Damon Jones set the scene a year ago at Riverdale High School, placing a handful of folding tables and chairs on the practice field during the first day of spring football.
The Dartmouth College graduate believed that with success came accountability.
So in his first weeks as the Raiders’ head football coach, he guided players not to the field but to those tables and chairs, where at least 30 athletes were made to sit down and study.
“It riled some people up really well,” said junior Jesse Pryor, who was one of 60 others who remained on the field.
It also raised the stakes in the classroom. In the year since, Riverdale continues to stress academics off the field.
Jones set forth an ultimatum after this past season: Earn a 2.7 GPA or better by the fourth semester, or you might not be on the field by the spring. And he doubled down by the fall: Raise it to a 3.0 GPA or playing on Friday nights might not happen.
The idea is to eventually raise the cumulative GPA of the team while also changing study habits.
“I think they should raise it to a 2.5 anyway,” Jones said of the FHSAA eligibility rule that requires athletes to maintain a 2.0 GPA to play.
During the offseason before spring football, which begins April 27, he’s locked players out of the weight room. His assistant coaches, who double as academic advisers, have checked on player grades and discipline records. They send poor- performing athletes to study halls.
“Parents love it,” Riverdale Assistant Principal Edward Matthews said. “Parents want this, too. Over time, there’s been a disconnect with what we’re doing and what we need the players to connect to. Everybody wants their kids to be successful in the classroom.”
The players agree.
“It helps you find out who really wants to play,” junior Daniel Malivert said. “If they (players) can’t keep their grades up, then that means they’re not going to put all of their effort into the team. If you put enough effort into your grades, then we can depend on you.”
The concept wasn’t new to Jones, whose Riverdale team went 5-5 in his debut.
He graduated from Lely High and excelled in football, basketball and baseball before moving on to the Ivy League, where he played tight end for the Big Green. He graduated in 1995.
From there, he led a winding road, teaching at Immokalee, becoming a banker, opening a small business and getting back into coaching.
Throughout that time, he consistently leaned on his education.
“When I hear kids say, ‘I don’t have enough time, I need to work,’ I know. I did it,” Jones said. “And I understand and appreciate what athletics leveraged into me educationally. Do I get into an Ivy league school without the football support? I’m on the fence. I’m proud to admit it.
“But the skill set that athletics taught me helped me in the classroom, and it helped leverage me into a better education and a better life.”
Jones arrived at Riverdale last season from the Community School of Naples, where he co-founded the football program in 2010.
By his fourth year, he had taken a three-win team in its debut to 11 wins in 2013 and had sent players to Eastern Kentucky, Stetson University, Rhodes College and Hamilton. He guided many more to college who wouldn’t play football at the next level.
“As a coach, your job isn’t just to win games,” Jones said. “The kids who are performing on the field are the ones that have good discipline; they have good grades. That translates to success.”
Part of Jones’ plan at Riverdale was to create a new culture for those who would and wouldn’t go on to play college football.
If it started in the classroom, he believed, it would filter to the football field, where calling plays on the fly and converting late in the game wouldn’t become as difficult. You just aced a test in the morning, why would it be any different eight hours from then?
“You’re going to take a test on Friday night, and I’m asking you be able to pass it,” Jones said. “If you can’t do it in there, there’s no way we can be successful out here.”
Upperclasmen such as Nicholas Mauricio, who works on the weekends at Culver’s, stepped forward to engage teammates beyond the field. The junior defensive end, who has a 4.03 GPA, is one of a handful of players who tutor struggling students.
“It all starts with doing everything the right way,” junior tight end Brett Abrams said. “If you’re working hard and getting things done in the classroom, then it’s going to translate into how you listen to the coaches, how you pay attention to what they want you to do, being prepared for class, that’s the same thing that it boils down to.”
The program frustrated players at first, Mauricio said, but as it began to sink in, habits started to change.
“I think he wants each person to find our own explanation of what he’s telling us,” Maurcicio said. “Even though he’s drilling it in our head, not every single person is going to take it the same way.”
Pryor is one such example.
Jones commented on how the junior lineman had struggled in French, picking up a few subpar test scores. But with mandatory study halls, he came away with a 91 on a test recently.
“That’s what we’re doing this for,” Jones said.
“My sophomore year, when I first started playing varsity and we had our old head coach, I was slacking,” Pryor said. “But since he’s gotten here, I kind of know that if I want to go to the next level, then I have to work on myself and stay motivated and do what I need to do.”
2015 Spring Football schedule
Cypress Lake at Bishop Verot, 7 p.m.
Estero at Evangelical Christian School, 7 p.m.
Mariner at Riverdale, 7 p.m.
Ida Baker at Barron Collier, 7 p.m.
Gateway Charter at Lemon Bay, 7 p.m.
Palmetto Ridge at East Lee County, 7 p.m.
North Miami at Naples, 7 p.m.
Nova at Golden Gate, 7 p.m.
Lely at Blanche Ely, 7 p.m.
Sarasota at Gulf Coast, 7 p.m.
Immokalee at Lehigh, 7 p.m.
South Fort Myers at Charlotte, 7 p.m.
Fort Myers at Island Coast, 7:30 p.m.
North Fort Myers at Sarasota Riverview, 7:30 p.m.
Dunbar at Cape Coral, 7 p.m.
LaBelle at Southwest Florida Christian Academy, 7 p.m.
Note: Some spring game schedules were not available at press time.