By Kathleen S. Carr ’96
Jeff Cooney ’80 was a football player at Holy Cross. Then he became a big-time director. But he never forgot the life lessons he learned on the field and the impact that friends and mentors can have on the lives of those around them.
In 2001, Cooney received a call from the National Football Foundation (NFF) to film a short documentary about a high school football team in Orange, N.J. The team was involved in an experimental academic program called “Play It Smart.” Established in 1998 by the NFF, Play It Smart is an educational program that targets kids from inner-city environments who typically lack family and community support.
At the program’s core is the academic coach. These coaches are men and women, typically with a background in education, who work with the members of the team every day, in a mandatory study hall, before they set foot on the practice field. These academic coaches assess the needs of each student athlete, determine where help is needed and connect with tutors to boost grades, study habits and SAT scores.
In Orange, N.J., the team was in rough shape. Grades and standardized test scores were low. Typically, one football player a year went on to college. After the school’s involvement in the Play It Smart program, the GPAs and the SAT scores of the entire team rose dramatically. In fact, the scores of the football team surpassed the grades and scores of the rest of the student body.
From here, an entire school-wide transformation took effect. Other students rallied around the team and started to emulate the new study methods. Parents became more involved. And the community took note and began offering its support.
Moved by the success of this endeavor, Cooney decided to get involved: For the past four years, he has sponsored the Mt. Vernon High School football team in New York; last year, all 22 seniors on the team graduated and went on to college. Going one step further, he joined the National Play It Smart board of directors and is now in his second year of service. Since its inception, the program has been instituted in 130 schools nationwide. Cooney hopes that, in three years, participation in this program will increase from 130 to 500 schools nationwide.