“The day is about perspectives and choices,” said San Francisco 49ers Chaplain Earl Smith to 19 rookie football players. “Choices that can lead one to prison or a National Football League career,” he added, at the start of a tour of San Quentin on June 14.
“It was mandatory, coming on this tour,” said rookie linebacker Aaron Lynch.
The San Quentin trip was part of an effort to encourage the young players, ranging from ages 20 to 23 years old, to make smart choices that keep them out of trouble and playing ball, according to Smith.
The players and coaches met with inmates who participate in various self-help programs.
The inmates reminded the rookies that a phone call could end a career, and a house party gone wrong can lead to a jail sentence. They urged the visitors to take advantage of the opportunity to develop, not just into professional football players, but also into role models.
“I played with Curtis Conway [former NFL wide receiver] at Hawthorne High School,” said inmate Kevin Carr. “Now he’s retired while I’ve been in prison.”
“Most of the people I played with back in high school are now retiring from the league,” said inmate Royce Rose, starting quarterback for the San Quentin All-Madden flag football team. Rose said as a teen he was a top 50 athlete in California.
The visiting players and coaches then broke into small discussion groups with the inmates to talk about the self-help, rehabilitative and educational opportunities at San Quentin.
“There are over 70 programs geared toward ‘restorative justice’ and rehabilitation at San Quentin,” said inmate Sam Hearnes. “But, when I first came to prison, people were separated by race. Walking into another group’s area could mean life or death. Just taking a walk to the toilet or stopping to tie your shoe meant having someone place security over you.”
Hearnes asked the players and coaches why they thought prisons are necessary in society.
“To modify behavior,” said 49er veteran safety C.J. Spillman. “Prison seems like an adult version of ‘time-out,’” added 49er rookie running back Carlos Hyde.
“I used to be you,” said inmate Isaiah Thompson-Bonilla to Hyde. “I played D-1 ball for seven years as a professional.” Thompson-Bonilla is a graduate of Ohio State University and a former Canadian Football League Grey Cup Champion for the Toronto Argonauts in 1986.
Next, the visitors walked the Lower Yard, where they met and conversed with hundreds of inmates. The inmates gave the players and coaches a round of applause and shouts of encouragement.
Shortly thereafter, an institutional alarm was sounded, requiring all inmates to be seated in place. Head coach of the 49ers Jim Harbaugh took the time to sign autographs and shake hands with inmates seated on the ground.
“I want to thank all the men that spoke to me. I learned a lot today,” said 49er offensive lineman Marcus Martin. “I met someone who grew up around the corner from where I grew up. That’s deep.”
“Awesome experience,” said rookie Trey Millard as the tour ended. “I‘ve never been to a prison before. I always wanted to see this one.”
–Rahsaan Thomas contributed to this story