Marion football mentoring program grows Patriots into positive young adults

Coach Jed Davis of Marion High School, a member of Marion UMC, releases football player Javier Soto into a “trust fall” exercise with teammates and mentors during a team retreat at Mount Eagle. PHOTOS COURTESY WOODY WHEELESS

Coach Jed Davis of Marion High School, a member of Marion UMC, releases football player Javier Soto into a “trust fall” exercise with teammates and mentors during a team retreat at Mount Eagle.
PHOTOS COURTESY WOODY WHEELESS

By K.D. Reep
Special Contributor

Back to school. It’s charged with excitement, anxiety, anticipation and new opportunity.

While parents across Arkansas prepare their students for a new year, some young men are navigating school and sports without their dads. Jed Davis, head coach of the Patriots football team at Marion High School and a member of Marion United Methodist Church, is addressing this situation with positivity and strength.

“Jed is a great guy, and he is doing some amazing things with the guys,” said the Rev. Robert Cloninger, pastor of Marion UMC. “There is a lot of fatherlessness in the area, and a lot of lack of support in the home, so Jed started a mentoring program. He leads retreats for fathers and sons, and if a son doesn’t have a father, Jed finds them a stand-in from our church or the community. That stand-in dad supports the student for the football season—they come to the games and offer the players encouragement when they don’t have a family to do that.”

This is the third year Coach Davis has spearheaded the mentoring program and retreat at Marion High School. He also pursued this program in Mayflower for seven years before taking over head coaching duties for the Patriots. Coach Davis took inspiration for this program from the head coach at Rogers High School, Ronnie Peacock, who developed something similar in northwest Arkansas. Davis begins each year of this program with a weekend retreat at Mount Eagle Retreat Center, an Arkansas Conference-owned center near Clinton.

“On Friday, we play games and learn how to hug,” he said. “We have each father and son give each other a cheek-to-cheek hug and maintain it for four to five seconds. Then, they move around the group and hug the other fathers and sons.

“Afterwards, we talk about the students’ goals, and they each have to give three: one for the football season, one for their senior year and one for their next five to 10 years.”

Football team member Devin Blakely, right, gives instructions to his blindfolded mentor, Marion UMC member David Fogleman, to help him navigate through a “minefield” obstacle course. PHOTO COURTESY WOODY WHEELESS

Football team member Devin Blakely, right, gives instructions to his blindfolded mentor, Marion UMC member David Fogleman, to help him navigate through a “minefield” obstacle course.
PHOTO COURTESY WOODY WHEELESS

Saturday brings trust-building work, such as blindfolded trust walks and falls, rappelling, sharing stories and one attention-getting exercise known as the minefield. The blindfolded students are sent out on an obstacle-covered volleyball court. They must listen to the voice of their dad or mentor for guidance. As the mentors all yell instructions at the same time, all of the coaches bang on pans and shout, too, immersing the students in chaos.

“The point of this is to let them know that life is going to get crazy, and they are going to be in chaos,” Davis said. “What they have to do is stop, take a deep breath, focus on God and listen to our Father’s voice.”

The retreat serves to open lines of communication between the student and adult in his life. If a senior player doesn’t have a male adult to stand in for his father, Coach Davis finds one for him.

“Sometimes, the players’ dads aren’t in the picture for a number of reasons,” he said. “It could be they are in prison or dead or just not around. I will find someone to serve as that player’s mentor. I make an announcement at church, send out an e-blast, talk about it in Rotary and ask business leaders to put me in touch with men who are interested. The majority of our mentors come from churches, and they will go to the students’ football games and cheer them on. Throughout the year, the dads and mentors work with the students, teach them values and help them navigate life after high school.”

Another part of the program is community service, and this year, the students have served in a homeless shelter in downtown Memphis, washed all of the police cars for the City of Marion, picked up litter and played bingo with residents at a nursing home. But Davis credits the positive change in the team members’ self-esteem and outlook on the world to the emotional and spiritual work involved in the program.

“Football is under scrutiny these days, but if people really understood what coaches do, they would see the game is the last thing we pursue,” he said. “We work to instill faith in each of our players and the men in their lives.”