On many Friday afternoons, several members of the Yale football team are not in class. They are not in the gym, nor are they in the library. Instead, they are teaching plank position, goal-setting and flag football to students half their size.
The beneficiaries of these various activities are the participants in the Next Future Leaders program, or “NFL,” a mentorship system directed entirely by Yale football players that runs independent from the Yale athletic department and the team’s coaches. Elementary and middle school students at the nearby Amistad Academy receive athletic and academic advice from several players about three to four times per semester, program co-founder Sebastian Little ’17 said.
“To see these guys interact with the students, and to see the young people look forward to it and say ‘Remember what that guy from Yale said?’ is proof: Not all education happens in the classroom,” said William Powers, a former teacher who has been involved at Amistad Academy for the past decade.
Powers, whose son, John Powers ’13, was a Yale defensive back, served as one of two points of contact between the Yale football program and Amistad Academy during NFL’s establishment in the fall of 2013. The other was Emily Morse, an Amistad reading teacher who taught former Eli captain Deon Randall ’15 when she was a middle school teacher in San Diego.
Nearly a decade later, Randall came up with the idea of a local mentorship program in his junior year and, alongside John Powers, piloted the program at Amistad Academy Elementary and Middle School, which are both part of Achievement First, a network of public charter schools that aim to close the achievement gap among urban students in need.
“After my initial talk with the kids, I realized the school was close, we had two points of contact at the school and the kids were just as excited to hang with us as I was when I was in their shoes,” Randall explained. “After the  season, I spoke to Sebastian [Little], I had him look over the proposal, he was on board and we took the rough proposal to Bill Powers and he was on board.”
Powers recalled the first time the Bulldogs came to Amistad: Armed with copies of an article detailing the difference between Democrats and Republicans, Randall and Little presented a brief overview of the two-party system to a group of boys at the school.
Though the boys eventually got to play outside, they were initially taken aback slightly by the 15-minute crash course in American politics.
“[The students] said, ‘Hey, Mr. Powers, what’s going on?’” Powers said. “And I said, ‘Hey, scholar-athletes have to work hard.’”
Through the program, the players have talked to younger students about the basics of physical fitness, stressed the importance of goal-setting and shared their experiences of being a college athlete at an Ivy League school.
And to practice what they preach about fitness, the mentors also play basketball, flag football and other field sports with students in the program. The physical element adds a bit of lighthearted fun to the life lessons taught in the classroom.
“Everything that happens takes energy, so there’s energy for this program,” Powers said. “The guys who come, the underclassmen, have gotten charged up on it. They appreciate it and I think they get a lot out of it. As long as that symbiotic relationship continues, so will the program.”
At least next year, that relationship will remain: Once Little finishes his Yale degree this fall, Silas Wyper ’18 and Rafe Chapple ’18 will take the reins. Chapple said he and Wyper are excited to continue what Little and Randall started, and that they plan to maintain the close ties between Amistad Academy and Yale football.
In working with Amistad, the Bulldogs are helping one of the more disadvantaged parts of the local community. According to the Achievement First website, 91 percent of Amistad Academy Elementary School students and 83 percent of those at Amistad Academy Middle School qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
“Part of our responsibility as some of the figureheads of Yale, as a group that gets publicity, is to take that and give it back,” said Little, who hails from nearby Cheshire, Connecticut and has also remained involved with his own alma mater, Cheshire High School, in a mentorship capacity.
The Bulldogs have visited a wide variety of classes, ranging from younger elementary school classes to eighth-grade classrooms.
Still, they are not limited to the children specifically involved in the program. Powers recalled an incident that happened last week with a much younger student.
“On [the Yale players’] last visit, there was a kindergartener who had a tough day and his teacher asked if he would like to take a walk and see some ‘college students’ to take his mind off things,” Powers said. “He subsequently stood enthralled for the next half-hour watching the ‘big kids’ play football with the middle schoolers. When the games were over, Sebby [Little], Rafe [Chapple] and Silas [Wyper] stuck around to introduce themselves. Not only was this child’s day turned around, but all who witnessed the exchange … were moved as well.”
Powers recalled the Yale football team’s emphasis on balancing engagement in classes, on campus and in the community, and he praised the NFL program leaders for finding that balance.
“It takes a certain commitment level to take an hour every other week, gather a group of guys on the team and demonstrate how impactful this program can be for a middle school student,” Randall said.
The former Yale slot receiver noted that football players provide an outlet for answers that students cannot get from friends, parents or teachers.
Powers added that the relatively narrow age gap between the Bulldogs and students allows them to connect on a close level.
“It’s fodder for cynics, but it works,” Powers said. “As a teacher, you can say, remember what Roger [Kilgore ’16] or remember what Sebastian [Little] said. ‘Sebastian said you have two ears and one mouth, so you should be listening twice as much as you’re talking.’”