By: Eric Kolenich | Richmond Times-Dispatch
Published: May 13, 2012
The drill starts with lifting the seven monster truck-sized tires on end and rolling them to the football field. Each one weighs between 100 and 125 pounds and is about 5 feet wide, give or take.
Once the tires are flat on the ground, the players crouch down as if they’re at the line of scrimmage and reach their hands under the sun-beaten, grooved rubber. Then the coach, Chad Hornik, blows his whistle. As fast as they can, Thomas Jefferson football players take turns flipping over the giant tires.
For the next five minutes, they lift with their legs, drive with their backs, watch the tire fall and repeat. Hornik tells them to take all their anger — whatever frustrations they’re dealt from school, their parents, and even the coach himself — and to take it out on the tire.
“They’re pretty heavy,” 5-foot-4 running back Michael Robinson said. “Some of them are the same size as me.”
The drill is just one of the many changes brought to the T.J. football program in the past month and a half. Since being named football coach on April 4, Hornik has announced plans to rejuvenate one of the state’s most downtrodden football teams.
T.J. hasn’t had a winning season since 1983, when the athletic programs of Thomas Jefferson, Huguenot and George Wythe High Schools were combined. Since then, the Richmond school has developed a gradual acceptance for losing, Hornik said.
The Vikings’ last win came in 2007, a 21-6 victory over J.R. Tucker. They’ve since dropped 41 straight games.
Player morale had dwindled, and only 19 players dressed for the final game of 2011, Hornik said. Discipline among players became an issue and the accountability of the coaching staff dropped off.
Principal Tanya Roane formed a committee of school representatives and parents to find the next football coach. Instead, Hornik found them.
“We knew we wanted Chad from the beginning,” said Briana Boyer, a parent on the committee. “We needed a coach who understood where we needed to be, not where we were.”
The school’s facilities lag behind those in the surrounding localities. The field is overrun with weeds. The paint on the scoreboard has faded. The lockers are made of wood and aren’t large enough to hold a football player’s equipment. And the weight room floor is damaged, making the machines shaky and unsafe for use.
In the meantime, the team conditions outdoors, using gravity as its machine. They flip tires, do pull-ups, push-ups, squats, lunges — whatever is necessary to get into football playing shape.
But Hornik has a plan to bring the facilities up to par. He has started a campaign to raise $175,000 and provide his players a suitable locker room, weight room and uniforms.
“Chad is rebranding the entire program from top to bottom,” T.J. athletic director Jay Johnson said.
Hornik started with alumni. With the help of Albert Negrin, Class of 1976, Teejayvikingsfund.org was started to manage the donations. At the first alumni meeting, 20 people showed up.
“I was overwhelmed,” Hornik said. “These alumni have come forward and are ready to help.”
Just one locker costs around $750. So anyone who sponsors one will get his or her name on a plaque affixed to the locker. The same goes for weight room equipment.
The Vikings will sport matte black helmets, similar to those worn by the University of Oregon, a style that isn’t really seen in the Richmond area. A new logo has been designed, too — a more menacing Viking — to help phase out the old team.
In years to come, Hornik hopes to install field lights, a fieldhouse, new track and an improved field — amenities that are commonplace elsewhere, but are absent at T.J.
It’s all to convince the boys at Thomas Jefferson High School that playing football is a worthwhile experience.
“He’s done more in a month than we’ve seen done in two years, at least,” Boyer said.
So far, results have been positive. At the first meeting for prospective football players, 70 students attended.
The team runs voluntary practices through the spring. Where there used to be three or four participants, there now are 14 to 20. By the fall, when baseball and soccer players become available, the Vikings should have a full roster.
Chris Calloway, a rising senior offensive lineman, says Hornik has brought a new atmosphere to the team. In the old days, players would show up when they wanted and still expected to play.
“Here, everything is earned,” Calloway said.
The lineman doesn’t mince words when discussing his expectations for the Vikings in 2012. He wants to reach the state playoffs.
“Why start low?” he said.
Calloway understands the improbability of going from 41 consecutive losses to the state tournament. But as a senior, this is his last shot at playing for a winning high school football team.
Hornik hasn’t promised they will end the losing streak, said Robinson, the team’s running back. But the coach has promised players they’ll be ready for every opponent.
So how did the facilities at T.J. get so bad, so “gross and gruesome,” as Boyer described the weight room?
“The issue is the funding,” said Dawn Page, Richmond School Board chairwoman. During her four years on the board, she’s fought for greater funding for athletics. Last year, the school system implemented an athletics task force to find ways to improve sports at all city schools. Athletic programs have been introduced at middle schools, and new sports are popping up at every city high school.
“You can’t really see any improvements if you don’t give it the necessary funding,” Page said.
Hornik is the first coach to reach out to T.J.’s alumni and area businesses for support, Johnson said. Previous attempts to rebuild the program were fragmented.
“He’s connecting the dots,” Johnson added. “He’s not trying to do it alone.”
So why would Hornik, the 42-year-old owner of The Melting Pot in Henrico, decide to take on such a tall task?
“It’s more than X’s and O’s,” he said.
Hornik went to Florida International University on a track scholarship. Had it not been for that scholarship, he probably never would have attended school, he said. Seeing the value athletics had in his life, he hopes to give the same opportunity to the kids at Thomas Jefferson.
They might not all get scholarships, but if football is enough motivation to make a player show up for class when he otherwise wouldn’t, or stay up late studying for a test, then Hornik has done his job.
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