Reading is the foundation of any well-rounded education. For some fortunate kids, reading
is a joy they embrace at school each day. For others their daily reading assignments are formidable adversaries between them and success in the classroom.
Luckily for some elementary school students in Tempe, they now have some tough friends of their own to help them tackle the challenge head on.
Enter the Buff Buddies of Tempe High School’s varsity football team.
When Brian Walker, himself a product of nearby McClintock high, first arrived as head coach at Tempe High in 2009, he made a point to go to local elementary and middle schools to further familiarize himself with the community. It was curing these mini-excursions that the
seed of Buff Buddies was planted.
“I witnessed a young man having some difficulties with his behavior. I said a few things to him and a few days later I received a phone call from the middle school thanking me for helping this young man correct some of his behaviors. This was actually the beginning of the mentoring aspect we have implemented,” Walker explains.
Seeing the need for strong mentors for local youths with unmet needs, Walker and his assistant coach, Brandon Russell—who is also a guidance counselor— formulated what would become a winning play for their school’s athletes as well as the community.
With the approval from the administration of Tempe High and local schools like Gilliland and Arredondo elementary, Walker and Russell began identifying football players who were excelling in the classroom as well as on the field. Once selected, these players began attending local schools to read to and mentor younger kids.
While reading is a big part of the program, it’s clear that Walker’s players also serve a crucial role helping kids overcome behavioral issues as well.
“Not all, but a significant amount of academic struggles in the classroom can often be linked to behavior issues,” said Walker.
“Sometimes interrupting or being a disturbance in class gets the student out of an academic area in which they are struggling. We want to target kids who need an extra nudge with their academics and sometimes with their behavior,” he said.
Talking to the players, it’s clear that the benefits of the Buff Buddies program go both ways,
according to junior quarterback Nathan Clayton. “It was an honor to be recognized as someone who was well suited due to having good grades, and it always feels good to lend a helping hand.”
For junior wide receiver Jaelen Jefferson, the effort he puts into mentoring struggling elementary students is the same work ethic he brings to the football field.
“I put in my all each week, seeing each kid progress to success.”
Jackson not only excels as a student athlete, but his own struggles as a youngster in elementary school make him an ideal role model for kids on a similar path.
“Back in elementary school, I battled with behavior and anger issues. At the time, I didn’t realize the magnitude of how your attitude and character affects your overall education. This is why being a Buff Buddies mentor is important to me; seeing these kids is like seeing a reflection of my younger self.”
To coach Walker, the program represents a win-win for the community, as well as does his daily goal of developing his players into servant leaders.
“The ‘me first’ mentality saturates our lives, so the fact that they are willing to serve others speaks volumes of them as a young person.