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Making a U-Turn

"Making a U-Turn" Continued...

Issue: "Unto the breach," July 22, 2006

After a few more years of coaching and organizing events, he recruited a board of directors and incorporated U-Turn in April 1996. He quit his job that November (living off his savings to start) and registered as a nonprofit the following April. In the spring of 1998 U-Turn opened the doors on a warehouse leased for $1 per year from a local Christian businessman. U-Turn soon added basketball and strength training, and later other sports and eventually built its annual operating budget to $600,000.

One of the first staff coaches was Brigid Blair, a 6'2" forward from Oral Roberts University who later tried out for the WNBA's Washington Mystics. Everybody calls her Jam for "Jesus and me." She turned down a $60,000/year job as an assistant basketball coach at the University of Minnesota to come to U-Turn. "Paul called and said, 'My dream's come true,' and when I got here, it was just this shell of a building, barely a court, one Wal-Mart basket that was leaning, no heat, no kids, no clients, no money."

Since then Blair has coached and mentored and shared Christ with hundreds of young players, some of whom have gone on to stellar college careers. "I just live it out," she says. "Either I'm the truth in their eyes or I'm a liar, and for nine years my prayer has been that they see Christ in me."

Today the core of the U-Turn program is its Next Level training sessions for youth from age 8 up. For $40 per week (need-based scholarships available), athletes get two sport-specific group coaching sessions plus weight room time with a strength coach. All athletes must sit through a 15-minute devotional with every U-Turn training session.

U-Turn also has several elite "Warrior" teams. Don Gresham is the staff volleyball director. He is a retired banker and has coached the U.S. junior national women's team for 20 years besides his U-Turn team. Every one of his players in that time has been offered a college scholarship. He tells his high-school Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team, "If you think you're going to make it, you aren't working hard enough."

The success of the U-Turn Warrior program has attracted at least one whole team, complete with coaches. The current girls 13-and-under basketball team joined U-Turn a year ago as the defending state AAU Division I champions, and they won again this year.

Team manager Tina Harris-Cunningham says the team wanted an organization that was "heavily into AAU and would really promote our girls." U-Turn's Christian emphasis "really didn't play into [the decision to join], but we respect their values." And having the girls sit through the devotionals? "Oh, it's not a problem," she says.

Occasionally it is, for some. U-Turn is up-front about the spiritual part of the program, but families from other religions have pulled their children when they realize what that means. If that happens, according to Manning, "we've done our job. We've brought that parent to the cross." Mike Davis, the director of basketball and a Virginia Tech point guard from 1991-1994, adds that "many kids leave because they come in and hear what they don't want to hear. The Bible cuts to the heart."

Talmech Williams, a former All-American linebacker at Rutgers University, supervises one of several programs U-Turn operates with state and local authorities, such as Richmond's Department of Juvenile Justice. This past year U-Turn staff went to Green Elementary School on a pilot program sponsored by the office of Virginia's Attorney General. Once per week for an hour with each third-grade class (75 students in all), they taught respect and teamwork along with sports. "We had our work cut out for us," recalls Williams. "The first day, 25 jumping jacks had these kids bent over double, going, 'Can I have some water? My back hurts.'"

The program showed, he says, a strong correlation between the physical activity and improved grades and behavior. Over the first three quarters, the number of students teachers rated as having "below average" academic and behavioral skills went from 15 (academic) and 25 (behavioral) to four and zero.

Monday to Friday kids from the Alternative Education System (they have been tossed from the Richmond public schools) come in to U-Turn to play football or basketball as gym class. Most live in group homes and have behavioral problems. "They're like ice cream cones with those chocolate shells," says Rob Webster, a former rugby player at Old Dominion University and U-Turn's AES supervisor. "Hard on the outside, soft on the inside."

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