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Originally published October 21, 2014 at 6:17 PM | Page modified October 22, 2014 at 7:45 PM

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Blocks and books: Tutoring fullback helps Cleveland’s revival

Senior fullback Ramsey Castillo’s tutelage has the Eagles soaring again — on and off the field.

Seattle Times staff reporter


Ramsey Castillo loves football. He loves to be on the field. He loves the camaraderie. He loves the adrenaline.

His newest love: Blocking.

It’s fitting the Cleveland senior wants to be out in front, helping his teammates. He is, in part, the reason some of them are able to suit up on Friday nights.

“I don’t want to take all the credit for them, I was just by their side,” said Castillo, who looks like a prototypical fullback — short, muscular and wide enough to clear two defenders with one block.

Players who fall behind on their grades late in the spring can’t play for a good stretch of the fall football season, and in the past the issue has eaten away at Cleveland’s numbers. Coach Jeff Schmidt refers to those kids as “five-weekers,” or kids who can’t play until the first fall grades are accounted for.

“I have friends over at the private (schools) and (they say), ‘We have to play these schools early in the season because we know most of the good players aren’t eligible,’ ” Schmidt said. “That type of comment is like, ‘Wow.’ What can we do at Cleveland to change that environment?”

Castillo has resolved to be a part of the solution.

This summer, he tutored up to nine teammates at one time, some in math and others in chemistry.

“On our team, the one person you can count on when we need help is Ramsey,” said Jayvion Sims, one of the teammates Castillo tutored.

Castillo, Sims said, understands how to connect and relay the importance of academic success. Castillo has a 3.9 GPA and wants to pursue an engineering degree in college.

But not all public-school athletes are like him.

The pressures on a student — from friends, from family, from a job necessary to help support the home — can easily lead kids from focusing on their academics. Schmidt, who went to an inner-city high school, can relate to this.

So when he signed up to coach at Cleveland, he knew his job would entail more than just the X’s and O’s of football. He’s in his second year and has already seen improvements thanks to consistent grade checks, added study-hall hours and an emphasis on class attendance. The school administration has also changed its culture, starting with the hiring of Annette Duvall as athletic director.

Under Duvall, Cleveland has made an emphasis in hiring coaches who embrace playing for more than the scoreboard, assistant principal Ed Reed said. The early returns are positive with the football program.

In his first year, Schmidt said the team had 15 ineligible students. This year, they are down to six, he said. In the first grade check of the season in late September, three Cleveland players that previously had GPAs under 0.5 were above 3.0.

Cleveland is 4-3 this season and 2-2 in the Metro League Sound Division. The Eagles will play at 4 p.m. Saturday in a Metro playoff game.

The success on the football field, as well as the added emphasis on academics in all athletic programs, is starting to provide tangible results. The latest numbers from the Washington State Board of Education achievement index puts Cleveland’s proficiency average at 8.03, which puts the school approximately in the top 5 percent of those tested.

“The story really behind those numbers is we’ve given the school, and therefore the community, a purpose,” Reed said. “As a purpose, it doesn’t sound really glamorous, which is ‘prepare students to meet the challenge of their future,’ but it’s been a purpose that has been lacking for some time.

“The opportunity for success has always been there for schools like Cleveland High School, it’s just a matter of finding the people who are willing to embrace that opportunity. That’s not an easy task because there’s not a lot of Jeff Schmidts out there.”

Beyond Cleveland’s walls, and at other Seattle public schools, coaches deal with the same struggles.

“The quality program starts with academics,” said longtime Nathan Hale coach Hoover Hopkins. “Football is going to last for a very short time. It’s a flash in the pan, football is. Most of the kids are not going to play any organized sports beyond high school.”

Hopkins previously coached at Interlake and Cleveland, and joined the Seattle Public School District in 1991. His team takes an hour after school three days a week for homework, something Hopkins believes is necessary for success.

“That is the foundation of our program, and the rest is easy,” Hopkins said. “The football’s easy. It’s getting all the players to understand what it takes to be successful as a student.”

But then there are kids like Castillo, whose dad helped him recognize the importance of academic success during a lecture in middle school. At first, Castillo didn’t appreciate the unsolicited advice. He wasn’t a bad student, but he realized he wasn’t doing what he needed to do to propel himself academically.

“What drove me was I imagined (my teammates) getting in (an) argument with their parents just like I was, and I didn’t want them to deal with that because they’re just going to hear the same thing over and over again,” Castillo said. “I felt bad for them. They’re kind of like my brothers. Not just because we needed them for football, but they deserved to play because they practice hard, they do whatever they had to do to play.”

Even if it might have meant helping someone get ahead of him on the depth chart.

“Winning is not all about me getting playing time,” said Castillo, who is a two-way starter, playing multiple positions. “I need them, too, on the field. If I don’t have them on the field, I can’t win.

“It don’t matter if I’m starting or not. It’s as long as we’re together and we work harder together.”

So this summer, three days a week, Castillo would spend four hours of his mornings with equations, the periodic table and teammates. Of course, there were also summer football workouts and weight training. In his down time, Castillo, who said he still had time to hang out with friends, would do the homework necessary for the AP chemistry class he is taking.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the team had a pre-practice study hall in the gym. Players merged into groups and sprawled out on the hardwood, reading their textbooks. Castillo was propped against the bleachers on the far side of the court chatting amiably with a few teammates. Minutes later, he claimed that was the extent of his tutoring — merely standing next to guys in case they had a question.

Sims refuted that claim. Sims, a goofy kid sporting a bucket hat, throwback Sonics jacket and a devilish smile, is not someone you expect to have a serious conversation with.

But after 10 minutes of wide grins, his voice softened and the senior offered a sobering thought: “Sophomore year I thought I was just going to end up somewhere off in the corner, doing nothing. I didn’t even think I was going to graduate, sophomore year.”

Sims is now interested in pursuing a college degree in biology. For that, he can thank the changing culture at Cleveland. He can also thank Castillo.

“Just to see improvement is great,” Castillo said of the culture at Cleveland. “That’s what people look for in life, is improvement. Not to fall down and never do anything to fix it.”

Information in this article, originally published October 21, 2014, was corrected October 22, 2014. A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Ramsey Castillo’s name.

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