Robert Hampton knows all too well the dangers of being a Lincoln High School student. A product of the school himself, Hampton, head football coach at his alma mater since 2007, has seen some of his former players fall victim to the streets of inner-city Jersey City.
“I would have loved to have more saints than sinners, but that’s not the case,” says Hampton, who was once a successful music producer and later left a lucrative Wall Street position to return to Lincoln to teach and coach. “I’m not going to deny that. They took the left turn in life.”
Hampton figures that as many as nine of his former players are currently in jail for a variety of reasons.
“It hurts me personally,” he says.
“They understand that life is a journey, and football is just a small part of it.”
“He was murdered,” Hampton says. “That was the worst phone call I ever received in my life. There are always going to be those moments that tug at you, those kids that you wish you helped.”
That’s the nature of the beast at Lincoln. For years, it’s had a negative reputation. It’s been said that good kids, good students, and good citizens do not go to Lincoln. Rather, it’s where bad kids go before they head off to prison.
Tyquan Simmons, a wide receiver/running back/defensive back for the Lions, knew all about the reputation. So did his mother, Kenya Pettiford.
When Simmons wanted to transfer from St. Anthony, where he went for about three weeks as a freshman, to Lincoln, Pettiford was livid.
“She was trying her hardest to not let me come here,” Simmons says. “I knew that St. Anthony wasn’t working for me and I had the opportunity to transfer right away. She knew the reputation that Lincoln had. She said, ‘Lincoln’s bad. You can’t go there.’ I just had to put that all out of my head.”
Turning it around
That negative image is changing, thanks to the exploits of the Lincoln High Class of 2015.
Just how much?
For one, two-way standout lineman Diasjon Robinson stands to be the first Lincoln football product to sign a national letter of intent with an NCAA Division I school since Jerome Ledbetter signed with Boston College in 1998.
Robinson, who is a devastating defensive lineman, recently gave a verbal commitment to play next fall at the University of Massachusetts, after considering other offers as well. He also throws the discus and the shot put, winning the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I indoor state championship in the shot put last winter.
Even more impressive, Robinson is the president of the school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, carrying a grade point average of 3.4.
“One of the first questions I asked Coach Hampton was whether there had ever been an African-American football player to ever be president of the National Honor Society,” Robinson says. “I liked that idea. I want people to know that.” He was, in fact, the first football player to be elected to the National Honor Society.
Robinson plans on having a double major at University of Massachusetts in criminal justice and mechanical engineering.
There’s more. Terrance Barfield is an offensive tackle and defensive end. He is considering offers from Temple, Towson, Monmouth, and James Madison. He carries a 2.7 GPA.
“We definitely want to prove people wrong,” Barfield says. “We have pride here. We all work together and we all have discipline. I knew football would get me far in life. That’s why I came here.”
Simmons is also a member of Lincoln’s National Honor Society and has a title as well.
“I’m the Parliamentarian,” Simmons says.
Simmons likes being the most versatile Lion player.
“I can do it all,” Simmons says with a sly laugh. “I definitely love it, because I’m not only a threat at one position. Coach puts me in there to make plays.”
Simmons carries a 3.4 GPA. He is being recruited by Fordham, Holy Cross, Lafayette, and Lehigh. Yes, that Lehigh. Just the idea of any student from Lincoln considering an institution such as Lehigh is remarkable, never mind a football player.
“I take a lot of pride in being a student-athlete,” Simmons says. “I take just as much pride at what I do in the classroom.”
Like Robinson, Simmons also participates in track and field.
When he makes his college choice, Simmons plans to major in sports management or business and marketing.
“Coming to Lincoln gave me a better opportunity than going down the wrong path,” Simmons says. “I think I could have. Playing football helped a lot. There’s not a lot of time to do anything else. We stay together all the time. There’s like this family bond. Instead of hanging out and getting into trouble, I come here, work out, go home, eat, sleep and come back here again. I don’t have time to get into trouble.”
Football paves the way
Stephon Jeter is another Lincoln player being looked at by colleges, both for his academic and athletic prowess. But he’s not looking to go to school for football.
“I know my academic achievements will send me to a better school,” says Jeter, who carries a 3.4 GPA. “I don’t plan on playing football.”
Jeter, a middle linebacker, hopes to go to Rutgers, the same school that his mother attended.
So there are four members of the Lincoln football team, four members of the Lincoln Class of 2015, doing their best to eliminate the stigma attached to their school.
“I feel like a proud father,” Hampton says. “I’m not going to sugarcoat that. When I see these guys being recruited as student-athletes, well, we couldn’t say that in the past. We’ve been trying to achieve this for a long time. Having character is really important, not just on game day, but all the time.”
Hampton says that he is just as proud of Lincoln grads who moved on to college, like Ronald Butler, who is currently a wide receiver at Utah State, and Lamar McKnight, who is a quarterback at Middle Tennessee State.
Eric Pridgen is on the Dean’s list at Winston-Salem State in North Carolina. Teddy Spann is considering Brigham Young and the University of California-Davis. Ty Stevens is headed to another Lincoln, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
“We have more guys doing positive things,” Hampton says. “On this year’s team, we should have 13 kids going on to college. That number is beyond comprehension. We never had that many kids ever. They’re getting a chance to play football and get an education. They understand that life is a journey, and football is just a small part of it. They have intellectual curiosity and want to learn more.”
Football for football’s sake
Not to mention, they’re a pretty good football team. The Lions should be one of the best NJSIAA Group II programs in the state in 2014 and have a chance to become the first Jersey City public school to win a state title since Lincoln won a Group III crown in 1981.
That’s the driving force behind the Lions. Ask them about their main goal, and they all give the same answer: They have their sights set on a state title.
“We want to get the ring,” says Jeter, who will study communication and graphic arts in college. “We’ve been so close the last two years. We lost in the first round two years ago and last year in the semifinals. It makes me work harder. We don’t work hard just one day. It’s every day. We have great consistency in what we do.”
“The ring is everything,” Robinson says. “We’ve been too close not to get it. We were one game away last year.”
Regardless of what happens on the gridiron, the Lincoln football program has done wonders to break down longstanding barriers.
“People will be surprised what they hear about us,” Simmons says. “They won’t believe it. They’ll say, ‘It can’t be Lincoln. It’s a bad school.’ They’re going to be very surprised.”
“People usually fear what they don’t know,” Jeter says. “I’d say, ‘Once you come here, you’d like it.’ We’re winning, both on the field and in the classroom.”
Hampton, who prides himself “on being a good historian,” believes that Lincoln has a lot of positive history.
“Valerie Harper went here,” Hampton says. “Kool and the Gang went here. There are wonderful stories about Lincoln, but since it became this ugly place, no one knows those stories. We’re winning football games, so that shows it’s a better place. But what our kids are doing in the classroom is a better story. I think these kids are busting down the stereotypes. If you get to know these kids, you’ll see that they’re more than football players. They’re solid citizens.”—JCM