Auriel Canales Rojas has been waking up with some aches and pains in recent weeks, but he isn’t worried about it.
The 7th-grader at Northwest Middle School is part of the Iron Rangers, a weightlifting club that aims to help students gain confidence, develop relationships and foster self-discipline.
The club meets after school on Wednesday afternoons, and Canales said KCS social worker Brian Tunstall – the group leader – has reminded them that the soreness means they’re building muscle.
“It makes me build strength and makes me feel confident every day,” Canales said.
A version of the Iron Rangers has met at Northwest intermittently for several years, but more recently the initiative has expanded.
An Iron Falcons club launched at Fulton High this year, and an Iron Navigators club is in its second year at Richard Yoakley School. New clubs are expected to launch at Holston Middle, South-Doyle Middle and Carter Middle next year.
In addition to the weekly meetings, participants get a t-shirt and a certificate of completion.
During a recent meeting at Northwest, Tunstall asked participants about their goals, which included losing weight, being able to focus and improving their grades.
The social worker encouraged the boys with a car metaphor, saying that working out can be a vehicle that helps you reach your goals. In an interview, he said the opportunity to connect with kids is “what makes my heart happy”:
“Middle school is a hard age for young men. They’re trying to find their identity and where they fit in. Weightlifting is a big confidence and self-esteem booster.”
Tyrell Ragland comes from a family of basketball players, but the West High School senior chose football at an early age.
That’s good news for West. The team is off to a 7-0 start this season, and as they prepare for a highly-anticipated showdown with undefeated Powell High School on Friday, Ragland has become one of its most important leaders.
“We’ve got four freshmen starting on the varsity,” Coach Lamar Brown said during a recent practice. “And Tyrell and the other seniors … have really taken a young football team underneath their wing and really guided and directed them and showed them what this football program is about.”
Ragland plays left tackle at West, and his football career may continue beyond high school. He’s received offers from schools including Culver-Stockton College and Mississippi Valley State University, the alma mater of former NFL wide receiver Jerry Rice.
Asked about his leadership philosophy, the offensive co-captain emphasized the importance of being responsible for your own actions, or your own “20 square feet” of space. Once you understand yourself, he said, then you can figure out how to lead others.
“Because everybody doesn’t handle situations the same way,” he added. “So you have to know your players, you have to know your brothers, you have to know your family … to figure out what would help them and make them better.”
After finishing 4-7 last year, West opened this season with a dramatic overtime win against Bearden, and hasn’t looked back since. The team is averaging more than 28 points in the first half of its games and is currently ranked 4th in the Knoxville area by PrepXtra.
Ragland said the turnaround has grown out of the team’s commitment to playing together as a family, and that sense of unity is part of what drew him to the sport. While his father and his siblings always loved basketball, Ragland said he enjoys the physicality of football and the sense of brotherhood.
But while his success on the field gets most of the attention, it’s not the only place where Ragland stands out. He’s a leader in West’s chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and his goal is to eventually become a teacher and coach.
Ragland cited the example of assistant coach Nate Martin, who is also a social studies teacher at West. “He will push you until you get it. He will encourage you to finish … He’ll tell you all these stories, and it just inspires you to do good and do better,” he said. “That’s what I want to do for kids in high school, kids in middle school … is help them find a way in life that they can succeed.”
The senior is already having an impact in the classroom. Amanda Sharp, a social studies teacher, had Ragland in a class last year, and said she has looked to him this year to help manage one of her larger classes, adding that “kids will … follow his lead.”
Sharp emphatically agreed that Ragland would be a good teacher, not only because of his aptitude for math but also because of his ability to relate to students.
“I’m so excited for him to become a teacher and see the relationships that he can form with kids,” she said. “Because I know that he’s going to be able to change some lives.”
In fact, that ability to relate to his teammates is already paying dividends. Ragland acknowledged that he’s not someone who leads with tough talk or a raised voice, but said that when a teammate is struggling he tries to help them figure things out.
After one recent game, he said, a teammate was frustrated by their own performance. “I told him … we all have bad games. Even the best players in the world have bad games, but they’re going to find a way to fix it and that’s what you’ve got to do.”