With many minority high school athletes being overlooked for valuable, potentially life-altering college athletic scholarships, four enterprising men in New Jersey have committed to shifting the dynamics of opportunity in the state. Last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic was on the precipice of halting organized sports activities throughout the country, Marion Bell, Benjie Wimberly, Luther Johnson and Tarig Holman formed the New Jersey Minority Coaches Association.
Bell and Wimberly are former head football coaches at Newark West Side High School and Hackensack High School respectively. Johnson is a former assistant coach at Willingboro High School and Holman is the current head coach at John F. Kennedy High School in Iselin.
Initially launched from a weekly Zoom call attended by several of New Jersey’s public school Black coaches, on which they discussed football, diminishing recruiting of local players by colleges, academics, the social-emotional development of high school athletes and other pressing topics, the talks evolved into concrete action.
Mentoring and preparing high school players to become coaches are significant aspects of the organization’s mission. “Some young men go to college but do not obtain the requisite knowledge needed to coach,” said Johnson, the founder and president of College Gridiron Experience, a program dedicated to providing pathways to college for high school scholar-athletes through athletic scholarships.
“So, we teach them how to coach, how to nurture, and how to ultimately someday raise young men we serve.”
“Working with minority young men and some young ladies opens up doors,” said Wimberly, who in addition to being the president of the NJMCA is a Democratic assemblyman representing New Jersey’s 35th Legislative District. Long before now retired wide receiver Victor Cruz, a Paterson, New Jersey native, became a Super Bowl champion and NFL star with the New York Giants, he was learning the game of football and receiving valuable life lessons from Wimberly.
With the NJMCA still in its early stages, its members are determined to bring about a reimagining of what they perceive to be a broken and inequitable recruiting system that leaves many talented but raw youth from inner-city and lowly funded schools struggling to find their way into institutions of higher learning.
They endeavor to force difficult conversations between the multiple stakeholders that make and influence critical decisions. “Too often, as a result of various factors, our student-athletes are lacking the necessary parental support,” said Johnson. “So we know that we have to act as parents in many cases.”
Wimberly said that he and his fellow Black coaches would like to have increased access to recruiters, academic advisors and other college representatives. “We want a seat at the table,” he insisted. “We know what we can do on the playing field and on the sidelines as coaches.”
How games are officiated involving predominantly Black and Brown schools is also a concern for the group of coaches, which numbers over 30. They collectively contend their teams have been subject to implicit bias by white crews when facing mostly white teams.
“Paying it forward” is how Luther encapsulated NJMCA’s goal. He hopes it will help to sustain and forward the culture of successful Black New Jersey student-athletes. Their plan is to hold financial literacy workshops and college tours as they grow.
“More and more people are learning about us,” he said. “And we are looking to expand all throughout the state of New Jersey. There is a vast amount of talent in all sports here. This pandemic has not stopped our mission.”