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After 4 of His Players Died From Gunshots, Alabama Football Coach Focuses on Violence Reduction

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Tim Vakakes, head football coach, Spain Park High School. (HOOVERSUN.COM)

Alaina Bookman

AL.com

This is another installment in The Birmingham Times/AL.com/CBS42 joint series “Beyond the Violence: What can be done to address Birmingham’s rising homicide rate.”

Timothy Vakakes has seen four of his former football players die recently from gunshots.

Vakakes coached at Jackson Olin High School in Birmingham for nine years and said he developed meaningful relationships with many players. But he often thinks about those who later died tragically: Aven Mitchell, 21, Keyon Pollock, 22, and Isaiah Harris, 22, were all good kids who loved participating in their football program, he said.

Now the head football coach at Spark Park High School in Hoover, Vakakes said he often thinks about how to be a positive role model for the young men on his teams. As Birmingham and Jefferson County wrestle with ongoing issues of gun violence and homicides, experts say teachers, mentors and coaches can play a critical role in supporting young people and encouraging positive life choices.

Vakakes, who has worked in Birmingham metro schools for the past 15 years, said he spends at least five minutes during every practice talking to his players about what it means to be a man, including lessons about responsibility, integrity, making good decisions, how to handle adversity, leadership and being trustworthy.

“I feel like those are the most important five minutes of our program,” Vakakes said.

Some players take pictures of these lessons about perseverance and determination and use them as screensavers on their phones.

“He started the devotionals when he realized that these kids need more than just a coach,” said DaRon Arrington, who has worked with Vakakes at Jackson Olin and now at Spain Park.

Vakakes said he often thinks about what he could have done differently to save the young men he has coached who have since died.

“Everytime it happens, it’s a rough one. My experience with Aven and Pollock and Isaiah, they were really good kids. All three of those kids were leaders for us. They did what was demanded of them,” Vakakes said. “They were all good football players. They were all good people.”

Mitchell graduated in 2018. He was a wide receiver. His jersey number was 1.

The other three players graduated in 2019. Pollock played tackle and guard. His jersey number was 54. Harris was a wide receiver and running back. His jersey number was 18.

Lakevin Debruce, another one of Vakakes former players, was shot and killed on Nov. 19, 2023, at the age of 22. He played free safety and strong safety. His jersey number was 4.

Pleasure To Coach

During Debruce, Harris and Pollock’s senior year, the team went undefeated. Vakakes said that was the best season in the school’s history, going 10-0.

“They were big time parts of the turnaround of our program. They were a pleasure to coach, they were hardheaded, just like all boys are. They were part of a bigger purpose, those few years they really put our program at Jackson Olin on the scene,” Vakakes said.

Arrington, now Spain Park’s offensive line coach, said he also remembers his former players. Debruce was always smiling. Mitchell was a jokester. Pollock was a hard worker and often visited the new players at practice and offered them advice after he graduated. Harris was goofy once he came out of his shell and he loved to dance.

“Once our players started realizing that we really cared about them, that’s when our program really started to change,” Arrington said. “I could tell a story about everyone of those kids. That’s why when stuff like that happens, it takes you for a spin. And not a good one.”

“We loved them and we had a really good coaching staff that surrounded them and we tried to just lead by example and give them something positive to be a part of,” Vakakes said. “They bought into where we were going as a program and that really speaks to their character.”

Another former Jackson Olin player, Cornelius Jennings, said he remembers how much Vakakes’ lessons impacted him.

“Our relationship was great. He’s a great guy,” Jennings said. “Everything was great. He was really teaching us how to be the best man we could be. He’d give you the shirt off his back. He’d give you all the advice. He wants you to be your own man. He wants you to handle your business like a man and present yourself as a man all the time.”

Jennings still calls and talks to Vakakes. They update one another on life and talk about their families.

“Coach V had faith in me. Everybody didn’t expect me to grow into who I am and what I do today, but Coach V always had faith in me and he always made sure that I handled my business,” Jennings said. “Coach V gave me a lot of insight on coaching.”

Many Life Lessons

At 19, Jennings is now a sophomore and a student assistant coach at Faulkner University in Montgomery. He attributes his accomplishments to Vakakes’ many life lessons.

Arrington does, too. In 2007, Arrington, then a seventh grader, was in a life-altering car wreck. He suffered from skull fractures, brain bleeding and a broken leg. He was in a coma for three days.

When he opened his eyes and looked around the hospital room, he saw his mother, a close family friend and Vakakes staring back at him. At the time, Vakakes was a physical education teacher at Forest Hills Middle School in Fairfield.

“He would always say, ‘when I say you’re part of my family, you’re a part of us.’ So for me, early on, that was a moment that stuck with me,” Arrington said.

In ninth grade, Arrington began playing football. He passed out during practice because of a medical complication. He later discovered, at another hospital visit, that he had an enlarged heart.

“My First Call”

He could no longer play the game he loved because of his condition, but he still found ways to be involved, such as supplying the football players with water and sitting in on practices.

“In 11th grade he came to me and said, ‘Hey, do you want to learn how to start coaching,” Arrington said. “And I’ll never forget, every year he’d give notes to his seniors. He’d type them up personally, cut them out and pass them out to each senior. On mine it said, ‘Whenever I get my first coaching job, you’ll be my first call.’”

In 2013, after Arrington graduated high school, Vakakes called him to ask if he wanted to start coaching alongside him at Jackson Olin High School. The two coached together for almost 10 years, then transferred to Spain Park together.

“Ever since I met him, his character has been the exact same. He preached the same thing about trying to get kids to realize hey, ‘if you’re gonna use [football] for something, use it to get away from your environment to look at the world in a different point of view,’” Arrington said.

He said Vakakes has always been there for his players from offering students rides and feeding them when they were hungry to letting junior varsity players practice with the varsity team.

In one case, Arrington said he remembers being in middle school when he saw Vakakes helping a fellow student get a job at Niki’s West, a Birmingham restaurant. Arrington said he saw a big change in his classmate’s behavior.

In another case, years later, Arrington said he remembered Vakakes picking up one of his players from jail after receiving a call at 2 a.m. saying he had no one else to turn to.

“This was a kid who was two steps away from death or jail. He ended up going to school, he graduated, got his master’s degree and started a family, all because Coach V said he wouldn’t give up on him,” Arrington said.

“[Vakakes] tried to guide us away from all that stuff. Even through small stuff like keeping our shirts tucked, telling us to keep a fresh haircut, know how to tie a tie, know how to present ourselves in class,” he said. “He told us, if we were going to wear our jerseys, we had to be an example, a part of the program, not a part of the problem. That was something he instilled in us from an early age.”

Updated at 4:27 p.m. on 12/13/2023 to include full list of media partners