Alonzo Carter pulled up to McClymonds High School in his burgundy and peanut-butter-colored drop-top '87 Corvette. As he stepped out, wearing black knee-high leather boots, a leather jacket, and no shirt, a group of teenagers in baggy jeans standing in front the building looked at him and asked, "Who the hell is this guy?"
"I'm like ya'll," Carter responded. "I'm one of y'all."
"Naw," one said. "We don't wear that, you're not one of us."
"I went to school here, I graduated from here, I played here," Carter insisted.
Then, suddenly, one of the kids recognized him. "That's the MC Hammer dude! He's the one in the video!"
The year was 1992, and at the time, Carter was 25 years old and had just ended his career as the lead dancer and head choreographer for Oakland's MC Hammer, the multiplatinum-selling hip-hop artist and dancer. Carter toured with Hammer and starred in many of his videos, including "U Can't Touch This," one of the most famous dance music videos of all time. Carter's unique style of dance, which mixed hip-hop with fraternity step dancing, created a new global dance sensation. But after several years in the limelight, Carter wanted to come home to West Oakland. He didn't know what to do next and had decided to volunteer coach at his old high school while he figured it out.
Within months, Carter had traded in his leather boots for sneakers and gotten a full-time coaching job at McClymonds. Over the next fifteen years, he worked his way up to become one of the top football coaches in California. His teams won game after game, taking McClymonds to the championships almost every year.
But what makes Carter unique among his peers is not how many touchdowns his teams scored, but the number of his players who have received scholarships to four-year colleges and universities — so far, around eighty kids. Getting his players an education is Carter's utmost priority. "It isn't just about winning games," he said in an interview. "I tell kids, I can go out and buy you a ribbon, a trophy, or a medal, but you can't replace the value of an education."
How does Carter get teenage athletes, many struggling to barely pass their classes, to buy into his vision? It goes back to the discipline he applied to his dancing.
Alonzo Carter grew up in the Lower Bottoms of West Oakland, a neighborhood featuring brightly colored but dilapidated Victorians, where people sit out on their porches watching the kids play, and drugs and crime are rampant. Once a relatively safe, black middle-class neighborhood, the Lower Bottoms was split in two in 1971 by the West Oakland BART line. By the 1980s, businesses had closed and many folks had moved away while crack cocaine and widespread violence moved in. Carter lived in the Campbell Village Court housing projects. His father was in and out of jail his entire life, so his single mother raised him and his three siblings alone. By the time Carter was a senior at McClymonds, he had never traveled farther than the Eastmont Mall but already had a newborn son.
During his senior year, while also running track, playing football, and studying, Carter worked the night shift at McDonald's to support his child. His workaholic nature earned him a scholarship to the Mills College Upward Bound Program, which gives high-school students from low-income families the skills to go to college. Carter graduated at the age of seventeen, and Upward Bound helped him get into Cal State University, Hayward.