published Friday, April 13th, 2012

Hargis: Taft Youth Center closing will end lessons from football

It was 10 years ago this fall that I spent six months at Taft Youth Center. Not as an inmate, mind you, but for a feature story on the football team at the youth detention center.

A photographer and I were granted access to interview coaches and staff members as well as players and their families and follow the team from preseason workouts until the final game.

The first, and probably most lasting, image for me was during an early August practice, watching the teenage boys running offensive plays with a backdrop that included a 12-foot high chain-link fence that encircled the complex and is topped by a double roll of razor wire.

Last season marked 40 years of Taft Tigers football, but it will likely be the last. The new state budget doesn't have the funding for the 90-year-old youth facility tucked away in a Bledsoe County forest, and employees are expected to be given 90-day termination notices soon.

The state will move the 150 or so 16- to 19-year-old inmates to other youth development centers throughout the state, while most of the 167 employees will interview for jobs at the new Bledsoe County Correctional Complex, an adult prison set to open just down the road from Taft in 2013.

While the move to shut down Taft will save the state an estimated $8.5 million, it also will leave a void in the lives of many of the troubled teenagers who wound up there for a variety of reasons, ranging from delinquency and petty theft to assault and homicide. None of the violent offenders were allowed to play football.

But regardless of their charges, each of the 21 Taft players I interviewed in 2002 shared one theme: They all came from broken or single-parent homes.

The benefits of playing the game were far greater than simply getting to go off campus each Friday night in the fall. Vocational training in 10 subjects was included in the curriculum, as well as special education services and GED preparation and testing, but each of the teenagers on the roster said he learned more from his time playing football than he had in any classroom.

Only one of the kids on that year's roster had ever played an organized sport, and by the time the season was over, many of them cried as they explained what it felt like to feel included in something positive, like part of a team, for the first time in their lives.

Drew Jenkins was the best pure athlete on the team that year and I caught up with him in Murfreesboro years after he had been released, followed charges of vandalism, theft and resisting arrest. Prior to serving six months at Taft, Jenkins had spent more than a year at Woodland Hills, a youth detention center in Nashville, and Magnolia Academy, a wilderness camp designed to help troubled teens. But Jenkins told me it wasn't until he was transferred to Taft, and specifically when he began playing football, that he understood the need to change.

"I try to forget my time at Taft, but I hope I never forget what I learned through football," Jenkins said. "I had never experienced what it was like to be on a team -- to depend on somebody else and have them depend on you. It helped me grow up a whole lot.

"You can learn how to do just about any job you want at Taft. And that's good because it helps you to get a job. But football made me feel good about myself, like nothing I had ever done."

The most restrictive of the state's youth development centers, Taft also has been the only one to field a football team. It has played only Class 1A and 2A opponents, and although not a member of the TSSAA and therefore not eligible for the playoffs, the program does sign two-year contracts with opponents.

This is the second year of the newest contracts, leaving teams such as Lookout Valley, Whitwell and Silverdale Baptist scrambling now to look for replacement games on the schedule.

But when Taft does close its doors, more will be lost than just games on Friday nights.

"What the boys take away from it -- learning teamwork and to interact with others in a positive way -- there's not another activity that can even imitate what football does for these kids," Tigers coach Robert "Rooster" Worthington, who has been with the program since 1972, told me once. "It's not about winning here. We take kids who have only gotten to watch others play sports and never participated and give them something to finally feel good about.

"It would be a shame to lose something that is such a positive influence for so many kids who need it."

about Stephen Hargis...

Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...

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outthere said...

It is extremely evident that Haslem and O'Day care nothing about the kids, only money that they say they can save... WHAT IS A KIDS LIFE WORTH??????

April 13, 2012 at 6:38 a.m.
GreenKepi said...

Come July...it will be a very sad day for Tennessee - whether most of its citizens know it or not....

April 13, 2012 at 8:02 a.m.
mountainboy said...

To bad the tigers cant take the field this fall, there are plenty of kids here who deserve the chance to experience what it is like to be part of a team, part of a family, part of anything. We wont get to see those smiles when they make a play or make a tackle on the field. What a shame that the Commissioner and Gov. Haslam have never been to a game to see just how much it means to these kids. I am and will always a tiger fan and will never forget being able to take part in something that even I as a youth didnt get to do. My high school didnt have a football program and being able to be involved in Taft football gave me the opportunity to do something I always wanted to do, be part of a team. Thanks to Coach Worthington, Coach Smith, and the Admistrators that gave me the chance to be apart of something so special. THey fired one and the other is still around for now, but they made it possible for me to be part of a team. Something i will never forget. Thanks! No Thanks to Haslam and O'Day! GO TIGERS!

April 13, 2012 at 10:37 a.m.
pikeville said...

I hope the thousands of people who have commented and posted on the Taft issue remember it come election day!!! It's a joke for the Department of Childrens Services to say they care about the kids they serve. The taxpayers will soon find this out.

April 13, 2012 at 10:23 p.m.
RebelBuck said...

I have read every article that Times Free Press has put out on Taft Youth Center, and would like to thank them for covering such an important topic, as for the Tennessean, I can't say that. I wonder why? Oh, could it be that they are bought and paid for by our Governer, who looks like Dana Carvey? What I see in the long run is Juvenile Justice being dropped from DCS and being run by CCA. This will become a reallity as long as the current admistration is in place. I stongly believe that Haslam and O'Day have thier hand in someone's pocket. If Juvenile Justice is ran by CCA the troubled youth in Tennessee will have no hope, as anyone in privte ran institutions is just warehoused. If and when this happens you can forget watching the local High School games this fall and seeing the Taft boys take the field as a team, something they have never experienced in a positive manner. I have been to several of the games and stood at the sidelines with Coach Worthington and Coach Smith and saw the look on a teenager's face when he makes his first touchdown or his first block or tackle. That is something you will never see in a CCA ran institution. It is a very rewarding experience for anyone that is involved. This is just to let the tax payers in Tennessee know what they have elected and what they will expect in the months to come.

April 14, 2012 at 10:54 a.m.
BigTafter said...

It is amazing at the lessons that other children and families learn when the Tigers and the fan club(staff and limited family)travel to schools to play football. As a fan, I am frequently asked questions by the other teams fans, both young and old. The smiles on the boys face also come from seeing new faces, especially female faces. I can't talk about Taft football without including the kind and generous people that prepare meals for the Tigers, at every school. There is an awesome family in Whitwell that I have especially grown fawn of, the owners of a pizza place in Whitwell. They continue to bring pizza to the Tigers until they can't eat anymore. The local church that makes pep rally signs to hang on the fence and care packages with letters of encouragement included. The First Baptist Church of Pikeville has an amazing group of ladies that cook a home cooked meal, fried chicken and all the fixing and wonderful desserts. Then fellowship and lots of words of encouragement and support. I have to agree with those that too see that closing Taft will only cause the highest risk boys in the state of Tennessee to have a much lower rate of success. GO TIGER!!!

April 14, 2012 at 10:41 p.m.
BigTafter said...

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. Albert Einstein

April 14, 2012 at 11:01 p.m.
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