‘Student’ Comes Before ‘Athlete’ at St. Francis Prep

St. Francis Prep senior football players Jonathan Nguyen, left, and Payton Buchanan, right, assist sophomore Edward Diaz, center, as part of the school’s student-athlete mentoring program. (Photo: Courtesy of Rich) Carroll)

The legendary pro football coach Vince Lombardi — a graduate of St. Francis Prep’s Brooklyn location — has many famous quotes, including: 

“The dictionary is the only place that success comes before work.” 

Similarly, the dictionary is the only place where “athlete” comes before “student.” The current football program at St. Francis Prep, Fresh Meadows, has developed a way to ensure its student-athletes are always prioritizing their academics before athletics. 

Starting this school year, the football program instituted a student mentoring program in which upperclassmen on the varsity team spend individual time with underclassmen to assist them with their schoolwork and help them adjust to life in high school. 

Football was the first sport in the school to adopt this program, and already the winter and spring sports are looking to follow the model. The mentor program was adapted from the football program’s team study hall, which still exists. 

All students on either the freshmen, junior varsity, or varsity football teams partake in study hall. The mentor program is for students who need additional assistance, and they can rely on their peers for hands-on academic support. 

“The mentors have stepped in and been amazing,” said Rich Carroll, Prep’s head varsity football coach. “It’s been so good for the culture of the program to have our older players mentoring the younger players and letting them know that they were once in their place. Hopefully, the younger guys will be able to give back to pass along that mentorship to the next group of students coming up.” 

Over the summer, Carroll sat down with St. Francis Prep Director of Admissions Lisa Schaefer to map out a program specifically for football players who needed extra help with their studies. Tapping the upperclassmen to spearhead the program served a dual purpose: Not only did the younger students receive support, but the seniors also gained important leadership skills that will surely help them in life. 

“It felt like we needed to give some kids a bit more support,” Schaefer said. “We spoke to the leaders of the varsity football team and started matching them up. I think it gave a confidence boost to them. They’re not just leaders on the field but off the field as well.” 

More than 10 seniors are serving as student mentors — some of whom have several underclassmen under their guidance. The group meets twice per week during the same time as the entire football program’s study hall. 

In addition to helping younger students with curriculum-specific assignments, the mentors teach their mentees about how to communicate with their teachers, how to advocate for themselves in the classroom, and how to properly balance their time between their studies and football. 

“It’s helped me realize that not only are people looking at me on the field, but they’re also looking at me off the field as someone who they would want to emulate,” said Payton Buchanan, a senior varsity versatile two-way player from Rosedale who serves as a mentor and team captain. “Getting their work done and getting good grades will help them earn certain opportunities that have been granted to me.” 

At St. Francis, there’s no stigma whatsoever when it comes to a student seeking extra help. For the freshmen and sophomores, high school is a huge transition, especially for a public elementary school student attending the largest private Catholic school in the country. 

“It helps me because I get home late so I get most of my work done before practice,” said Far Rockaway native Edward Diaz, a sophomore running back, defensive tackle, and team captain on the junior varsity team who works closely with his mentor, senior varsity linebacker Jonathan Nguyen. “It helps me stay focused in the classroom and not just on the field.” 

“Student” always comes before “athlete” in high school sports, and once again, St. Francis Prep is ensuring its student-athletes are fully prepared academically for their next chapter.