Former Crusader Transforms The Image Of Mount Vernon Football

Jan. 22, 2007

MORRISTOWN, N.J. - The National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame (NFF) announced today that former Holy Cross wide receiver and award winning film director Jeff Cooney has agreed to continue his support of Mount Vernon (N.Y.) High School's participation in Play It Smart, the NFF's highly successful mentoring program that has changed the lives of thousands of at-risk student-athletes over the last nine years. This will mark the fifth year that Cooney will provide full funding for the program at Mount Vernon.

"Play It Smart gives me an opportunity to get close to the youth in our community," said Cooney. "Usually you're sitting in the stands or watching kids on TV. Through Play It Smart, I am really able to get close to these kids and the community and what's going on in their lives. I see the development in the character of the kids."

In the fall of 2001, Cooney, who played for the Crusaders from 1976-1978, embarked on a project that would win his heart. He was hired to make a film about Play It Smart, and while directing the 30-minute award winning documentary, Cooney fell in love with the program and decided that he would fully fund a local school at $25,000 a year in Westchester County, N.Y., where he grew up playing quarterback for Bronxville High School.

"Play It Smart provides the perfect outlet for somebody like Jeff Cooney," said NFF President Steve Hatchell. "It allows him to combine his passions for football and providing educational opportunities for kids from tough urban neighborhoods. We are lucky to have his support locally at Mount Vernon, and nationally his documentary has played a key role in our marketing efforts to highlight the program's undeniable impact."

Launched in 1998 in four schools and currently in 136 schools in 35 states with more than 12,000 participants, Play It Smart trains "academic" coaches to work with high school football teams in underserved areas during the entire school year, taking the transferable life skills learned on the field and applying them in the classroom and the community. With the support of Cooney, head coach Ric Wright and academic coach Dave Johnson have worked hard to change the culture of the Mount Vernon team.

"Some of the problems that existed in the past no longer exist. It's a new attitude and new approach. The kids get it," Cooney said. "Hanging with the bad apples in the school is no longer cool, and now it's leadership that is cool. It's pretty extraordinary."

After meeting head coach Ric Wright, Cooney choose Mount Vernon as the school he would fund locally. In Coach Wright, Cooney knew he had found a man who understood the connection between academic and athletic performance, and their partnership has been a success story with Mount Vernon making the playoffs two out of the past three years, including its first trip to the sectional championship for the first time in more than 80 years. But more importantly, the program has had a 95 percent graduation rate (compared to a school graduation rate of 50 percent) with 24 of the 24 seniors in 2005 and 7 of 7 in 2006 pursuing some form of higher learning. Lowell Robinson, a wide receiver at Pittsburgh, and Greg Harris, a defensive back at Toledo, have turned their experiences in to Division I-A scholarships. Other recent college enrollments include Albany (N.Y.), Hunter College (N.Y.), Lincoln (Pa.), Wagner College (N.Y.) and Nassau Community College (N.Y.). This year, all 14 seniors have taken the SAT and intend on applying to college.

"Play It Smart helps me focus the team in the off season," said Coach Wright. "The program helps our roster maintain at least 10 extra kids on the team that would possibly be in academic trouble. It has been a very important part of our chemistry and contributed a lot to our success. We see Play It Smart as a way to get the kids to focus on academics in a football team setting."

The team did not need to look far to find its academic coach. Dave Johnson, a history teacher at Mount Vernon and the former JV Coach, traded his on-field responsibilities to become the academic coach.

"Football is only a tool for me to reach kids...such as preparing them to go to college," Johnson said. "I am now in a position to use football to get the message across that academics can really change your life and help you advance yourself personally. For me, it's more of a thrill watching them achieve in the classroom than scoring a touchdown because that's going to have more of an impact in their life."

Johnson currently holds study hall four times a week for the more than 70 kids on the Mount Vernon roster, and he has established a relationship with a couple outside tutors who assist SAT prep classes for the seniors. He also conducts life skills and time management session while scheduling a hefty dose of community service activities, including cleaning up elementary schools and reading to younger kids at the Boys and Girls Club. Cooney is a regular participant at the community service events, and on occasion he still brings his camera to capture new material about the program's impact.

"Jeff Cooney has been a god send," said Johnson. "Some people give their money and don't give their time. Jeff has been given both. He's been at every event, and he even did a follow-up documentary on the Mount Vernon program to his first film."

Johnson has orchestrated the distribution of the Cooney's latest documentary, The Game of Their Lives II, throughout the local middle school and elementary school system. The film carries the message that one's future can be bright if you aspire to be a student-athlete and learn early on about the value of bring equal passion to your athletic and academic pursuits.

"My goal is for other people to see that an individual such as myself can get involved and impact so many kids. It's a great thing to do for oneself," said Cooney, who serves on national boards for both the National Football Foundation and Play It Smart. "You see the kids benefit, and you realize I had an impact on these kids. I love football and helping kids. It's the best of both worlds. I think a lot of guys are thinking I have done ok, what can I do to help. This is a perfect outlet. It's not really the money. The most rewarding part is putting the time in with the kids. It's just as much fun now as it was the first year."

With major financial support from the NFL and the NFL Players Association, and a broad-coalition of corporations, communities, organizations and individuals like Jeff Cooney, the program has quickly become one of the most comprehensive and effective youth development programs in the country, achieving dramatic results that include:

  • 98% of participants graduating high school, compared to a national rate of 86%;
  • 80% of seniors enrolling in college compared to 64% of their peers;
  • Participants taking the SAT or ACT at twice the rate of their peers;
  • Participants completing more than 84,000 hours of community service annually; and
  • Rosters increasing by 35% for teams with fewer than 40 players: and
  • 71 seniors earning spots on Division I-A rosters in 2006 as incoming freshman, bringing the number of participants in the elite collegiate ranks to more than 150 student-athletes, including USC's Dwayne Jarrett, Ohio State's Ted Ginn, Jr. and Rutgers' Ray Rice.

    Play It Smart builds on the positive peer pressure of the team and its participant's interest in football. The program's academic coaches are trained at the NFF Center for Youth Development through Sport at Springfield College (Mass.) in a set of guiding principles and a variety of tactics, which are designed to make academic achievement the norm. Working closely with the direct support a team's head coach and others in the community, Academic Coaches hold one-on-one goal setting meetings, career and life skills sessions, mandatory study halls, SAT/ACT prep classes, community service projects and other team building events.

    The National Advisory Board, headed by Ronnie Lott who played at USC (1977-80) and earned induction into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000, is comprised of leaders in education, business and community affairs. The NFF established the board in the spring of 2006 to act as the guiding force behind a $5 million fundraising drive for the Play It Smart program and its expansion.