Spotlight: Players learn more than football under staff member’s guidance

Twice a week after work, while still in his workday scrubs, Yale staff member Booker T. McJunkin heads out to an athletic field to coach the New Haven Venom, a semi-professional football team.

In the later evenings and on weekends, he spends hours doing a different kind of coaching: encouraging his players to sign up for courses, letting them know about job openings, teaching them new computer skills, or instructing them on how to write resumes or look their best during job interviews.

For McJunkin, a staff affiliate in orthopaedics at Yale, his job as a coach extends beyond football; It’s about giving young men a second chance.

“My team is made up of inner-city guys between the ages of 18 and 30 who otherwise could be out on the street selling drugs or involved in gangs, getting shot or shooting somebody else,” explains McJunkin. “They’ve often been written off. I see football not only as a positive outlet for them, but as a means of support. I’m teaching them about football, but I’m also helping to guide them in life.”

Good venom: McJunkin founded New Haven Venom last March, half a year after he started working at Yale, where he fits orthopaedic patients in splints and casts. He believes that there is a lack of resources for young adult men in the city who are floundering.

Before coming to Yale, McJunkin had started a similar football club for young men in Harlem, and saw how grateful many of his players on that team were to him for giving them a fresh start. The New Haven Venom club is part of the Big North East Football Federation, which consists of 18 teams from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The team currently has a 1-1-1 record for the fall season.

“While the ‘Venom’ in our name can have negative connotations, I remind everyone that we get powerful medicines from venom,” says McJunkin.

In the know: A former high school football player, McJunkin earned an athletic scholarship to attend Lamar University in Texas. After college, he tried out for several NFL teams, but never made the cut. In the early 1990s, he joined the military (serving in the Gulf), where he acquired his skills as a cast technician. After retiring from military service, the Yale staff member built several semi-professional football teams in New York.

“I love football, but it wasn’t until I started coaching that I realized how much control a football team can have over men’s lives,” he says. “Coaches decide when the guys come and go for practice, and how often they practice. At the same time, I was realizing how many young men needed mentoring and job skills. I decided I could do both — keep them off the streets by engaging them in the fun and hard work of the game, and use my role as a coach to encourage them in other ways that will help them achieve success.”

He recruited players all over the city by walking around neighborhoods and distributing flyers about New Haven Venom on the street and at community and athletic centers. New Haven Venom now boasts about 45 players.

He has their backs: With the support of volunteer coaches Jerry Gray, a security guard at the Yale University Art Gallery, and Hilbert Roberts, McJunkin readied the team for its first games last summer. McJunkin has almost singlehandedly provided the financial support for the team, buying all of the team’s equipment and even subsidizing some of the cost of its bus trips.

“I think the team contributes to making New Haven safe. I’d rather spend $200 of my own money to buy a kid a uniform than to read about that kid getting into trouble — or worse, getting killed — in the newspaper,” says McJunkin, who now is trying to raising money for team uniforms, as the first batch he bought were recently stolen from his car.

McJunkin says his biggest feat as a coach has been to earn the trust of his players.

“Trust doesn’t come easily to a lot of these guys,” says the Yale staff member. “But as we’ve gotten to know each other, we’re developing great relationships.”

‘Like a big brother’: David Jordan, a 29-year-old father of two young children, says McJunkin has given him a special opportunity. He spent a couple of years in jail, but has worked toward turning his life around, and is now a student in the management program at Albertus Magnus College. McJunkin invited Jordan to be the general manager of the team.

“He believed in me and gave me a chance, and I ran with it,” says Jordan. “He pushes me to become better, and that makes me push my teammates as well. We’re like a brotherhood. I’m older than a lot of the guys, and so I kind of look after them as young brothers. New Haven Venom is almost like a Big Brother program, except we all get to play a sport we love.”

Jordan’s teammate, 28-year-old James Douglas, has played on other semi-professional teams in Connecticut, and says that New Haven Venom is the only one that feels like a “family.”

“For some of these guys, this is all they have,” says Douglas. “Who knows where they’d be if we didn’t have the team. Being on this team has made me want to be a role model for some of the younger kids, to help them learn the ropes in minor league football. This team isn’t just for football. It is about helping each other.”

Daily inspirations: McJunkin makes one requirement of his players, which is that those who don’t work actively seek out job opportunities. The coach posts messages about job openings, EMT certification courses, and other opportunities on the team’s website and Facebook page, and has taught some of his players basic computer skills and software programs to help them in job searches.

“We do mock job interviews, so they know how to answer the kinds of questions they will be asked,” says McJunkin, who also posts frequent inspirational commentaries on the team’s sites.

The Yale staff member says that he has seen most of his players become more responsible since he started the team, but admits that some still test him.

“Some of these kids challenge me all the time,” he says with a laugh. “But they also want someone who will tell them what to do. To me, even though some of them are grown, they are still kids, and I’m doing this because I love being with these guys. I love kids, and it makes me happy to see them happy.”

Brandon Bright, who works at the Yale University Art Gallery, was recruited to play for the team by Gray, his supervisor. He says McJunkin quickly earned his respect.

“He’s very dedicated, and he knows his stuff when it comes to football and other things, too,” says Bright. “I try to follow his lead.”

New Haven Venom is seeking donations for uniforms and to cover the cost of travel to games. Visit the team’s website to donate or learn more. The team’s next home game will take place at 6 p.m. against the Somerset Bears on Saturday, Sept. 21 at Hamden High School, 2040 Dixwell Ave. in Hamden.