Down. Set. Weld.
Football in the South means one thing: preparation and lots of it. But for senior Central High School defensive end Laquinton Richardson, something was getting in the way. While working on the tackling dummy at practice on a warm summer afternoon, he realized something wasn't right with the six-man tackling sled.
“It locked up on me—I guess I hit too hard,” said Richardson to laughter.
It wasn’t his experience on the field that told him it was broken; it was his experience in the classroom. Richardson has taken welding courses with instructor Matt Freeman, a welder by trade who felt called to teach at Tuscaloosa Career & Technology Academy.
"It was broken because of the weld,” Richardson said. "You could tell it had been replaced before, but it wasn’t done right.”
That’s when Richardson pointed out the problem to head Falcons’ football coach Dennis Conner.
“I asked him, ‘do you think Mr. Freeman could replace this?’ He said ‘yeah',” recalled Conner.
That’s when the football coach and the welding instructor huddled to devise a game plan of their own. Freeman could fix it, but he would need backup. His pick: Laquinton Richardson.
“He is incredible at being mechanically inclined,” said Freeman. “He really cares about what he does. He’s just a great guy.”
Two days later, Freeman arrived at the Falcons' practice field with welding equipment in tow. That’s when Conner pulled Richardson from the practice field.
With the sun setting, the teacher and the student-athlete—still in his jersey—began the repairs. For Richardson, this was the first opportunity to take what he learned in the classroom and apply it to the real world. Afterward, he put the equipment down and returned to the practice field.
For Conner, it was about making sure student-athletes had safe equipment on which to practice the correct technique. For Freeman, it was a moment of pride to see his student work on a task that he wants to one day call his career.
“It’s definitely another paycheck. It’s hard to describe to see that they appreciate that are working with their hands and the next thing you know they are in love with working with their hands,” said Freeman.
Learning by doing, it’s a key component of the Tuscaloosa City Schools’ strategic plan. Conner said it’s moments like these where his role of as a teacher and a coach intersect.
“That’s a tool that he will be able to use the rest of his life of being able to weld,” said Conner. I’m a football coach; I’m not going to be able to weld anything—period. I would be scared.”