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Shaker Heights, Kirtland High Schools complete Build the Bridge Challenge, hold joint discussion with Browns players on improving racial equality

The football programs from Shaker Heights High School and Kirtland High School want their players and coaches to realize how powerful their sport can be.

Football is a versatile tool for learning various life lessons. It not only teaches athleticism and skills, but also how to develop strong relationships with people of all different backgrounds.

That's why the two programs took part in the Cleveland Browns' Build the Bridge Challenge on Tuesday night with a Zoom call between players from both teams as well as Browns defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi and long snapper Charley Hughlett. Build the Bridge strives to create a coalition of coaches, players, parents, administration and community members to foster the success of student-athletes through social-emotional, educational, and athletic advancement. The program creates opportunities for all team members to build relationships and mutual respect between diverse communities, regardless of their race, class or creed.

The two teams, who scheduled a football game against each other on Sept. 5, to promote the Build the Bridge Challenge, used the Zoom call to discuss how they can use their game to teach valuable lessons on breaking racial barriers in life and respecting all people no matter their background. Three players and the head coach from each team participated along with Ogunjobi and Hughlett, and the conversation was all about how they can continue to use their sport to drive positive change.

"I think it was cool for them to see that, and they said it themselves," Ogunjobi said. "It was just a different experience for them because usually you don't look at it like that. But they were able to. Life is all about perspective. We may come from different backgrounds, but we go through the same things whether it's from the football field or in practice. Just being able to look at it from that point can give them a great understanding of what life is really about, and we're not that much different."

One of the most discussed topics in the Zoom call was about how both teams wore pregame T-shirts with messages to show they care about eliminating racial injustice. Kirtland players wore pregame T-shirts that had "Equality" written on the front and a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on the back: 

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Shaker Heights, meanwhile, wore T-shirts that said "Black Life Matters." Both teams wanted to make sure their main message — to promote racial equality and peace between people of all ethnicities — was loud and clear, and the T-shirts were one way of sending it.

"We wanted to make an impact and make a change," said Jahdae Walker, a senior wide receiver and cornerback for Shaker Heights. "That was the first thing that came to mind, and that was the main thing we could think about."

The T-shirts aligned with what the Browns also did before their first two games of the season. Players wore T-shirts in Week 1 that read "Be the Solution," the phrase used in the Browns campaign to fight racial inequality. In Week 2, they wore T-shirts that said "Vote," a T-shirt released and sold by Odell Beckham Jr. to combat voter suppression and systemic racism and encourage people to vote. All proceeds from the sales of the shirts are being donated to More Than A Vote and Reform Alliance charities.

"I applaud what you guys did with the shirts," Hughlett told the players and coaches. "It's just about where we go from there. What can we do as individuals to make the world a better place?"

One solution is to listen and build respect between other people. That's the primary goal of the Build the Bridge campaign, and the two schools were vocal in voicing their respect for one another after playing a football game together.

The final score didn't matter. The most important result was that both sides left the game with a better understanding of how respect is built — by listening to each other and taking time to understand what made both sides great. Players from both sides commended each other's hard work in making the game happen and executing challenging game plans. They said there was no trash talk after or during plays — just pure respect about playing the game and showing appreciation for each other.

"Everybody is just trying to do the same thing and live our lives," said Luke Gogolin, a Kirtland senior. "No matter what the color of your skin is, everybody is just here for the same purpose, and that's to be successful and be the best that you can be. Everybody is just doing the same thing, and if we can all do that, we should be able to get along in the world."

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