PROVIDENCE - One year ago, Providence’s Central High School football team received the Fight Like Russell Dylan Award which honors one high school in the country for teamwork and overcoming adversity. The panel of judges included former NFL coach Tony Dungy.
As a result, Central received a $50,000 grant which was used to purchase new uniforms and gear. In addition the award served as a symbol of hard work and dedication.
But the key words in the criteria were “overcoming adversity.”
“One day differs from the next with players who have personal and family problems,” said long-time coach Pete Rios. “Sometimes we have players leave because something happened at home and they have to get a job.
“Instead of playing a sport, they have to go home and support their family. Then, you have the financial aspect. Because of the economic conditions, sometimes it makes it hard for them to commit fully to playing a sport.”
In retrospect that’s only part of the story because Rios’s responsibilities don’t end after a practice or a game.
“Sometimes when they leave I worry about them,” he said. “South Providence is where there are gang factions. The pressure to join a gang is pretty pronounced. “Sometimes the last thing on their mind is playing football. They’re trying to survive the neighborhood in which they are living. We try to keep them safe and sound and let their parents know they are at practice and safe with me.”
But like all coaches, Rios can’t be around his players 24/7 – especially during the off-season.
In February of 2014, George Holland II was shot and killed even though he wasn’t the intended target.
“For many students, the walk to school alone through multiple gang territories starts each day with them having to earn the victory of not being pulled into the wrong path – the path where gangs have persevered because of poverty, drugs or joblessness,” said Rios who’s focus isn’t only on football but also to help his players avoid the influence of gangs and improve their grades. “Our athletes have chosen the path of sports and education over the path of the streets."
“But for many of them, the challenges of their day begin long before they walk out their front door.”
That makes Xs and Os pale by comparison.
The Knights face a more traditional challenge this year because they’ve been moved up to Division I (the Interscholastic League’s top division) which has been split into two seven-team sub divisions, 1A and 1B.
The last time a Providence public high school played in Division 1 was 2005 when Classical was 0-20 over two seasons. And the last time Central played in Division I was from 1996-98 when the Knights were a combined 4-23.
Rios was named the head coach in 2004 when Central was playing in Division 4. And in that first season, the Knights captured the Division IV Super Bowl. That marked the last time Central annexed a state football championship.
“We were ranked 15th in the state and 14 was the number for Division 1,” explained Rios. “When another team wanted to come out of Division 1 we could have said no. We had built up the program for a number of years. Division 2 is where we belong. But this is a two-year realignment so for two years we hope we can survive it.
“It would be a natural progression for any school to move up and play in Division I in Rhode Island.”
Central was competitive in Division 2, as it posted a combined record of 24-19 over the previous six seasons (the Knights were 5-2 last season in league play).
But because the realignment formula includes regular-season divisional records over the last eight years, playoff records and school enrollment (Central’s is 1,112) the Knights will line up against schools like La Salle Academy and Cranston East.
Rios constantly faces another challenge, namely persuading boys to come out for football.
“I would say soccer, basketball and baseball are the main sports at Central,” said Rios. “When they hold tryouts for basketball maybe 75 to 90 boys try out for 25 spots. When we hold tryouts for football we’ll have substantially fewer boys try out for 50 spots.”
The challenge Rios faces this season is magnified by the fact that 24 of his players are freshmen and sophomores.
“Obviously, my juniors and seniors are going to have to step up,” said Rios. “In this division, we need our senior captains and juniors to step up.”
The captains Rios mentioned included senior quarterback Leo Christian, two-way senior lineman Tommy Mil, senior running back/linebacker Pajebo Myers and senior wide receiver Dametrius O’Connor who is also a standout sprinter and runs a leg on Central’s 4x100 relay team.