Throughout the school year, we'll celebrate inspirational teams and athletes.
Johnston (R.I.) football coach Joe Acciardo has read biographies about great coaches, looking for ideas he could incorporate in his own coaching.
“They all had unique qualities,” Acciardo said. “Tom Landry never cursed. I’m reading that and thinking, ‘That’s not me.’ At Green Bay, everybody ran on Vince Lombardi time, which meant 15 minutes early. Well, I’m no Vince Lombardi.”
Few NFL players are from Rhode Island. Acciardo figured if he could get players to focus on grades as much as they do football, he would have a greater impact on their lives.
“There are a lot of players who, after they graduate, they don’t achieve their maximum potential,” he said. “So, I was explaining to the guys about the importance of self-motivation.”
He asked his players, that instead of getting $10 if they got an A grade, if they were offered $5,000, would they get an A? They all raised their hands.
“They didn’t laugh,” Acciardo said. “Maybe they thought I would really pay them. It struck me then that they were capable of getting A’s but they were satisfied with passing.”
Acciardo briefly forgot about the idea, but lineman Alex DeNoncour, who was the vice president of the senior class and is 18th academically in a class of 215, came back the next day. He said he did a Google search and couldn’t find a mention of a football team getting straight A’s.
Before long, DeNoncour and Acciardo came up with a challenge, to get an A average as a team. The better students on the team began to work with the others during the team’s twice-weekly study halls. Acciardo penned the project "The A Team" after the grade, the first letter of his last name and with a nod to the hit mid-80s TV show, a reference that puzzled his players, none of whom were born when the show originally aired.
“Nobody said anything against the idea, at least out loud, because they knew it was important to the seniors,” DeNoncour said. “But you could see some of them in the back rolling their eyes at the beginning of the project. Before in study hall, people would sit around with their ear buds in. But now, it’s taken off. They just needed a bit of motivation.”
The first quarter grading period doesn’t end until Nov. 2, but the benefits of the project are already obvious and not just in the classroom. The Panthers are 6-0, with a defense that is allowing only five points a game.
“The best side effect is probably the unity, both on the field and off the field, of the team,” said senior lineman Matthew Bailey. “Linemen are talking with the running backs and quarterbacks.”
One player, fullback and defensive back Nick Gatta, said he raised his geometry grade from a 58 last year to 99 this year.
“This year, everyone is trying a lot harder in the classroom,” Gatta said. “We’re trying to build chemistry with each other.”
Acciardo, who freely said he wasn’t the greatest student when he attended Johnston, said his players are beginning to make a connection between the football field and the classroom.
“There’s a unique parallel to how we would strategize for football and how we strategize for the game,” he said. “The parallel to studying is practice.”
“Last year, I had a teacher in trigonometry,” DeNoncour said. “On Monday, she would write goals. That reminds me that on Monday, coach comes in with a new game plan. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we worked a rigorous acadmic course. On Thursday, it’s a little slower-paced class. If you had any questions, that was the day to get them out. There was no going back on Friday, because there was a test. It’s pretty similar to football, except we didn’t do any wind sprints in class.”