Phil Anastasia: Former Eagle Thomas Tapeh trying to make an impact as coach at Woodrow Wilson

"This place has opened my heart," former fullback Thomas Tapeh said of the Camden school. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
"This place has opened my heart," former fullback Thomas Tapeh said of the Camden school. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: September 28, 2012

If he takes a right on Federal Street, another right on Route 130, and hops onto the Walt Whitman Bridge, Thomas Tapeh can travel from Woodrow Wilson High School to Lincoln Financial Field in 20 minutes, tops.

But the former Eagles fullback has learned that high school football in Camden is worlds away from professional football in Philadelphia.

"I had no idea," Tapeh said of the challenges of coaching in one of the nation's most economically depressed and dangerous cities.

Not that Tapeh, 32, is complaining. He says he's been "blessed" with the opportunity to make an impact in the lives of the teenagers who are wearing those orange and black uniforms.

"This place has opened my heart," said Tapeh, who became Woodrow Wilson's coach in August. "These are kids. They deserve a chance to be somebody. They shouldn't be written off."

Tapeh is a football coach now, so he would like to win a few football games. But that's hardly a priority for a man who spends more time arranging for after-practice "character classes" and study halls and scrounging up meals than drawing up plays or designing defensive fronts.

Tapeh hasn't lost his competitive nature. This is a rock of a guy who was tough enough to play four seasons for the Eagles and another with the Minnesota Vikings at one of the sport's most physically demanding positions.

But he can't worry too much about the final score of Friday night's game at Camden Catholic when he has devoted much of his time and energy (and money) this week to providing food for his players.

"Some of these guys don't eat on a regular basis," Tapeh said during practice on Wednesday. "Today, we had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for them. A couple times a week, I'll run out to Sam's Club and buy eight or 10 rotisserie chickens so we can have a meal after practice."

Tapeh has gotten some help from the good folks at Del Buono's Bakery in Haddon Heights and Georgetti's restaurant in Cinnaminson, and he can't say enough about the efforts of assistant coaches.

But this a man on a mission who sometimes feels as if he's fighting against forces aligned against him.

It's not just his players' reluctance to change their approach.

"These kids don't understand discipline or structure," Tapeh said. "I had structure in high school, structure in college, structure under Andy Reid.

"They don't understand that, so we fight over that."

Far more daunting for Tapeh than his players' recalcitrance has been the petrified state of things in Camden and its struggling school system. He's finding out the hard way that's it's easier to gain yardage against the New York Giants than to be a change agent in a place that's often paralyzed by bureaucratic red tape and a lack of initiative and accountability.

"I compare it to digging for gold," said Tapeh, a social-work major at the University of Minnesota who is a counselor at East Camden Middle School. "You have to dig through a lot of dirt to get to the gold. I don't mind digging."

Like anyone who takes the time to look beyond the headlines, or the crime-scene footage on the evening news, Tapeh has found there's a lot of gold in Camden - strong families, good people, caring folks who share his passion for improving the lives of others.

"If we can make a difference with this team, then maybe we can make a difference with this school," Tapeh said. "Then maybe we can make a difference in this little community, then maybe in this city."

Veronica Daniels, whose son Quajan Daniels is a senior running back for the Tigers, said Tapeh has been "heaven sent" to Camden.

Woodrow Wilson senior two-way lineman Harry Greene said his new coach's "no-nonsense" approach is starting to make an impact.

"Guys are starting to realize how much he cares about us," Greene said. "He has a genuine relationship with everyone on the team."

Woodrow Wilson is 0-2 and likely in deep water Friday night at Camden Catholic, the No. 5 team in The Inquirer Top 10. Tapeh has too much football in his blood ever to downplay his team's chances, but he's trying to look beyond one game.

"You want to build something that lasts, you have to dig the foundation, then you pour, then you build," Tapeh said. "But first you dig."


Contact Phil Anastasia at panastasia@phillynews.com or on Twitter @PhilAnastasia. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports

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