WARREN – A human chain morphs into a circular formation, inevitably surrounding Steven Arnold.
The head football coach at Warren G. Harding High School peers around at his student-athletes wearing the team’s gold, white and black colors. The skin color beneath those uniforms never matters as the players interlock hands and listen to his instructions.
The football huddle is more than players listening to a coach. Arnold says it’s about playing for and helping each other – a premise at the core of the Build the Bridge Initiative.
“That brotherhood is about that huddle,” Arnold says.
On March 16, the Build the Bridge Initiative honored Arnold by presenting him with its Coach of the Year award for a mentor from a predominantly Black school. The initiative also bestows the honors on a coach from a predominantly White school, naming Brunswick High School head football coach Mark Pinzone.
The initiative started in 2020 after the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in high-profile cases that spawned national outrage, says Kahari Hicks, one of the four founders of Build the Bridge. Hicks, an assistant football coach at Cleveland Heights High School, presented Arnold with a football with the Pro Football Hall of Fame logo on one side and the Build the Bridge emblem on the other.
The goal of the coach-led project is to get young people of different races to sit and eat together, discuss race relations and interact during projects. Other area teams, including Niles McKinley, Ursuline, Chaney and East, participated in Build the Bridge last season.
When COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, teams will scrimmage with their partner schools have in-person race-related discussions between coaches and players and eat meals together. Locally, Niles McKinley and Harding; East and Ursuline; and Chaney and Twinsburg were partner schools.
More than 80 northeastern Ohio teams participated in Build the Bridge in 2020. All of the them were invited to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton last summer to tour the building and have discussions.
Hicks recalls Arnold speaking at one session, delivering a passionate speech about what it means to be a Black football coach.
At the event, Chicago Bears lineman James Daniels shed light on the University of Iowa football team’s racial disparities, which led to the dismissal of the team’s strength coach. Arnold shared his views on the Iowa situation with the Build the Bridge group after discussing it with Daniels, who played at Iowa and Harding High.
“It was things that moved us, his overall commitment to working with kids,” Hicks says of Arnold. “Warren is a very diverse place. Working with kids of all colors and promoting love and kindness is something that really resonated with us. We felt like he was a deserving recipient.”
The Build the Bridge project invited the Olmsted Falls and Cleveland Heights football teams to the Cleveland Browns facility in Berea this year, where the two teams constructed steel benches and talked to one another.
Hicks says 14 northeastern Ohio teams associated with the project will assist at a homeless shelter in upcoming months.
Arnold began a project two years ago called Keep It Real Monday, where he has honest conversations with his players to discuss race relations and police brutality. He corralled some Warren-area speakers to speak to his players.
Arnold foresees more in-depth discussion about social issues in the 2021 Build the Bridge campaign.
“You have to be able to talk about racism without getting offended so you can have honest dialogue,” he says. “I can’t tell you how you feel. And you can’t tell me how I feel. But we have sincere dialogue about what’s taking place.”
The Pro Football Hall of Fame supported Build the Bridge through its kickoff campaign last summer, providing coaches and players access to the Canton-based sports museum, says Rachel Gutting, the HOF’s director of communication and strategic initiative.
The Hall started the Huddle Up America campaign in 2017, encouraging people to work as a team.
Build the Bridge was a cohesive fit to the HOF’s campaign, Gutting says.
“It was a perfect alignment there to help everybody fulfill that mission of huddling up and coming together,” she says. “It doesn’t matter what race, religion, gender that you are. We can all work together and help make it a better world and place for all of us.”
Pictured: Warren G. Harding High School head football coach Steven Arnold holds the Build the Bridge Coach of the Year award.