Smart Jocks

Washburn's football team wins games -- and classroom honors

Among the Washburn football team's many rules, one is at the top of the list.

"They told us that if we can't get it done in the classroom, we can't get it done on the field," said 10th-grade linebacker Gyangelo Bradden.

"If it's important to kids, they are going to do it," said nine-year head football coach Pete Haugen. "Kids aren't going to tell you this, but they like structure."

Last year 21 out of 22 graduating football players went on to college, including seven who made the All-City Athletes list, meaning they played a sport and maintained a 3.5 GPA. This year, Haugen expects nearly all of the 20 players to go on to college this fall.

Although the Minneapolis School District has established rules to maintain athletes' academic achievements, Washburn's football team stands out integrating academic and athletic performance. Lest one think brains means no brawn, the Millers went 9-3 this season after a 9-2 record last year.

How they do it

The program's lynchpin is a weekly grade check during the football season. Every Friday, players hand in a "grade sheet" marked by each of their teachers to note their academic progress.

When asked what happens if they don't turn the sheet in, a group of about 10 Washburn players laughed and replied, "You start running."

Senior Chris Kuhl of Lowry Hill said, "We call it mental health."

Teachers are familiar enough with the requirements that they keep close contact with Coach Haugen.

"If a teacher says you aren't doing enough, they'll tell the coach, and then you have to work in the media center instead of going to practice," said Bradden.

Failure to turn in the weekly grade check earns laps after practice -- though these players apparently hadn't experienced it because they didn't know how long the required run is.

The second and third time a player forgets grade check, they lose a quarter or more of playing time. Do it again and they can be kicked off the team. Last year, Coach Haugen removed one player from the team.

This year's tally? Zero.

None of the players said they thought the program was too rigid. Senior Leif Berg lives in southeast Minneapolis. "It just makes you manage your time and makes you focus on what's important," said Berg.

Last year's class went to a mix of community colleges, private and public schools as well as a few Ivy League universities. This year's class includes Patrick Picard, who's already been accepted to the Air Force Academy.

Academic options

Although some student athletes are still deciding which college to attend, Coach Haugen believes almost all of this year's 20 seniors will go on to some form of post-secondary education.

All Washburn football players interviewed said they planned on going to college after high school. They say the program emphasizes a positive, rather than competitive, relationship between sports and academics. If you do well academically, for example, you're more likely to get into a school where you can actually play on the team.

Said Coach Haugen, "Some of our graduates are playing college football, but what we emphasize with our players is academics. The thing is getting them to see that if you are a good solid student athlete it opens up more doors."

Academic achievement helped senior Thomas Warfield get into more selective Division III schools (the smallest colleges and universities), where he might actually play.

"I got an acceptance letter from the U of Minnesota, but I'm deciding between St. Thomas University or St. Olaf College because I want to go to a school where I can play. Not wait three or four years to maybe get on a special team," said Warfield, who lives in the Powderhorn neighborhood.

Warfield's comments reflect the players' work ethic that Coach Haugen says has impressed him.

"Some kids come in here and are popular in school and yet they're not looked at by their football peers as leaders. The kids really watch who's working hard and who's not," said Haugen.

"You have to be realistic. You have to pick a school that you like because if you get injured you don't want to be stuck at a school you hate," said Russ Flaten, who lives in southeast Minneapolis and said he'll likely go to Hamline University next year.

Haugen admits that academics alone weren't responsible for that the past two winning seasons. "Certainly it is communicated pretty clearly that winning games is important. And not only do you have to have good, hard-working kids, to win consistently you have to have talent, too. But I stress that our winning is a reflection of being better in the classroom, in the community and on the field," said Haugen.