The Youngstown Chaney football team returned for its first varsity season since 2011 with Friday night's game against Cardinal Mooney High School. With the help of the Browns, the Cowboys took a special first few steps of their new campaign.
Thanks to a donation from the Browns, the Cowboys were able to resume their varsity program and were invited to practice at the team's facility Tuesday. They received quite a surprise, too.
While gathered for a commemorative photo following a practice session inside the team's indoor facility, Browns superstar receiver Odell Beckham snuck up behind the group before strolling out in front of the student-athletes, much to their delight.
Beckham did a short question-and-answer session with the Chaney student-athletes before closing with another surprise: a free pair of his new Nike Air Max 720 shoes for every Cowboys player.
The surprise appearance and gift were the final touches on charitable efforts made by the Browns for Chaney High School, which is reviving a program that was lost to a change in school status following the 2010 season. Because of district consolidation, Chaney High School became a STEM school at the start of the 2011-12 school year, removing an athletic option for hundreds of students in Chaney's district. The result, according to Rick Shepas, Youngstown City Schools chief of physical development and athletics, was a mass exodus of athletes to neighboring schools.
"When they did that, the west side basically lost its roots and foundations in Chaney High School, started busing people all over the district," Shepas explained. "A lot of the kids that were west-side kids started to open enroll to other districts that were nearby."
As Youngstown City Schools centralized athletically at East High School, Chaney's program disappeared. That is, until Ohio House Bill 70 allowed a state takeover of the struggling district. Chaney was returned to its traditional standing, and Shepas came on board to change athletics in the city's educational system.
His firm belief — that athletics are an essential part of the educational experience — has driven the resurrection of Chaney's football program, and welcomed the addition of new sports such as rugby.
"We're trying to raise young men and women through the role models that we're hiring and everybody that we have in the athletic mechanism right now," Shepas said. "We're definitely here to change behavior, we're here to model academic performance, we're here to train them better and feed them better and create college opportunities. And that's why this is such a great experience for us to be up here and give our kids this kind of an opportunity.
Odell Beckham Jr surprised Chaney High School's football team with his new Nike Air Max 720s
"When I came into this situation, a lot of times, the Youngstown City Schools were just an afterthought. People weren't really paying attention to what our kids were really doing. So we've come in with a different approach: 'hey, why not our kids? Why not have the best of everything that the other kids have for them to draw an identity from?' Get them some role models in the equation that they identify with. And then, just grow the thing."
Athletic participation in the district has since grown from a total of around 350 student-athletes at all levels of public schooling to close to 1,500, Shepas said. Chaney arrived at the Browns' Berea facility Tuesday with around 50 players, good numbers for any high school, and especially for a program that hasn't existed since the start of the decade.
The Cowboys filed into the facility wearing practice jerseys and cleats donated to them by the Browns as part of the organization's greater initiative to assist, develop and support youth football programs across the state. The Browns gifted over $10,000 worth of equipment to 13 different programs in the area, including Chaney's, which helped the Cowboys return to the football field after spending much of the century's second decade dormant.
"It just raises the level of how our kids feel about themselves, and then affording us the opportunity to come in here and practice takes that to another step," Shepas said. … "The generosity that the Browns are providing us here today is going to go a long way."
The players left the NFL team's facility Tuesday with a memory they'll always cherish, and perhaps new motivation to achieve during their first season back on the field.