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Bellevue football’s winning ways anchored in a ‘family-oriented’ culture

by Karanja A. Ajanaku & Terry Davis, Special to TSDMemphis.com

For years, all that the Bobcats that have played football at Bellevue Middle School have done is win. A theatre-like sign in front of the school announces the latest news – a fourth straight state football championship.

Ask Principal Kevin Malone about the string that includes 57 straight victories on the gridiron and he is going to say these things: it’s not about him, the school has an extraordinary leader as head football coach, football is not the only sport in which excellence is being demonstrated and that at Bellevue, its not all about athletics.

“Sports, we try to put it on the back burner, but it is hard to not talk about it because we do so well,” Malone said.

What’s with the back-burner approach?

“Often times in our community that (athletics) is what we focus on. So, we really try to focus on our academics, but it is hard not talk about it (the athletic success).”

The latest run of football championships is just the next wave at Bellevue. The Bobcats also went undefeated from 1999 to 2003. Malone began his tenure as principal in 2003, when the Bobcats suffered their first loss in four years. Although Bellevue still won the championship that year, students teased Malone throughout the season that he was the jinx and the reason for them not going undefeated.

The Bobcats aren’t complaining now.

For the players that attend Bellevue, an optional school that allows students from across Memphis to attend, life is not all about football.

Kevin Malone has been the principal at Bellevue Middle School for 15 years. He says the key to success is to work hard and put a great team around you.
(Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku)

For Malone, the success of athletics is inextricably interwoven with Bellevue’s overall family-oriented approach.

“We really love our kids and we want the best for them and we have really high expectations for them. We really love on them here and we really give them hell when they mess up. We have a lot of rules at our school,” he said.

There is not a better way to show how you feel about the kids beyond the classroom than to attend events they are involved with, Malone said.

“It could be a child being baptized, we will try to make it there sometimes. It could be a funeral in a family, we try to have some representatives there. It could be our orchestra performing for a music concert fest, we try to be everywhere. It’s a serious amount of dedication. …”

Here’s where Malone again says, “It’s not just about me…This is not a feeble attempt to be humble…I’ve had some medical challenges over the last five or six years and each time I’ve been out, the staff has always stepped up. In fact, they go even beyond the expectations. It’s more than just school.”

The culture of Bellevue has yielded about 11 former members of the Bellevue administration that now are principals.

The run of four straight state football titles has come under the watch of coach Bryon Harris, the former coach of JP Freeman School. The athletic director, he also coaches the girls’ and boys’ basketball and the baseball team.

“When he came over here, I did not know what to expect,” said Malone. “He was a breath of fresh air.”

Harris, said Malone, is “a rare fellow. People sometimes put PE (physical education and athletics on the backburner, like I am trying to do so I can talk about academics as well. This man is impactful, though, because he is a man of integrity. He is a great role model.”

Harris was off campus while Malone was singing his praises. Reached by telephone, Harris said, “We are blessed to have some wonderful student athletes. Not only are they great on the football field, they are also great in the classroom.”

He shared the mentoring glory with his “wonderful coaches; assistant coaches that come out everyday, volunteer and put in a lot of work. They are passionate about out kids.”

As for the student-athlete reference, he said, “The way colleges are giving out scholarships, you’ve got to be a student first. We want to make sure that we prepare them for high school and also for college.”

Does he feel pressure to keep the winning streak going?

“No, no, no. It’s not pressure. We really don’t even really talk to our kids about winning. What we talk about is perfecting what we are trying to do. If we take care of that, and do right by people, then good things will happen.

“We’re not scared to lose. We practice (and put in the work) to win.”

Malone said Harris “understands our culture. You have to understand our culture and climate.”

To make his point about the importance of understanding the culture and climate, Malone talked about taking his son to the East High School-Cordova basketball game recently.

“If you don’t understand culture and climate and don’t understand our community in Memphis, you would think you were in the middle of some type of South Africa uprising in the 90s. It was straight up bedlam in there. Hip-hop music blaring, kids dancing, jumping 45 minutes before the game started. It was wild.

“What I saw as an African American male from Memphis, I loved it,” Malone said. “I wanted to be 16 again. …For the casual outsider that does not understand our culture and climate and they come in, they would say that it just seems out of control…To me it was very much controlled and Byron is the epitomy of that in a lot of ways.”

Harris, said Malone, grew up in Memphis and “represents what we want for all of our young men. I attribute the success I have had here (athletically) to him and Rod Gaston, who was the (previous) football coach….He (Gaston) is the principal at MASE (Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering) now. He was telling me the other day that a lot of what he learned here, he’s trying to implement there and it is working. Their basketball team is in the state tournament.”

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