'Be a good dude:' Accountability for Life helps York High football players on, off field

  • The Accountability for Life Program at York High mentors at-risk adolescents.
  • The nonprofit program is moving into offices at 755 Vogelsong Road.
  • Program founder Russ Stoner, York High's head coach, says AFL has helped his players academically.

“Be a good dude.”

That’s the message that Russ Stoner has been stressing to his York High football players since he took over the program in 2016.

In an effort to reinforce that theme, Stoner has established the Accountability for Life Program. The Bearcats head coach is using the program to make sure that his players know it’s not just about being a great football performer — it’s about being a great person. 

Stoner isn’t just focused on making sure the product on the football field is better —which it has been since he took over — but that the lives of his players are better, too.

Since his arrival, Stoner’s Bearcats have gone from one of the worst programs in York-Adams Division I to one of the best. The year before he took over, in 2015, York High was 0-10. They went 1-9 in his first year. By 2018, however, the Bearcats were 11-2, the highest win total in program history. Since the 2017 season, the program has a 41-13 record.

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York High head football coach Russ Stoner is using his Accountability for Life Program to mentor his players, both on and off the field.

That record, however, isn’t Stoner’s only concern.

“I want the community to know that we are promoting how to be a good dude. You can either be a fraud or do it the right way,” Stoner said. 

In February, Stoner took his mission a step further — he began moving his program into a building at 755 Vogelsong Road in York City that will serve as the official AFL offices. The offices, which have a planned April opening, will feature a weight room, a kitchen and a lounge, a classroom and a turf field to continue the football workouts. He has plans to add a sports psychologist to help his players with the mental side of the game. 

A whiteboard shows some some of the pillars of the Accountability for Life Program for York High football players.

The nonprofit AFL Program is an idea that has been developed through Stoner’s 26 years of coaching football.

The former West York Area High School football standout built his ideas into a program aimed at helping his students learn the vital aspects of life.

The organization is funded through grants as well as private donations and sponsorships.

According to the AFL website, the program’s goal is to prepare and mentor “at-risk adolescents for life-long success” using an “old school” approach through the “powerful vehicle of sports.”

Changing a culture and changing lives: Stoner has watched many of his players graduate from high school and move on to college — something that was relatively rare before his arrival.

Changing the culture is a prominent saying in football locker rooms, but according to those in the AFL Program, Stoner has changed the lives of several of his players.

“It was bad before he got there,” former York High football player Nate Phillips said. “No kids in college, and the grades were horrible.” 

Stoner has simple rules for his players: Go to school, behave, and get good grades. If they aren’t doing that, then Stoner says those players won’t play on the team. The head coach implemented those simple propositions the minute he took over the program, and he made them clear to every one of his kids.

A York High player wears a shirt which is a tribute to head coach Russ Stoner during the first day of football practice at Small Field Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Bill Kalina photo

And he hasn’t just told them the rules and expected them to find out how to follow them on their own. He has set his players up with classes that help them get better at a subject they might be struggling in. 

“The game (football) translates to life. It gives you time management and teaches you, to succeed, you have to work well with others. It’s accountability,” Stoner said.

A major transformation: Before Stoner came to York High, the coach says, the football players had a 1.0 GPA.

Since 2016, he said, it’s been over 3.0 every marking period. The players’ average SAT score, according to Stoner, has been over 1,000 since preparation classes were started for his students shortly after his arrival.

The program has also provided the players with specialized workshops focused on teaching simple communication courtesies, such as saying please and thank you.

There’s also a focus on giving the students confidence in their studies while being able and willing to ask for help. Study halls and tutoring have been a key factor in improving the grades of his players. 

“My goal is to make sure every kid on my team is college eligible,” Stoner said.

More:York High football standout makes his college commitment

York High running back Jahiem White has committed to play on the NCAA Division I level for the University of West Virginia.
York High junior lineman Joden Nelson poses for a photo. After being named a York-Adams League Division I second team all-star in 2020, Nelson has received five NCAA Division I scholarship offers.

Two of Stoner's top players over the last couple of years, running back Jahiem White and offensive lineman Joden Nelson, have committed to play at the NCAA Division I level — White for West Virginia and Nelson for Towson.

The members of the program also do community service. They get help, even when they go off to college. The AFL Program has provided housing for homeless students who had nowhere to go.

Stoner has some detractors: Despite his successes on the field and off, Stoner does have his critics.

In June of 2020, the York City school board, during a raucous meeting, decided to rehire Stoner, despite a movement to have him dismissed.

The vote was 6-2-1.

During the meeting, one board member mentioned videos that showed Stoner cursing out players. There were also allegations that Stoner didn’t follow the board’s rules.

More:Russ Stoner remains York High's head football coach after raucous, marathon school board meeting

Despite the allegations of mistreatment and misbehavior, the overwhelming public sentiment at the meeting was to keep Stoner. Of the 25 community members who offered public comments that day, 21 were in favor of Stoner staying.

In addition, prior to the meeting, an online petition in support of Stoner garnered more than 2,600 signatures.

"I don't respond in any way to negativity,” Stoner said. “The road less traveled is the high road. We usually take the high road. We have proven data. When you have proven data, it doesn't matter what anyone says.”

York High head coach Russ Stoner addresses the team after the first day of football practice at Small Field Monday, Aug. 9, 2021. Bill Kalina photo

He added that: "If you're not being hated on, you're not doing anything well."

Parents have taken notice: Parents have taken notice of the impact of the AFL Program, becoming volunteers and immersing themselves in everything that the organization does.

Tiffany Watson, a single mother, has seen the difference that the AFL Program has made in the life of her son, Jayden Watson. A junior at the school, Jayden, in the words of his mother, has made a complete turnaround in his life.

“Before he got to York High, he had very bad grades and was not very attentive,” Tiffany Watson said. “Now he volunteers, grades are up and he is an honor-roll student. I don’t know where my son would be without the program.”

Watson says her son’s attitude has changed drastically. He helps unload trucks for veterans, as well as partaking in other volunteer services that AFL offers. Watson, a volunteer herself with the organization, has seen the impact Stoner and the program have had on other teens.

“They’ve given them outlooks at life they wouldn’t normally get, and there have been children that didn’t have anywhere to live. They have gotten them apartments and even provided supplies for them in college,” Watson said.

It took some time for Stoner's program to catch on, but as many as 30 players have become part of the AFL Program. Every member of the team has received free gear, training and food.

A player’s perspective: Phillips, for his part, didn’t have it easy before he came to the school.

He struggled with his confidence and asking others when he needed help. 

“It helped so much with my communication and leadership skills. We had workshops. We would act out different scenarios. It helped me come out of my shell. If I was struggling, I wouldn't say anything before, and now I can speak up for myself,” Phillips said.

Phillips was once a struggling high school student, but after meeting Stoner and joining the AFL Program, he became more confident in himself. He is now a student at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, studying HVAC and planning on possibly earning his social worker’s degree later. 

“People where I’m from think sports is the only option to make it out. AFL taught me there were other outlets and other ways to do that. I think it can do the same for other people, too,” Phillips said.

Stoner has stressed that it’s about more than what sport you can play — it's about what type of person you are. It’s a lesson that is reaching more and more people. Some parents are hoping that AFL can spread beyond York High to other schools.

Watson, for one, would love to see it.

“I would love other schools to come into the program or adopt a similar program,” Watson said.

— Reach Dante Green at dgreen@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @ydsports.