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Youth Sports Heroes of the Month: Queen Creek (Arizona) High School Football Team

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Attending Queen Creek High School was a daily ordeal for 16-year-old sophomore Chy Johnson, who faced unrelenting taunts from bullies who would punctuate their insults by throwing garbage on her and shoving her in the hallways. Most days, she came home crying, unable to resist the indignities alone.

School bullies often seek out the most vulnerable victims, classmates who appear “different” for one reason or another and cannot defend themselves. Chy Johnson unfortunately fit the description. She attends regular classes, but she has microcephaly, a genetic brain disorder that has left her head smaller than average and causes her brain to operate at a third-grade level.

The high school found itself unable to provide Chy the protection that her mother requested, and that students deserve when bullies force them to run the gauntlet. Almost in desperation, her mother turned to a family friend, senior honor student Carson Jones, and asked him only to try to identify the bullies so that she could pursue further action.

She emailed the right person because Carson was the starting quarterback on the high school’s undefeated football team – and because he holds an abiding sense of right and wrong. Carson did more than Chy’s mother could have expected, enlisting his teammates to befriend and protect her daughter. The Bulldogs chose to lead by example because Carson recognized that confronting the bullies “probably would have created more problems than it would have solved.”

Carson, first-string running back Tucker Workman, and other football players invited Chy to sit with them at lunch in the cafeteria. Team members protected her by taking turns walking her to class and accompanying her in the hallways. Colton Moore and other players made sure to sit near her in class.

Without confrontation or altercation, the bullying stopped. Chy no longer came home crying, dogged by physical and emotional distress from humiliation, anxiety, and fear for personal safety. Now she looked forward to school, knowing that “I won’t get hurt again. . . . [The bullies are] not mean to me because all my boys love me.”

Serious Public Health Problem

Local, national and international media reported the Queen Creek Bulldogs’ story because its lessons resonate beyond the walls of one southwestern high school.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified school bullying as a “serious public health problem” nationwide because of the profound physical and emotional toll it exacts on victims like Chy Johnson. The U.S. Department of Education calls school bullying an “urgent social, health, and education concern,” and the World Health Organization even calls it a “major public health problem” and a “psychosocial hazard” worldwide.

The disturbing numbers tell the story. More than 43 million children in the United States attend public schools each year. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development recently found that approximately 30% of students in grades six through ten have been bullied, or have bullied other children “sometimes,” or more often, within a semester.

The CDC reports that in 2010, 20.1% of students had been bullied on school property and 16.2% of students had been electronically bullied. Every year, bullying leaves thousands of student victims emotionally and physically unable to fully enjoy the benefits of public education. “Freedom from fear of bullying is not enough to ensure successful learning,” summarizes one researcher, “but it is a necessary condition for effective learning.” Statutes in 49 states now require teachers and administrators to take meaningful measures to combat bullying, but Carson Jones and his teammates show how students themselves can support and protect their victimized classmates.

Winners On and Off the Gridiron

The Queen Creek Bulldogs football team sought initially to influence only their classmates, but their influence ended up reaching much further. The school’s athletic director said that the players reminded him that “there is always someone around us that we can help and make feel better.” Hall of Fame NFL quarterback Steve Young recognized the Bulldogs for “choosing to do the right thing for the right reason.” The team’s personal resolve, he said, “makes us all want to be better, and that’s the greatest example you can have.”

When the Queen Creek story broke in late October, running back Tucker Workman said, “It feels good to know that we helped someone else because . . . everything for us is going well, but someone else needs to feel good too.” Things were going well indeed, because the team was undefeated with a few games left.

On November 9, the 14-0 Bulldogs -- already winners off the gridiron -- won the 3A Arizona state championship by defeating Desert Edge High School, 9-7, with a two-point safety with only twelve seconds remaining in the title game. Carson Jones and his teammates had taken Chy Johnson under their wings for weeks before his mother first heard about it when Arizona’s state legislature announced that it would honor the players early in 2013 for their anti-bullying efforts. She understood the long silence when her self-effacing son said that what the team did “wasn’t a big deal.”

Carson was wrong about that. Sometimes the most enduring victories -- the victories that are a big deal -- never find their way onto the scoreboard.

Sources: Microcephaly; Trent Toone, Kindness in Arizona High School, Deseret Morning News, Nov. 9, 2012; Kris Bosworth et al., Factors Associated With Bullying Behavior in Middle School Students, Journal of Early Adolescence 1999;19;342; Rick Reilly, Sports Illustrated, Special TeamESPN (Nov. 1, 2012); Abrams DE, Bullying as a Disability in Public Elementary and Secondary Education, 77 Missouri Law Rev. (2013)(in publication).