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Inside Skyline’s Living The Dream program

Skyline has not lost a single player to grades in Joe Bates' first three years. Photo courtesy of Skyline
Skyline has not lost a single player to grades in Joe Bates' first three years. Photo courtesy of Skyline

When Joe Bates returned to his alma mater to become a football coach at Skyline, the connection between him and Tony Douangviseth was immediate.

Douangviseth loved Bates’ approach. He loved his thoughts about helping young individuals – not just on the field, but, more importantly, in life.

So, Douangviseth, the executive director for Youth Together and also a graduate of Skyline, brought Bates in and had an idea that would change lives forever.

“He said, ‘Thanks, man. You did some great things those two years you were here. Let’s create a program that will be a life changer. Let’s really give these boys something that they can take with them outside of football and the next level.’”

Beginning the program

With that came the Living The Dream program,

The program, which is dedicated to bolstering student-athletes lives outside of the actual sports realm, officially launches this fall after there was a version of it last fall, Bates said.

The goal became that when an incoming freshman arrived on campus, they were there to provide enough guidance and support that they could not find anywhere else.

“What was the likelihood of their chances of getting a full scholarship – not based on their athletic deals, but based on the academic achievements in the school day?” Douangviseth said. “And so we came up with the four components and when we thought about the name around Living The Dream, we wanted young people to understand that they can achieve their dreams, but there are goals and there are objectives that are in the way of getting to that overall goal.”

What they noticed was a continuous engagement pattern. Students would be really engaged and knew how to document what they were doing, particularly during football season. They were more motivated to maintain a high enough GPA to play sports.

But what about after the season? 

There was a drop off and a lack of engagement. There was less support, and with less support comes fewer opportunities for the younger generation.

“And so when those things decrease and the support decreases, the young people suffer,” Douangviseth said. “And then the young people then give up because there’s nobody there to really support them and cheer them and hear them out and figure out how it is that they can advocate for themselves to academically excel.”

When they brought on Bates in partnership with Youth Together a year ago, they wanted to alter Bates’ focus during the day. Have him focus on those who are falling through the cracks and struggling in class but also are interested in football or have any other interest. Have him focus on those who maybe don’t have the support system to motivate them or engage with them.

“That’s what we wanted Joe to focus on the first year, and I think that we focused on that the first year we began to go into identifying more areas where young people really wanted to engage in – like financial literacy, college access and career planning,” Douangviseth said. “And so I think over the summer time we began to really identify the different program components that we wanted to provide each and every young student.”

Four tiers

Those four components of the program entail everything that will help make one successful – career aspiration, college access, life skills and mentorship.

Although there are opportunities to play collegiately and professionally, not every student-athlete receives that chance – 7.3% of high school athletes are estimated to play Division I, II or III football at the NCAA level, according to the NCAA. There are other ventures outside of one’s playing career that could be an exciting career path, especially for when those days strapping on a helmet do come to an end, and there are scholarships one can attain outside of sports.

Everyone is far more than just an athlete.

“We threw around the idea of even though they’re football players, the image shouldn’t only be on them as football players because we know that reality is it’s really hard to get a D1 scholarship or even to come on as a walk-on with a full scholarship,” Douangviseth said.

“Some of the things that we were taught was to do our best in class and depend on our GPA that we got to have a better chance of going to a four-year university and not being so dependent on our particular football skills. And so the gap for us is that we’ve been working with the football team for over 10 years, particularly within the first semester.”

“We take that career interest they have and let’s find some universities, let’s find some colleges or trade schools that can help flourish that interest.”

Skyline head coach joe bates

Find your passion, work hard at it and make a career out of it. Find something that interests you when your playing career does come to an end – whether that’s business, broadcasting, coaching, etc.

And that’s what Bates, Douangviseth and company are teaching football players. 

“We take that career interest they have and let’s find some universities, let’s find some colleges or trade schools that can help flourish that interest,” Bates said. “We’re not sending them out to different schools that won’t feed into their interest or their career plan that we put together, or we partner to create. Those are the first two – career aspiration and college access.”

Beyond that, there are the life skills and mentorship aspects to the program.

The life skills segment lasts 16 weeks during the spring, which is designed around what Bates and company feel the player needs or what the player feels they need.

Plus, they are mentors and genuinely care about what goes on with the player outside of just athletics, lending a helping hand whether it is academics or personal challenges in life.

“We help them with any on campus issues,” Bates said. “They’re maybe having a bad day. We’ve got a food pantry. Phone is always on 24/7. If I’m up, they call at 3 in the morning, I’m going to pick up. It’s just one of those deals to just support them along the way. A lot of their parents are at work 10 hours a day. They come home, they just want to go to sleep, shower, eat and sleep, feed the kids. We try to build as much as we can just to help those parents that are working extra hard, especially a single family household.”

“I could pretty much say coach Bates acts as a father figure for a lot of people on the team because he treats us as if we’re his own kids,” said Skyline senior athlete Kweke Garth Jr. “And he’s just such a great role model to us, especially for children who don’t have that father figure in their life. He’s just a great role model.”

What it all boils down to is they are teaching young individuals that no matter what adversity someone has faced, they can still accomplish their dreams.

“I played football at Skyline, and so I understand the different challenges and I understand that a majority of my teammates didn’t come from affluent neighborhoods, were struggling, had family drama every single day, which really made it hard to focus on the academic portion,” Douangviseth said. “And I think with our young people today, they’re able to benefit from it because you actually have someone who understands the situations that they’re going through.”

Dreams do come true

Under Bates, Skyline is already seeing the results in all facets – both academically and athletically.

Bates, who is entering his fourth year at the program, has helped lead a resurgence of Skyline football – similar to when he played at the school and won a Silver Bowl title there in 2004 before playing at Laney College and the University of Toledo.

Skyline went 9-3 in 2019 and appeared in the Silver Bowl. Photo courtesy of Skyline

Skyline has gone a combined 18-14 in Bates’ three seasons, topped off with a 9-3 campaign in 2019 and a trip to the Silver Bowl championship game before falling to McClymonds – who has won three state titles since 2016.

Most importantly, even before the Living The Dream program, the Titans’ success in the classroom was profound. In Bates’ first three years, not a single player was lost to grades.

Not one.

“Our goal is that every football player sits in front of the class,” said Skyline junior defensive lineman Darius Fonteno. “Ask for help every time you don’t understand it. We just want to get a good bond with the school and with the teachers so they’re not going to think we’re bad kids or anything like that and be on their good side. Coach Bates just wants the best in us. He loves football. He cares about it, but he really cares about us getting out of high school into a good college or something.”

It’s a testament to what this era of Titans football is – giving these young men the opportunities they deserve, taking them on college tours, meeting with coaches throughout the country. 

It’s all about helping kids live out their dreams.

“When young people come on to the team, they’re not here only to win games,” Douangviseth said. “They’re there to lift each other up. They’re there to hold each other accountable. They’re there to be a part of this family that we’re trying to create for the young people in this community.”

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