YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – JR Tellington was stealing, smoking and being moved from home to home before Chaney High School football coach Chris Amill showed him a better path.
Coaches at Chaney and East high schools provide their student-athletes with much more than preparation for an upcoming opponent; they instill life lessons in them.
Tellington’s change started before his junior season and it continues. He has offers to play football from Tennessee State University and other colleges.
Chaney’s coaching staff took Tellington and a handful of his teammates to collegiate football camps over the summer, showing them life after high school and letting them be noticed by college scouts. Tellington talks about improving his game, and then studying welding and engineering after he leaves Chaney.
Amill saw the potential in him, Tellington says, even taking him to a recent Tennessee State University game played in Canton.
“I was looking at myself, ‘How come I can’t do this?’” says Tellington, a 6-foot-2, 250-pound defensive end. “Then after that, I just started to try to change my life even more.”
Finding a balance between success on and off the field is what Tellington needed to understand, Amill says.
“Then, everything will fall in place,” he says.
Amill understands mentoring players here is much different than at suburban or rural schools.
“I say all the time that the last thing we get to do is coach football,” he says. “If all we had to worry about was to show up and practice football and play games, we would be state contenders yearly.
“It’s just so much more of a dynamic that goes on here that we have to deal with. The wins are going to come. But let’s focus on changing lives and making things better.”
Former East High School graduate Christopher Fitzgerald is a 6-0, 295-pound sophomore defensive end playing at Youngstown State University.
Lack of food, finances or other struggles plagued some of his teammates at East, but he says those players need to persevere through the adversity. Fitzgerald spoke to the Golden Bears team this summer.
“You can overcome anything,” he says. “Keep your head up, and just keep trying. You’re going to get opportunities. You have to be ready for the opportunities that come your way.”
East has strong alumni support. Parents, teachers and administration funded a weight room upgrade a couple of years ago, purchased new uniforms and provide food for the players and coaches.
Team parent Tammy Shingleton, who coordinates a lot of the fundraising, says feeding the team costs between $286 and $450 per meal.
With the cost of transportation, officials, insurance, uniforms and other essentials vital to the team, costs may be around $40,000 per year, East football coach Mark Assion says.
“You’re looking at a significant amount of money that can be raised by the district. But there’s also outside needs that have to be met,” he says. “That’s why we’re so blessed to have Tammy.”
She has spent her own money on this program, donating belts for weightlifting. Shingleton says if it were not for the additional support from the school’s alumni and other aid, East would not be able to field a team. The support helps defray the pay-to-play costs for players – something most of them cannot afford.
“In order for our programs to run, we do have to have all this,” Shingleton says.
Water, snacks, gas money to transport players home or to practice, along with hotel rooms and other things to fund college camp trips around the country are paid for by the Chaney coaching staff.
“So it’s hard to put a dollar amount on it. But you know, coaching here you have to be a special person because you really do give a lot of time and your resources while you’re here,” Amill says.
East’s strong alumni system and other donors to its program mean a lot to Fitzgerald and many other past and current Golden Bear players.
“It means a lot to kids when you see people they don’t know or know nothing about come to help them,” he says. “A lot of kids don’t have that support system.”
Amill says friends from his days at Cardinal Mooney High School, where he coached and is a graduate, have donated food and other needs to the program.
Youngstown-born Maurice Clarett, one of the best high school and collegiate players to come from the Mahoning Valley, has written checks for a local caterer to feed the Chaney football team after the double sessions during August.
He adds the Rizzi family provided fruit, barbecue pulled pork and other items. Chaney principal Rob Kearns grilled hamburgers and hot dogs before the team’s first game.
“There’s just too many different people to even try to name them all,” Amill says. “They’ve been tremendous.”
When Chaney football returned as an Ohio High School Athletic Association program in 2019 after almost a decade-long hiatus, the Cowboys struggled to find enough equipment.
The Cleveland Browns stepped in as Chaney was one of 13 high schools throughout northeastern Ohio to receive more than $10,000 worth of gloves, cleats, practice jerseys, game pants and arm sleeves.
Amill kept in touch with the Browns, posting on social media and showing how his team members were grateful for the gifts.
This summer, the professional football team told the Chaney coach to come to the Cleveland area to get some more equipment for his team.
Amill reached out to his friend, Assion, to see if East needed any equipment as well.
“That’s something we do as Youngstown City Schools – look out for each other,” Amill says.
Former Chaney football standouts Brad Smith and Justin Hood not only provide financial support to the program, but also instill life lessons for these young players.
Hood, now a Green Bay Packers assistant coach, came to speak to the team in June.
Smith, who went on to a collegiate and professional football career, came back to practice with Chaney. Smith lives in Texas with his wife and children.
“Success isn’t always how much money you have, but how much you give back – being that good father, being that good husband, and being a good person in the community,” Amill says. “That’s where your success comes from.”
For now, Tellington is trying to forge his own path toward success – overcoming life’s obstacles to embrace his current status on and off the field.
“I just try to be a good leader, a good person they can look up to,” he says.
Pictured at top: Chris Amill is the head football coach and dean of students at Chaney High School.