Originally Published: Aug 15, 2010 8:18 PM CDT
Oklahoma Sports Staff Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Students are supposed to worry about chemistry tests, prom and college applications, but for some athletes at Putnam City West, the main concern is how they will find their next meal.
Hunger is an issue happening right in the back yard of Oklahoma City residents - and it’s a common reality that the Putnam City West Patriots football team battles along with their Friday night opponents.
It’s a far cry from the team’s glory days of 1981, when the Pats claimed the Gold Ball. The scenery has changed, the kids have changed.
“I tell alumni this stuff all the time, these kids fight for the blue and gold every bit as hard as they did, but these kids do it hungry, without transportation, often times without a lot of parental support at the house and without the right equipment,” head coach John Jensen said.
Jensen and his coaching staff, along with the school’s administration, made it their mission to remove every stumbling block they can from the athlete's path.
“The last two years, the kids had a difficult time finding their meals,” Jensen said.
A food pantry was set up, located in the same small, dark locker room where the Patriots’ jerseys hang. The players can come in and grab their helmets for practice along with a meal for later that evening.
The coaching staff struggled to keep food on the shelves for the children, but members of a Sunday school class at Church of the Servant now make sure the kids have beans, canned vegetables and dry milk.
Earn Your Biscuit
During the season, like many high school squads, Coach Jensen conducts Saturday practices. Despite the long hours and drills under the hot Oklahoma sun, a lot of his players bypass breakfast simply because it is not available. Financed by fundraisers, the coaching staff offers the players a way to earn their breakfast. If they come to practice and give it their all, they earn a McDonald’s biscuit.
More than 85 percent of the student body at the school is signed up for free or reduced meal plans, ensuring them at least a breakfast and lunch during the school year. But when the students have no food in their pantries at home, they wonder where they will find their dinners. The students can grab ramen noodles for a dinner meal, load up before spring or Christmas breaks and have peanut butter sandwiches readily available at any time.
Even the school’s trainer, Sharie Ainsworth, has seen the impact of the food pantry. She saw 19 broken bones come from last year’s 57-player roster.
“The economy has really changed. It’s harder for the kids to get food and eat three times a day,” Ainsworth said. “This year, we started giving them milk?the kids look stronger, they’re looking better.”
Young Life Minister, Coach Breaking Barriers
The access to free food is a hard concept for many of the players to grasp.
“They’re trying to wrap their mind around it all, like why we’re doing this for them,” said wide receiver coach Corey Tennell. “If anything, it shows them that we love them.”
Tennell is a full-time youth minister for Young Life, a nation-wide, faith-based outreach program. He began spending time with the players, and was eventually hired on to Jensen’s staff.
“Young Life has been a great ministry that has reached our kids,” coach Jensen said. “There’s a point where a kid doesn’t want to open up anymore. Corey can break that barrier down and he can cross that and they know that?they know they’re safe talking to him about stuff.”
Tennell and other Young Life staff raised funds for some of the players to attend camp this summer. The group of young men traveled to Arizona, escaping the troubling streets of the Putnam City West school district while exploring their faith in God.
“These kids live in the inner city, they don’t see stars,” Coach Jensen said. “They laid out under the stars and saw God for the first time and heard God for the first time.”
Tennell’s ability to earn the young men’s trust comes from his past.
“I wondered where my dad was, if I was good enough or if I was going to eat,” the Young Life minister said. “That makes it very easy to relate to them.”
The players responded, returning with new attitudes and new faith. Tevin Berry, a wide receiver for the Patriots, is one of the many players Tennell has invested in.
“He’s like the father I never had,” Berry said. “I’m just thankful to have the coaches we have.”
While the Patriots football team looks forward to the upcoming season, they can worry less about where they will get a meal and support, and focus more on Friday night opponents.
“Something positive is happening here and they see that,” Jensen said.