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    Tuesday, May 28, 2024

    Rajai Davis returns with all the right messages

    New London — The young man, an otherwise unbending high school football player, was speaking now about his hopes and dreams, feelings and emotions, amid a room that fell silent. It was the kind of silence as in a theater, when the conductor taps the music stand and raises his hands, everyone awaiting what would come next.

    “My goal in life,” the young man said, “is to have a son and be a better dad to him than my (estranged) dad is to me.”

    Imagine this room, a classroom at New London High, all full of rugged athletes about to catch a few tears, listening to their friend’s story. There was no sound. No phones out. Nothing but compassion.

    As real as it gets.

    This happens weekly at New London High now thanks to former Whaler (and former major leaguer) Rajai Davis, who has come back to his hometown and his alma mater offering a new mentorship program for the school’s athletes. Davis and Larry Delong, pastor at the Miracle Temple Church in the city, offer their life experiences to the kids, who turn vulnerability into strength.

    “I'm doing this because I know I wanted this when I was their age,” Davis was saying. “If I had this, I would have made different choices. I've had opportunities to be exposed to a lot more now and I know these kids never will be unless somebody like myself brings it. We never talked about a lot of this. It was always swept under the rug.”

    Davis works as the Senior Director of On Field Operations in Major League Baseball, a liaison with the Commissioner's Office as a resource in clubhouses, to whom players can voice their concerns. In that job, Davis did a filming about sexual assault and domestic violence, encouraging players to think about issues and behaviors that too often find their way under the metaphorical rug.

    “I've been talking with Phil (New London athletic director Phil Orbe) about doing this kind of program with the kids here for the last year and a half,” Davis said.

    The program works through the website acalltomen.org, which aims to promote healthy, respectful manhood through training and educational resources for companies, government agencies, schools and community groups. The program’s “collective socialization of manhood” comes through what it calls the “Man Box,” the community organizing model.

    The kids already understand the traps for which the “Man Box” raises awareness: Men need to be strong. They don’t show emotions. They can’t be vulnerable. Except that two days a week after school, Davis and Delong provide this non-judgemental atmosphere awash in openness, honesty and truth.

    They talked about their home lives. Their goals and dreams. What’s required for college. They talked about how easy it is for men to objectify women, despite the layers of respect the kids have for their mothers. They talked about how they perceived the behavior of some girls in the building as consistently disrespectful — and their frustration with how they believe administrators don’t believe the boys as much as the girls. They spoke of conflict resolution. They discussed the many traps for teenagers and how, as Delong said, “sometimes, better choices lead to lonelier roads.”

    There was one instance when a young man was sharing something from his life and another began to laugh. The speaker immediately quoted new football coach Bobby Sanchez, who invites his players to share. “As Coach Sanchez says, ‘the ones who laugh in here are the ones who end up alone in the future.’”

    There was no more laughing.

    The kids agreed it was the most worthwhile hour of the day.

    “Sometimes,” author Brene Brown wrote, “the most dangerous thing for kids is the silence that allows them to construct their own stories — stories that almost always cast them as alone and unworthy of love and belonging.”

    And then here in this room they all belonged. A bunch of kids talking about real life with no fears about vulnerability, disconnection, criticism, failure and conflict. The concept of fear, so frequently a protective barrier and solidifying division that helps keep us apart, suddenly had no place here.

    So much for the concept, too, that learning ends at the final bell. There is no more important undertaking on school grounds for the kids than this new program. And it’s going to grow.

    “We're building this now as a team so that eventually we will be able to reach everyone,” Davis said. “But we have to start small. But big doors swing by little hinges, right?”

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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