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Panthers 'A Team' looking for success on and off field

There’s a certain stereotype that traditionally comes with being a member of a high school football team. There’s a belief that the players consume a diet of football and little else – especially academics.

Whether players are just scraping by or simply aren’t living up to their potential, the perception is that the classroom tends to take a backseat to the field.

But at Johnston High School, there are visions of erasing that stereotype. It won’t be easy, but the Panthers are in the midst of throwing a wrench into the correlation between football and academic success.

They call it “The A-Team.”

It started at the end of the summer, when head football coach Joe Acciardo was talking to the team about motivation, and how to self-motivate.

What began as a speech meant to prepare the group for the upcoming season took on a life of its own, quickly.

“What I said was, ‘You know when you’re a little kid, sometimes you get money for getting an A,” Acciardo said. “‘Well what if the stakes were higher, if it were $1,000 or $5,000. How many of you think you could get straight A’s if that were the case?’ Everybody raised their hand.”

So Acciardo continued.

“I went off with that and said, ‘Why wouldn’t you invest in yourself? If you can do it, why wouldn’t you want to get straight A’s?’” he said.

That set the wheels in the motion, and the next day senior tight end Alex DeNoncour approached Acciardo with an idea.

He did some research online about football teams setting academic goals – specifically, setting the goal of getting straight A’s – and his search came up empty. As far as he could tell, it had never been done before.

And that’s how The A-Team was born.

It’s a simple concept. The players set a goal, to achieve a combined average of an A across the board. If someone gets a B, it will need to be balanced out by a high A from another teammate in order for the team to make its goal.

Five captains were named for The A-Team – DeNoncour, Matthew Bailey, Jason Salvatore, Dylan Bessette and Aaron Perfetto.

DeNoncour drew up a letter and sent it to all the teachers in the school. The idea was to get the teachers involved in the project, whether that means directing more questions at a specific student, encouraging players to sit in the front of the classroom to avoid distractions or any other number of ways.

The team agreed to hold study halls on Mondays and Thursdays right after school, before practice. Just about the entire varsity team is attending, and some of the junior varsity players as well. It’s amounted to between 40-50 players taking part.

“We’re trying to get them to put the same effort towards school that they do towards football,” DeNoncour said. “If they can put that effort towards their schoolwork, grades will come naturally.”

The effort on the football field is clear as day, as the Panthers are 4-0 overall, 3-0 in Division II-A and have been one of the most dominating teams in the state.

In the classroom, it’s not quite as easy to see, but the early returns have been strong.

“We just try to push all the guys to do it,” Perfetto said. “We get a weekly progress report. We try to sit in the front of the classroom, to do whatever they have to do to achieve it.”

The advantages to the program itself are almost too many to count.

In practice and on the field, players tend to stay in the groups to which they are assigned. Running backs practice with running backs and linemen practice with linemen.

That still holds true, but the team is able to knock down those barriers off the field. Suddenly, sophomores, juniors and seniors are interacting on an even plane. Linemen are spending time helping out running backs, or linebackers are teaching quarterbacks.

“It really brings us together because we’re all in the study hall, and teammates approach us and say, ‘Can you help me out with this?’” Bailey said. “It builds a better community because we can now trust each other and rely on each other.”

And because of the relationship the players are developing off the field, while striving towards a massive academic accomplishment, the relationships on the field are strengthened as well.

There are plenty of parallels between The A-Team and the football team.

“We feel it will help us, even perform better on the football field,” Salvatore said. “When you’re focused in school, you think a little more when you’re on the field. Football is more mental than it is physical. It helps you kind of focus when you need to.”

Down the road, the hope is that Johnston’s idea will start to turn some heads. People are already starting to take notice. Brewed Awakenings has provided the team with gift cards so that the players can get themselves breakfast before heading in to school.

On an even greater scale, Acciardo thinks that colleges may start to see what’s happening.

“The first thing that college coaches ask me if they talk to me about a player is, ‘Does he have the grades?’ They want to continue the conversation if the person can’t qualify to get in,” Acciardo said. “There’s that thought process out there that if you’re good enough, they’re going to take you, but rules have changed. We’re hoping that this attracts some positive attention, and our players get motivated to apply to different schools, other schools that they might not normally think of going to.”

At this point in the quarter, everything seems to be going smoothly. No one will know if the Panthers are going to hit their goal until the first set of report cards come out in about a month.

But even if they don’t, the effort is there and so is the desire to get better.

Those are traits that are typically only associated with the football field.

“Realistically, if we improve one person’s grade, it’s a success,” Acciardo said. “The goal is to become excellent at what you’re doing.”

This group of Panthers wants to be excellent everywhere.

“Championship winning teams are more than just a football team,” DeNoncour said. “They have to be a family, because it’s those teams that do the extra that find themselves in the finals.”

If all goes to plan, the stereotypes about high school football are about to change, at least in Johnston.

“It would be the first time the football team got called nerds, so I guess we’re going to go with it,” Acciardo said. “I think they’re earning more respect than anything.”


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