Head Coach Terrill Vinson stands beside the western end zone of Mission High’s football field as his four assistant coaches guide players through their drills. Wearing all-black athletic clothing with a small depiction of the yellow Mission High mascot on his chest, he keeps his eyes on the field. If his pupils turn to me, it’s for a fleeting moment. The sun’s out, the weather mild; the field dry; it’s Sept. 15, two weeks before the first game of the season.
“They’re running stuff that I usually run, and they’re running it right,” he says of his coaches lined up on the sidelines of the practice field below the Spanish Baroque-styled Mission High school, topped with a 127-foot bell tower and red-tiled roof.
Vinson, who was promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach this summer, has his work cut out for him: Whereas a program should have 50 or more players on a team, he started with seven consistent players in the summer.
With his players’ help in recruiting new teammates, he now has 36 boys in uniform.
“With grades and all,” Vinson says. “Eligible.”
Where spectators might see adolescents playing to win a game out on the field, Vinson sees a challenging environment that prepares his players for life.
“They can go through adversity good, because we’ve been through that together,” he said of his players as they ran through drills in full gear. “Down a touchdown, and it’s 30 seconds on the clock; you gotta grind it … You’re dead tired — I know you’re dead tired. But I can see your eyes, you got another play in you. And that’s how life gon’ work.”
Then and now
When he was 5, Vinson would walk to classes at Visitacion Valley Elementary School alone, as his mother would leave early for her two jobs. While Vinson’s home life was not “in a mess” like some of his peers, he knew he had to stay cautious. Some of his neighbors, he said, died too early.
“I can’t say it traumatized me, because all this mental health stuff wasn’t out back then, but I think it got me through tough times,” the 34-year-old said.
Football kept him out of trouble.
Bus rides with teammates got him home safe. Practice kept him from hanging out in dangerous spots. He graduated from Balboa High School and also played at Chabot College, where he got a full scholarship to University of Arkansas at Monticello.
The Buffalo Bills and the Rams (of St. Louis, at the time) attended Vinson’s pro day, where he tried out for the teams, but they passed. He returned to his alma mater, Balboa High School, as a coach in 2012, where he soon after became a paraeducator. In 2018 or 2019, he transitioned to coaching at Mission High, becoming the defensive coordinator while helping with the offensive and defensive lines.
“I made it out,” he said of the housing projects he grew up in. “And I was able to live life.”
Nowadays, Vinson lives with his family in Walnut Creek.
He drops off his two school-aged boys at the same elementary school he attended (“It’s a lot better now,” he said) and heads to Balboa High School to work as a paraeducator. From there, he goes to Mission High to coach. On the side, he creates and provides deep-cleaning for custom shoes, including cleats.
Vinson eyes the field as his coaches work with the students.
“Stop throwing the ball to people not eligible over there!” Vinson says to the team. He turns to me.
“My big guy right there, he could be a D-1 player,” referring to Division One, the highest level of athletics for colleges. “ … He just needs to put more effort in school.”
A cohort of around 25 players left Mission High over the summer, resulting in the player shortage. But Vinson also attributes the shortage to a lack of school pride and a diminishing work ethic. Football, or any sport, requires discipline, and that requires perseverance that is sometimes lacking, he said.
“They take this mental health stuff serious — and it is serious,” Vinson said. “Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of people out here offing themselves because of it. But sometimes, too many students take breaks or make excuses, to the point where it can be excessive.”
In his eyes, mental health issues are substantive, but it is also important to teach perseverance.
He recalled a good player who took breaks in class for his mental health, a common event these days, Vinson said, but one that can also lead to an inability to follow through and focus. The same player took off his helmet on the field one day and quit in the middle of a game.
“When we’re down, I don’t want to see people quitting,” Vinson said.
His favorite part of the job is watching the kids mature and get better at life.
“I just want to see them grow up,” he said. “I want them to deal with adversity better than they were shown in the past, and they’re getting better at it.”