HUNTLEY – For the better part of 30 minutes, Brad Aney's classroom operates in silence. Anything different, the 25 football players seated at desks understand, will result in running.
An attendance sheet sits by the door, having been signed by those required to participate in the twice-a-week study table and by those who are there by choice. Aney – an assistant football coach who works with Huntley's offensive linemen once his high school teaching duties are over each day – makes sure the players know what will be expected.
"It's quiet, guys. I don't want to see any cell phones, no electronics," Aney says as players enter a classroom decorated with photos from student trips abroad along with a framed poster from the movie "300" with the words "Tonight, we dine in Hell" printed across it. "The only electronics I should see are calculators or anything you need to get your work done."
Aney reads names from the printout he receives each week, notating students who are carrying a C- or lower in any of their classes. If a player's name is on the list, he is required to attend Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon study table sessions. If they miss, they must make the time up the next morning. If they skip that, they won't play on Friday night. Other students - including those will straight A's – use the time to catch up on homework before practice begins.
Junior wide receiver Josh Esikiel has been a study table regular for more than a year now. After coasting through middle school, Esikiel quickly found things much different once he started his freshman year two years ago. He didn't take academics seriously and started to blow classwork off. By year's end, he was failing his math, English and Spanish classes.
"It was laziness pretty much," Esikiel said. "It was always, 'I'll do it the next day' and I never got it done."
The consequences of his lackadaisical attitude didn't hit home until Esikiel showed up for the first day of summer football camp prior to his sophomore year. Coach John Hart called Esikiel into a meeting and informed him that, because he failed three classes, he would be ineligible to play the entire season.
Esikiel was confused. After spending four hours a day in summer school making up his English class, Esikiel was convinced he had done enough to get his grades on track. But because he failed to meet IHSA standards, which require athletes to successfully complete five core classes each semester, Esikiel learned he was academically ineligible to participate in sports for an entire semester.
"I was shocked," Esikiel said. "I never thought it was like that. I never thought it would get to that point where I wouldn't be able to play a whole year of a sport."
Esikiel spent his Friday nights on the sideline of Huntley's sophomore games, wearing his jersey and street clothes. Despite not being able to play, Esikiel never missed a practice, working with Hart's team as a scout team player. But the real work was taking place in the classroom.
Esikiel was present at every Tuesday and Wednesday study table. Hart pulled him out of gym class to get in extra study time. At home, Esikiel's mother and 22-year-old brother, Tem, stayed on him. His brother would take his phone to keep him from calling or texting his friends. At school, his teammates stayed on Esikiel's case as well, telling him to get to class every time they saw him walking the halls or in the bathroom.
Still, Esikiel struggled at times to remain focused at study table.
"Sometimes, it would be like, 'Why am I even here? I can't even play', " he said. "But I was like, 'No, I've got to stick with this team to get better for next year."
For his part, Aney makes sure players take the time seriously and that the environment is conducive for work. When a player walked into Tuesday's study table late this week, Aney looked up from his computer.
"You have two gassers for being late," he said.
A few minutes later, a cell phone rang, breaking the silence. Aney asked whose phone it was. When the player acknowledged breaking the rules, Aney told him he will be running 100 yards after practice.
Aney said players get used to the rules quickly. He spends part of the study table reviewing players' grades with them, informing them what they need to do to remain eligible.
"We talk to players about being accountable in everything they do," Aney said. "Now they know there's consequences for failing in school and that it will hurt the football team on Friday nights.
"But to me, it's our jobs as football coaches not only to win football games, but to care about these kids and make sure these kids are going in the right direction in life."
Esikiel remains one of Huntley's study table success stories. The junior receiver remains eligible in all of his classes. He still takes part in study table sessions even though he's no longer required to be. He has seen a drastic turnaround in his grades – a lesson he will carry through the rest of his career.
"The goal now is better grades ever year," Esikiel said. "I want to prove people wrong that I'm not the student they thought I was. Now, it's time to show everything I've been working for. I don't ever want to even be mentioned in that 'ineligible' category anymore."
About this series: Huntley football coach John Hart has given the Northwest Herald and sports reporter Jeff Arnold all access to his program for the 2013 season. From coaches meetings and film sessions to the pregame locker room, Arnold will write weekly stories from inside the Red Raiders program, providing a glimpse into the lives of high school football players.