Brunswick High’s Chuckobe Hill gets his team ready to take the field prior to their final regular season home game.
Brunswick, Georgia — Sean Pender knew what his football team had to do. It wasn’t going to be fun. It damned sure wasn’t going to be easy. But it had to be done.
Coaching this Brunswick High School squad would be about more than Xs and Os in his fourth season, he knew. Players were scared and angry over Ahmaud Arbery’s killing a few months earlier. Some of Pender’s assistants — including a few who’d coached Arbery — had pushed to draw more attention to the former linebacker’s death.
Now, a horrific video showing the 25-year-old being chased and shot dead had surfaced. The story was no longer a local one. Amid a rising Covid-19 threat and discordant presidential election season, Arbery would soon become a national fixture, his photo held aloft alongside George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s in protests decrying racial injustice.
For many, the world was burning. For Pender and his staff, it was time to forge men.
Head coach Sean Pender, front, and the Brunswick High football team arrive at Glynn County Stadium. With the 2020 season months out, a diverse group of coaches decided this was bigger than football. They set out on a journey — along a path they still walk — to learn about themselves and each other, foster honesty across fault lines and teach their players the importance of standing as one and loving each other like family.
The Pirates’ facilities are only 3 miles from the courthouse where testimony is unfolding in the trial of three men charged with murdering Arbery as he jogged through their Glynn County neighborhood that February Sunday. Yet it feels like a million miles.
Here, the focus is school and football. The team GPA is 2.8, up six-tenths of a point since Pender took the reins in 2017 but not yet at the team target of 3.3. The Pirates are 10-0, city and regional champs and one of the best teams heading into the state’s Class 6A playoffs this weekend.
Pender and his assistants believe they’ve developed players capable of scrapping their way to the December championship game in Atlanta. That, the head coach says, is due in no small part to how they grew following Arbery’s death.
‘That could be me’ It began as an exercise in unity and healing; the winning came naturally.
“How do I save this?” Pender pondered upon seeing the division in the community seeping into his team.
The team practices at Brunswick High School ahead of its last regular season home game. Defensive end Jameer Lang, left, and defensive back Ty’ler Sams rest in the locker room before a game. In Glynn County, there were allegations of racism and corruption in how the initial investigation was handled. Wider debates over victimhood kindled tension as some implied the slain — Floyd and Taylor, too — somehow deserved it. In Arbery’s case, some posited without proof that he had stolen from the Satilla Shores neighborhood where he was gunned down.
“My first thought was, ‘All right, we’ve got to have these hard conversations,’” Pender said.
On a golf outing, he and a handful of coaches began talking about the prospect of their kids being pulled over by police. Pender, a White father of four, wouldn’t think anything of it, he told his staff. A few African American coaches responded they’d be anxious. They agreed they’d want their kids to call them, put their license on the dash and keep their hands where the officer could see them.
The conversations continued a few days later at the offensive coordinator’s house, and the coaches decided it’d be helpful to take the talks to the entirety of the predominantly Black staff.
Sitting in the “war room” where they normally discuss tactics and watch game film, most of the coaches there that day recalled “having conversations that you don’t have with random people,” as wide receivers coach Jeff Braddy put it.
They were instructed to listen and respect each other’s pain and perspective. Building trust was paramount, and it was OK to be vulnerable.
The coaches began exchanging experiences, some intensely personal. Defensive coordinator Thomas Tedder, who is Black, shared a story of when he was pulled over at 16, walking distance from his Pittsburgh home, because he’d drawn suspicion driving his father’s Cadillac.
“We all found a way to listen and share, and that to me was the best part of the meeting,” Tedder said.
Pender, who in 2017 became Brunswick High’s first White head coach since the ‘70s, speaks to journalists. Coaches normally discuss tactics in the “war room,” but it hosted tough talks after Arbery’s killing. “It was cool to see everybody listening,” linebackers coach Brian Edwards added. “We’re all manly men, so we’re not going to just push a button and start crying.”
Still, it got emotional.
The talks were so cathartic, so earnest the coaches knew their players needed to have the same discussions.
“In our community, we saw a lot of division starting to happen. We saw it in our kids. You could see it in what they posted on Twitter,” Edwards said. “When the video came out, our kids was hurt because they felt that was one of their brothers.”
It was no minor task getting teenage boys to share feelings, the coaches said. Since 2019, the team motto has been “all about the family.” The mantra was being tested, but the coaches knew the players could navigate their pain just like they had.
They began holding Talk About It Tuesday. That first week, the conversations revolved around three questions: How have recent social injustices affected you? How can you make a difference with social injustice? What would you like to see the football program do to promote unity?
One youngster told Braddy, “I’m scared.” Another said, “That could be me.” Some were angry, others confused. A few didn’t know how to feel.
“When they got their emotions out and they heard each other, that was big, especially in the teenage world,” Braddy said.
Yet sorting through it as a team was the answer to only the first question.
Running backs Ree Simmons and Leon Charlton embrace their teammates before taking the field. Pender watches as his team tries to punch in a touchdown against the Bradwell Institute Tigers. Carrying Arbery on a march for unity As the players searched for ways to heal, they addressed the second and third: They wanted to march — not to protest or put anyone on blast but to provide an example of unity for the community, coaches said.
It feels like a weighty burden to lay on teenagers consumed with school and sports and still reeling from the traumatic shooting of a former player with whom most of them shared the same skin tone. How did the coaches know they could handle it?
On June 23, 2020, they met at the high school. Pender took the podium and told those in attendance that the Pirates had come together as a family to talk about social issues that “handicap and harm our student-athletes.” In the coming season, his team would look to win not only on Friday nights but in life, Pender vowed.
“In a world full of division and deceit, we are able to open the minds and listen to each other, share in uncomfortable conversations that without love and trust for one another could have negative results,” he said. “However, because we made a choice to love each other like family, we collaborated to make a stand for unity and set an example for our community.”
Ahmaud Arbery’s old football team turned angst into love — and a perfect season
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