main piece the kids were missing was life skills,” says Stoner, now in his 23rd year of coaching and previously Head Football Coach at Spring Grove (Pa.) High School. “In my first year we had a lot of talent but we only won one game. When we began to focus on issues off the field, the wins and losses started to take care of themselves.”

Central to his off-the-field efforts was starting a group called Accountability for Life, which teaches life lessons and provides a forum for honest discussion about a variety of issues. Football players earn membership by maintaining good grades and partaking in community service projects, such as cleaning up trash from York’s city streets. They come together for formal meetings twice a month where players read through workbooks and complete activities related to developing healthy relationships and character building. Set up as a non-profit organization, it is funded by donations from the community.

Stoner, who has a degree in psychology, says the meetings also serve as group therapy. “What we’re doing is providing a safe space for our kids,” he says. “We ask them, ‘What scares you?’ and you’d think that a bunch of urban teens would say that nothing scares them. But the answers we get are honest.

“When a kid breaks down and says, ‘I’m scared for my future,’ it’s a powerful thing,” Stoner continues. “When you start getting those kinds of answers and kids open up to their peers and their coaches, you can see the difference it makes. You can see the brotherhood they form. Once they complete our program, we feel pretty confident that they’re on the right track to become very successful young men.”

To boost academics, Stoner and his staff began by implementing a mandatory study hall before workouts. He then took that a step further by getting William Penn’s administration to provide after-school tutoring on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Every Monday, Stoner checks in with his players about their grades, and he won’t accept anything other than A’s and B’s.

Along with the formal programs, Stoner constantly communicates with his players. “I think I’ve talked to or at least sent a text message to our kids every day since I was hired,” he says. “Even during vacations or holidays, I always text them something, whether it’s good morning, win the day, make sure you get all your homework done, or a motivational quote.”

And he keeps his eyes and ears open, eager to know if an individual player is going through a tough time. Last year, when one player’s family became homeless, the coaching staff found them an apartment to live in, furnished it, and provided three months worth of food.

Though his expectations are high and his standards are strict, Stoner has gotten buy-in from players by developing trust. “It starts by spending a lot of time with them, whether it’s going bowling, organizing a fishing trip, lifting weights, or the Accountability for Life program,” he says. “It’s also important to be honest, even when you have to have tough conversations with a kid or a family member. When you’re honest and consistent with the way you hold people accountable, then you can build that trust.”

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