ST. LOUIS — Ritenour High School head football coach Kyle Wagner took over the program in 2020 with a personal mission to not only teach football, but to educate and align his team with the community.
For him, it’s always been about more than the game.
Following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Wagner felt it was important to help his athletes join the conversation, learn about the social unrest and gain an understanding of local policing in north St. Louis County.
“Ya know football, basketball, baseball, sports in general,” Wagner said. “It gives us an opportunity to have everybody’s voice being a part of that solution.”
Wagner met with St. Ann Police Chief Aaron Jiminez and other officers to build relationships in the school district’s community.
He was connected to north county police captain Clay Farmer and St. Louis Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, who help head a free training simulation out of the St. Ann Police Department. Members of the community can sign up for the free training, which give them access to experiencing real situations that police encounter.
It is the same training used for local St. Louis County police officers.
“Basically, we went through the shoot or don’t shoot training that the police officers actually go through,” Wagner said. “And so, there are scenarios that are up on a screen, and it’s controlled by officer Farmer, and at any time he can change the scenario. So, based on our commands or the way that we’re standing, or the way our hands are. He can control the screen and make them react in certain ways.”
Sunday marked the first time a local high school football team has gone through the training program in St. Louis.
The program is used widely across the United States and was created seven years ago before Bell was elected as the prosecuting attorney.
Bell and Farmer have since continued the program on a regular basis with groups interested from the community.
“It touched me when they said they wanted to be veterinarians, they want to be architects, they want to be engineers,” Captain Farmer said. “And their likelihood of coming in contact with law enforcement is great. They stand a great chance at coming in contact with law enforcement. So, we want that to not turn into something negative.”
“When we get people in a room in a setting that’s not confrontational, they’re not getting arrested, they’re not getting a ticket, and they get to see each other as people, as humans with families, and concerns, and hear one another,” Bell said. “That’s the biggest thing from my perspective that I’ve seen come out of these conversations.”
Ritenour senior quarterback Marcellus Griffin said the off-field work and bonding the team has done through character development workshops designed by Wagner have meant more than playing the game.
“I feel like it makes a football team a family,” Griffin said. “As it should be because it just brings everybody closer. Like a football team should, we should be family. We should help each other out. In school, out of school, go hang out or whatever. It just brings a team together as a whole.”
Wagner said for him, being a coach is helping his players build relationships in the community and educating them to keep them from potential harm in the future.
“I feel it’s my job to prepare those kids for being men and for going out into the world,” Wagner said. “Whether it’s my African American players, or my white players, or my Hispanic players, they’re going to have interactions with the police in some way or fashion. Or they’re going to be responsible one day for coaching, teaching their own players, and their own students. And so, I want them to take away from me, the value of doing more than just the X’s and O’s, and doing what you need to do on the field. But also making sure that you prepare the people around you for real life.”