Birth of a Program: Two Years Were All Eagle Academy Needed to Become Champions
No equipment. No practice field. No weight room. Almost no budget.
These were but a few of the obstacles Kevin Williams faced when he arrived at Eagle Academy Southeast Queens (N.Y.) in 2014. Williams came with a desire to start a football program that could inspire the young men the way it did for him at their age. Football helped him find his place in life — not just as an athlete, but as a man.
And that’s why, despite all the roadblocks in his way, Williams had something that overcame them all — hope.
“I promised my high school coach (George Najjar) that one day I would do what he did for me for someone else,” Williams said. “So when I started coaching I kept that in mind. I usually looked for those young men that are athletic but kind of standoffish when it came to having conversations. We utilized football to instill discipline and to define a way to deal with challenges, with what’s considered uncomfortable. I thought a football program was a necessity because of what it instilled as far as character, discipline and fair play. We thought those were essential to their well-being.”
Williams believed he could transform boys’ lives while creating a winner. But not even he could imagine how quickly those goals would come to fruition.
Start from Scratch
Williams grew up in New York City and describes his surroundings back then as “pretty dangerous”. His upbringing hardened him, but football was the vehicle that softened that rough exterior. Williams went on to play college football before turning to coaching. He coached for 14 years at the high school level and won a national championship leading a youth football team.
But Williams yearned to promote football back in his home state, which isn’t exactly known as a football hotbed. To hear him tell it, Williams “wanted to bring that Southern football to New York City.”
An all-boys school for grades six through twelve, Eagle Academy became the landing spot for Williams’ crusade. His athletic director was on board, but it quickly became clear that the budget was bare bones. Before Eagle Academy went all-in on football, Williams would have to prove he could make football worth it.
So the Eagles borrowed equipment from local schools. The team practiced on a softball field across the street, which prevented the players, many of whom were playing the game for the first time, from acclimating to a real field’s dimensions and yard lines.
And Williams had no money to pay assistants. He still didn’t take on just anyone who offered to help. He had interested volunteers take a test to prove their football acumen.
“Everybody thought I was crazy to do that,” Williams said. “They thought I should take whatever help I could get. No, we need the right help. We don’t want grown men trying to relive their childhood. We want men who actually know how to teach and lead and mentor and have a depth of knowledge.”
Come out with a Bang
The last step to get officially approved by the Public School Athletic League was a trial game against another school’s junior varsity team, which had gone undefeated the year before. If they put on a strong showing in that contest, Williams would get the green light.
There was just one issue — Williams had only two weeks to prepare.
Williams started with the very basics. Before he even brought a ball to the field, he had to develop a scholar-athlete mindset in his players.
“If you’re going to implement the athletic part of it, we have to find a scholastic balance and understand they work hand in hand,” he said. “We worked on a football stance. The stance required us to start working on core mechanics. Then we had to teach them how to run, not as a position, but how to run utilizing hips and rotation. That allowed us to define positions. Then we started teaching individualized position skills.”
Next came developing the team’s playbook, which gave a new meaning to the term “basic”. Williams developed a spread program and installed four plays, all runs, for the first week of practice. Once he felt the Eagles mastered that first set, he implemented two passing plays. When the team suited up for its first game, Williams had only those six plays in his arsenal.
The nerves spiked as Eagle Academy took the field. The players understood what was on the line. A poor outing could mean that all their hard work and ambitions would be for naught.
“They knew the stakes,” Williams said. “They knew if they didn’t have a great show, all the work they had put in, as well all the opportunities to play and not leave the school, they knew that if they didn’t perform well, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to play football at the school.”
It’s safe to say their nerves were quelled quickly. The Eagles won 44-0 and easily received league approval. Williams’ dream was coming into focus.
Bumps in the Road
The Eagles were flying high after the opening victory, but now came the tough part. Beating a JV squad was one thing. Knocking off opponents’ top talent would prove to be something different altogether.
Eagle Academy quickly learned that varsity competition presented a whole new ball game. They lost 40-0 in the season opener, then dropped their next three by scores of 33-6, 40-0 and 20-8, respectively. Any overconfidence Williams sensed in his players after the JV victory had quickly evaporated.
The team had arrived at a fork in the road. Down one path was pity and sorrow, accepting the obvious shortcomings the Eagles faced. Of course they were going to struggle, they had just 34 players and practiced on a softball field. How could they be expected to compete against schools with decades of football history?
Williams wouldn’t accept that attitude. He instead focused on what the team did have — determination, grit and, most importantly, each other.
“The young men just came together because they formed a brotherhood,” Williams said. “They said, ‘You know what, let’s just give it all this game.’ And we started taking it one game at a time. Nothing later or nothing prior mattered. It was just that game. That mindset and our re-dedication to the fundamentals allowed us to become successful.”
With only their parents in the stands, the squad finally broke through in game five. The players went wild in the locker room, but Williams allowed them just 15 minutes to celebrate. The season was still young and there was a lot of work left to do.
The Eagles got the message and continued their hot streak, winning their next six games to advance to the semifinals. The attendance gradually increased as the wins piled up and the school accepted its newest team. The Eagles fell in the semis, but Williams knew he was onto the start of something special. And most importantly, the team graduated every one of its seniors.
The Next Step
Proud as he was of his team in their inaugural season, Williams wanted more. He asked parents who could afford it to buy Planet Fitness memberships for their sons so he and the assistants could take them to lift during the summer. The Eagles also held their first preseason camp, going away for a week to really hone in on what needed to improve in season two.
Video was a huge component of the camp. The Eagles still lacked experience, but Williams used video as a teaching tool. He instructed the players how to watch video on their own so they could improve even when the coaches weren’t around.
“It was the reason we were successful,” Williams said. “The one thing we could count on is the tutorials that we could teach in video. That success came from understanding how to read video, how to determine tendencies, how to highlight and have muscle memory on knowing when this happens, I should shift to this area.
“We didn’t have equipment. We didn’t have some of the fundamental things that a varsity program should have. We had to use this media vehicle. We would monitor how active they were on it and text them. We would highlight tendencies based on the video and they’d have to tell us what was happening on video. They would have to write it out.”
The extra time allowed Williams to expand Eagle Academy’s offensive playbook, and with a full set of plays in his arsenal, each game was no longer a defensive struggle. There would be no rough patch for the Eagles in season two — the team went 12-0 and outscored the opposition 260-46.
But it’s what happened off the field that makes Williams even more proud. Eleven Eagles made the Dean’s list and every senior went on to college (four are playing college football).
“Our mindset was to develop the young men from a character standpoint using football,” Williams said. “The football was the carrot to get them to buy into becoming leaders in the school and the community. We did a lot of community service, and our goal was to be a beacon. We’re not in the most diverse community, so to see young men of color being leaders in the community and developing…that in itself shows that it works.”
The future is bright for Eagle Academy. The team is working to replace several key players who graduated, but bet against them at your own will. The school has added a junior varsity team and though it still faces many of the same limitations it did initially, Williams knows his team can overcome. He’s seen it happen.
“We have a lot of young men who want to hold up the tradition and the legacy that the last set of seniors held up,” Williams said. “We just received funding for our weight room. We’re working with the local government for a field. Our goal is to make sure that the program is lasting a long time from now.”