Beyond the game: the real impact of athletics

North High Polars basketball coach Larry McKenzie works with incoming freshman Anthony Figures on free throws and follow through.  Photo by David Pierini

North High Polars basketball coach Larry McKenzie works with incoming freshman Anthony Figures on free throws and follow through. Photo by David Pierini

North Minneapolis has seen its fair share of typical athletic success stories: state championship teams, NBA and NFL players, and D1 talents. However, there is an untold story of success in athletics on the Northside. A story that impacts a far wider range of people than the few that make it big.
Mathias Durie | Intern Reporter

Michael Tate was 17 years old when he started volunteering as a Minneapolis Parks and Recreation coach. Tate, called “Coach Talley” by his players, now has over 40 years of coaching experience. He's taught everything from football to tee ball. Though he has dedicated his life to sports, he doesn’t see them as the most important part of coaching.

T’nia Riley started running track at 12 years old when her future track coach and next door neighbor saw her running through the neighborhood. She then started running for the park board and finished fifth in Nationals when she was just 13. Riley won two state titles as a sophomore at North High and is now headed to Barton Community College in Kansas on a full athletics scholarship. Riley is an extremely accomplished runner but feels that athletics have humbled her more than anything.

Larry McKenzie has been the head boys basketball coach at North Community High School since 2013 and has 37 years of coaching experience. Now entering his sixth season with the Polars, McKenzie has led the team to two state titles. Despite the enduring success he has seen at North High, Coach McKenzie isn’t primarily focused on winning.

Malik Rucker was the No. 2 ranked high school football prospect in the state of Minnesota in 2013. The Northside native attended Robbinsdale Cooper High School and signed on to play at the University of Iowa to continue his successful football career. After desiring a change of scenery and culture, Rucker landed at Western Michigan University where he finished out his final three years of eligibility. However, being the first football player from Cooper to play at a power five conference school isn’t what the former cornerback is most thankful for.

None of these individuals have gone on to make millions playing or coaching sports. The thing they do have in common is that they can point to a specific lesson sports have taught them. Rucker is thankful for the attention to detail he’s developed. Riley has grown in humility. Tate and McKenzie are devoted to passing on what they’ve learned to the athletes they work with now.

Though involvement in athletics is typically viewed as a positive force for young people, few achieve success in the form of fame and riches from it. The reality is, most athletes don’t make it far enough to attain this kind of life changing success. For example, a study done by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 2017 shows that .03% of high school basketball players (male and female) reach the professional level. If the goal of athletics is to help kids become the next LeBron James or Serena Williams, it is extremely unsuccessful in doing so.

But Northside coaches, other athletic mentors, and athletes have a different view. They argue that athletics have a far bigger and more important purpose than providing a potential route to fame and fortune. The life lessons, values, characteristics, and way of thinking athletics teach have had an impact on all these people firsthand, so many of them are determined to provide this same teaching for the athletes of today.

“I want to communicate to them that you can do anything you want to do through commitment of your attitude, hard work, respect and encouragement,” Tate said.

Rucker can still remember the exact lessons each of his coaches taught him. Phil Parker instilled preparation and demeanor, Kirk Ferentz emphasized the importance of hard work and toughness, PJ Fleck provided real life perspectives that Rucker applied in his own life, Tim Lester grew him in accountability.

“Coach Fleck always preached, if you can make it through my program, you can be a business owner,” Rucker said. “Because of the real life perspectives he offered.”

And a business owner is exactly what Rucker is working to become. He has since graduated from Western Michigan with a degree in sports management and a minor in sociology. He is working on starting his own foundation designed to train and develop athletes for the next level. As a kid, Rucker traveled to the EJ Henderson Foundation in Eden Prairie to train; now he wants to create a similar elite training opportunity closer to home in North Minneapolis. A major aspect of his foundation will be to teach some of the life lessons that he has learned over his years as an athlete, like having a great attention to detail in all aspects of life.

“Without those details you might not reach your full potential,” Rucker said. “The details have brought me a long way.”


Three Northsiders, Careino Gurley, T’nia Riley, and Tayler Johnson, sat down with North News to tell about the role athletics have played in their lives and the major influence it has had on them. Uploaded by North News on 2018-07-30.


Coach Talley’s philosophy for coaching is quite simple: “If I put good in you, good’s going to come out,” he said. This translates to athletics being about the relationships. Relationships between coaches and players, players and family members, and teammates. As a coach, Tate wants to create relationships with his players. He wants to push them to build relationships that are built around respect, trust, encouragement and positivity. Tate hopes the investment he’s making causes his athletes to hold each other to high standards. He also makes a conscious effort to be involved with the parents of his athletes. He believes real positive change starts at home so he is intentional about building a relationship with parents and speaking into their lives as well.

“That’s what this is about; changing one life at a time, one family at a time,” Tate said.

Jane Barrash isn’t a typical coach. She is the Executive Director at the Continuum Center and, with collaborator Mike Shelton, heads a program called Athleadership that is designed to grow high school athletes into positive leaders. The summer program started in 2016 and is an outgrowth of Barrash's time at North High as the vision, focus, and mindset development coach of the Polars from 2013-2017, helping them win two state championships and achieve a 95% graduation rate. She's recently been focused in North Minneapolis primarily with football and basketball players from Patrick Henry High School and North Community High School. She sees the concepts, practices, and principles she teaches as valuable for academics and life as a whole,
not just life as an athlete. So why does she focus on athletes? Barrash believes you have to start with the influencers. “Like it or not, athletes are role models,” Barrash said. Athletes have a platform in school that can be used to create great positive change or set a poor example for the students that look up to them. Barrash believes in teaching a more positive, optimistic, and constructive way of thinking and dealing with situations to those leaders of the school with the hope that the effects trickle down to the rest of the students.

McKenzie is a 2018 Bush Fellowship recipient. Through the award, he plans to pursue a Master's Degree in Sports and Leadership and attend coaches conferences and the John Maxwell Leadership Training. He hopes these courses and training sessions will allow him the opportunity to advocate and speak up for coaches and educate decision makers on the impact coaches have. He also wants to teach young coaches how big of an impact they can have and to use the opportunity to positively affect kids' lives.

In addition to the character building, coaches say athletics provide structure. High school teams typically practice for two to three hours after school during the week and have games on top of that. This is time that kids aren’t spending on the street or out and about in their neighborhoods. Team rules also create incentive for kids to stay out of trouble in order remain eligible to play.

“It's a tool to alleviate teen pregnancy,” McKenzie said. “It’s the best crime prevention program you can have.”


Despite the impact coaches and athletics have on many students, the MPS School Board does not always cater to the athletic needs of Northside Schools, says District 2 School Board Director KerryJo Felder. She sees glaring problems in the way North Minneapolis schools are represented in the funding, programs, and overall attention given by the MPS board. For example according to demographic information by Minnesota Compass in 2016, 31% of the North Minneapolis (Camden and Near North) population was 17 years old or younger compared to just 23% of the Southwest Minneapolis Neighborhood. Yet North High School offers just eleven total sports programs for its students while Southwest High School offers 26 different programs.

MPS also performed an Athletics Equity & Diversity Impact Assessment in 2018 to gather information regarding MPS athletics and the needs of each district's athletic programs. 4% of the 747 parents surveyed were African American while 83% were white. According to a 2017 demographic study by MPS, 38.1% of students districtwide were African American and 34.7% were white. Felder feels Northside students and families were severely underrepresented and the results of the assessment were not representative of their needs. One result Felder pointed out was that 90% of people thought participation costs should be “more than current price” but she has seen cost be an issue for Northside families.

“We [North Minneapolis Schools] don’t deserve to be slighted on an equity and diversity assessment that doesn’t show equity or diversity,” Felder said. “It’s structural racism.”

Felder graduated from North High’s Summa Tech program and remembers a high school experience full of athletics, clubs, leagues, and other programs. She was a cheerleader, a glee club member and tried about every sport offered. She is not attempting to make North into anything it’s not, but wants to bring Northside schools back to the place they were at when she was in school. She wants to give students an opportunity to get involved in all sorts of activities not just because of the life lessons sports can teach, but also because they are fun.

Riley, a North High graduate, remembers the people she met at National track meets and the relationships she has built with her high school teammates and coaches. She is proud of all the records she broke and state titles she won, but she also remembers how much she enjoyed just running with her friends. For Riley, athletics are about the thrill of victory, meaningful relationships, building character, and having fun.

Mathias Durie