DENVER -- Hitting the football field every single day after school is a ritual boys have been practicing for generations for the love of the game.
Tekola Cornetet, 13, who attends Slavens Middle School is a perfect example. He dreams of one day playing football at Denver’s Thomas Jefferson High School.
“I love the game, I love watching the game, I love playing the game and studying the game.” And now, for Tekola and his teammates, practicing for the games has changed because of a Denver non-profit called Project Pave and its True Man Program.
With the help of former NFL player Derek McCoy, the True Man Program tackles the tough guy image that prevails in football and says middle school is a good time to start talking. “They are at the age when guys start to get ingrained in them what guys can and can’t do.”
He says all you need to do is look around the NFL.
McCoy played with Rashan Salaam at the University of Colorado. Salaam committed suicide. He points to players like Jovan Belcher, who killed his girlfriend and then himself. Too many similar stories are making headlines and football is the connection. McCoy says, “we’re doing this for years and years and… it’s leading to depression, suicide, domestic violence, it’s leading to the entitlement of feminine bodies.”
With the help of the Denver Broncos, the Project Pave True Man Program began in 2014.
Right now, about 450 Denver and Aurora 13 and 14-year-olds go through five classroom sessions each football season talking about healthy relationships and healthy masculinity. McCoy leads the conversation... the kind that can make any teen squirm in their seat.
We watched a whole lot of hands go up when McCoy asked, “has anybody ever had that lump in their throat because you are sad and you force the tears back down?”
We heard frank conversations about how boys deal with feelings of anger. Discussions about how women are perceived, and the thoughtless and disrespectful words sometimes thrown around to describe women. McCoy told Denver7, “there’s a lot of people, a lot of men, a lot of boys that are willing to reflect and dig down and say 'yep, we can change this, we want to change this.'”
And the schools keep asking him back.
The True Man Program is now in its third year, and the students are listening. Avery Shunneson, 14, says he walked away with tools knowing “you can be a great football player and still be what it means to be a nerd… if that makes sense, you don’t always have to tough and big.” His takeaway? Be yourself.
As for Tekola, the 13-year-old who loves football above else? He says, “it’s good to get it out, it’s good to talk and that’s when things start to come up and resolve. It’s all good from there.
To learn more about Project Pave, its programs and upcoming luncheon, click here.