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Wentworth inspires a path of total inclusion at NFA

Norwich — Perhaps it's counterintuitive to suggest that death often underscores a new respect for life. But it was through witnessing a senseless death that Roy Wentworth's profound reflection led to a new light for the way at 305 Broadway, the catalyst for several innovative, inclusion-based programs at Norwich Free Academy.

Wentworth, the school's athletic director, still couldn't speak of George Floyd's death the other day without a crack in his voice. And yet Wentworth has used its residual effect to personify the very genuine difference between social media rhetoric about change and actually doing the work to ensure it.

"When all this stuff happened in our country, I think the first visitor in my office was Roy," said Leo Butler, NFA's Director of Diversity. "I said to myself when he left my office, 'this guy is shook.' Roy was emotional about it. He has worked his way through this process and is very comfortable speaking in a way a lot of people can't."

Wentworth's premise that "inclusion is more a word — it's who we are and what we do," has morphed into the following programs:

• The football team meets frequently off the field to discuss the country's history, prompting the idea to invite Norwich police officers to participate — and even to some practices last fall. In the words of offensive coordinator Stephen Burris: "to learn who they are beyond the badge and to form relationships and bridge gaps. We got uncomfortable. But we've grown and are fully committed to doing the work beyond just having conversations."

• Community give-back, including a mentoring program with elementary school students, a holiday toy drive/fundraiser for the Tommy Toy Fund and free camps and clinics for kids with NFA students.

• Collaboration between athletics and guidance to assure all classes at NFA count toward NCAA eligibility, regardless of subject. Also, a "Create Your Path" program that focuses on the vagaries of college recruitment with, in the words of girls' basketball coach Courtney Gomez, "coaches of all races, gender identities, sexual orientations and socio-economic statuses who have played sports at the Division I, II and III levels" and give NFA kids their experiences during the recruiting process.

• "NFA 180," a commitment once masks are no longer needed, to reach into the community and work with the youth. In the words of football coach Jason Bakoulis, "to get everyone off the couch and on to the fields and courts."

This is more than words. This is real, practical application.

"It started as a direct result of watching George Floyd get murdered," said Wentworth, who has been at NFA since 1980. "It truly affected me.

I realized, after a number of conversations with coaches, former students and folks who are Black or brown, that I felt shame for being a white male. I realized I was privileged and I never thought I was."

Wentworth has used the time for reflection that COVID has provided us all to change NFA's path.

"This is about the athletic program making an all-in commitment to do what we can in our area of impact to break down barriers, create even playing fields and do what we can to provide equal opportunities to all of our students," he said. "My own experience as an athlete and coach in 40 years I've been on this campus — and while I think we've been doing a better and better job — I heard rumors of unequal opportunity when I got here. Voices in the community have stories I've heard that display some bias and perhaps even racism. I'm here to acknowledge that. I'm here to encourage my coaches and the folks around me and anyone who wants to represent NFA — I want them to know we need to do a better job."

Wentworth and several coaches speak more specifically about the programs during a six-minute video on NFA's YouTube channel. If you truly care about change, you'll watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cu4jqVa7fQ

"The message is simple," Butler said. "Acknowledge what's happened, but more importantly, where are we headed now? You can't erase what  happened in 1965. But we can do everything in our power to redirect this institution. I'm proud to be associated with a place that's not afraid to look at who we are, who we've been and who we are today."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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