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    For KIPP, growing pains and pleasures of starting new football program

    Kyle Veazey - The Commercial Appeal -

    Their pads have not arrived, so the best the 28 ninth- and 10th-graders of the inaugural KIPP Memphis Collegiate High football team can do is sweat through their shorts and T-shirts every August afternoon and hope not to hit one another too hard.

    While many area schools were enjoying their first pregame meals of the season Friday night, KIPP was wrapping up another workout on its bare practice field. Only the day before did it even get its schedule; it opens its season Sept. 10 against Sheffield. As part of its transition into a varsity schedule next year, KIPP will play other schools' junior varsity teams this fall.

    This is the daily reality for KIPP, a charter school that's going through the trials, challenges — and small victories — of fielding its first football team.

    "There's a lot to do," said the team's 28-year-old coach, Daniel Bandy, "but we're getting great support from the top down."

    Bandy grew up in Frayser, graduated high school from West Memphis Christian and ran track at the University of Memphis before graduating from the College of the Ozarks, where he played basketball. He played professionally overseas until 2008, when he returned home. That's when he met Jamal McCall, now KIPP Memphis' executive director, and started the slow process of building an athletic program.

    Enter that great support Bandy references. KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), which is a national network of college preparatory charter schools, boasts of four schools in Memphis — the high school, which goes up to 10th grade this year, two middle schools and an elementary — and some 800 pupils.

    Bandy is the athletic director for the whole of it. Other sports had already been birthed and football was part of his long-range plan. But it wasn't until the spring, when he put out feelers, that he knew it would work: Almost every boy in the school said he was at least interested.

    His team started workouts in July. By mid-August, they had found a daily ritual, 4 to 6 p.m., in a field behind Cypress Middle School in North Memphis, where the school's classrooms are housed. The field is part of a community park; neighborhood residents walk in and around it all through practice, some moving to and from a neighboring apartment complex through a gaping hole in the fence.

    Under the tree where the KIPP players leave their backpacks, Budweiser, Bud Light and Miller High Life bottle caps lie on the ground. Swisher Sweets wrappers, too. Broken glass renders the nearby tennis courts unplayable. A drainage grate to the side of the field is on the players' radar; when one sprinted toward it Friday, another yelled "Watch out for that hole!"

    KIPP's quarterback is ninth-grader Telly Crawford, who lives in Frayser. He's already something of a leader for this football team. He barks his commands at the line of scrimmage so loudly a drill sergeant would be impressed.

    He especially likes that part. At home, he's always been known as the loud one. "Telly, just lower your voice a little bit," he would hear. But on the practice field, he's told to yell so loudly that his voice bounces off the back walls of Cypress, a hundred or so yards away. And it does.

    "I was very excited," Crawford said of the moment he learned KIPP would have a football team. He had played in youth leagues. "I had already known I was a good quarterback."

    KIPP's program has already arrived in one sense: A handful of parents are showing up midway through practice to watch. On the sidewalk Friday, Donta Franklin Sr. watched his son, Donta Franklin Jr., and Phillip Brown watched his two sons, Brandon Brown and Kevin Davenport. Both say they love what their sons are asked to do academically at KIPP. Football only adds to it.

    "It can only get better," Brown said. "When you start something from the ground up, it gives you a whole different perspective."

    Bandy's tone, though, isn't always rosy. He's the coach, after all. Administering practice isn't easy, especially given the number of players who have never played organized football. The instincts have a long way to go but are getting there. When a player dropped a ball in Thursday's practice, one player — or only one, depending on your perspective — instinctively yelled "Fumble!"

    On Thursday, Bandy wasn't pleased. "Tomorrow, everyone's going to be energized," he said, forcefully, after practice. "Going to be enthusiastic!"

    On Friday, the team appeared more spry, and Bandy noticed. "We got better today," Bandy told his players as they huddled up after practice. "Every day we come out here, we're going to work with what we've got."

    In the meantime, he is content with the little victories from practice. Like, say, Friday, when he taught his defensive backs the finer points of backpedaling off the line of scrimmage. They took to it well, he thought.

    You get the sense from Bandy that he'd rather be coaching this startup outfit than, perhaps, taking over an established program — one that already has pads, say. His pride oozes.

    "I want to be able to build it from the ground up," he said.

    Same for Davenport, who produced another small victory during Friday's practice. He noticed a teammate lagging behind in conditioning and went back to encourage him. For this, he was asked to stand up and was singled out in the post-practice huddle.

    Asked a few moments later about whether he senses his teammates are taking ownership of the brand-new program, he smiles. "Yeah," he said, "we're proud."

    Good news: KIPP's pads are set to arrive this week. The uniforms are already here.

    Game one is 22 days away.

    "It'll be a minute," Bandy says, with a smile, of the wait from now to his team's first game, "but we'll need a minute."

    A Season on the Inside

    Kyle Veazey is spending Friday nights this fall at Mid-South high school football fields to tell the otherwise-unknown personal stories that make the sport matter to so many. He'll deliver one each Sunday. Have a story idea? E-mail him at veazey@commercialappeal.com or call him at (901) 529-2799.