It’s 8:05 a.m. on Friday morning, 29 hours before kickoff, and David Fulcher is five minutes late. The inaugural head coach of the brand new Cincinnati Christian University football program, Fulcher is better known locally as a three-time Pro Bowl safety for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1986 to 1992, back when playing safety in the NFL involved breaking up more rib cages than pass attempts. He did enough of both to earn the endearing nickname FoRock, though no bone-crushing hit or motivational speech can get him out of the current traffic jam on I-75. Fulcher’s stress is only exacerbated by the fact that his CCU Eagles are set to face No. 18-ranked Georgetown College tomorrow, his team having already lost its first three games in program history by a combined score of 157–7. To be fair, that’s to be expected from an upstart team filled out with 70-plus freshmen and a handful of junior-college transfers—but it’s of little solace to Fulcher.
Once he finally navigates the highway congestion and makes it downtown, he approaches our meeting spot clad in one of his 50 or so purple CCU shirts and khakis hiked high enough to expose a pair of white throwback Nike low tops. Despite the traffic and tomorrow’s looming matchup, Fulcher appears at ease, a bit relieved to not be heading to another practice or film session for once.
You see, we’re not meeting to talk football. We’re going to jail.
The origins of Mentoring Against Negative Actions (MANA) date back to the 2008 Pacer program, which was designed to help students at since-closed PACE High School stay on track for a high school degree despite being incarcerated. Fulcher was integral to the formation and curriculum of Pacer, and in June 2011, the program shifted its focus toward practical skills, education, and preparation for life outside of confinement, open to any male held at the Hamilton County Justice Center downtown. The MANA moniker was adopted, and Fulcher has been at the helm ever since.
“It’s teaching them skills again, starting all over again, and some don’t know how because they never started in the first place,” says Fulcher. “My goal is to change their perspective. They can still have a fast life and hustle, but the correct way—out of trouble. I want to get to all of them, but if I can get one, it’d be great.”
On just about every Thursday and Friday since taking over the program, Fulcher has made the drive from his Mason home to the jail, imparting his wisdom and life experiences to any inmate willing to give the two-month program a try. Today’s class has about 25 men of varying race, as young as 19 and as old as 61, held on charges ranging from parole violations and domestic violence to weapons possession and drug-related crimes. Fulcher doesn’t track the racial and educational makeup of his students and often doesn’t know the specifics of their charges unless they confide in him. Whether they’re guilty or not, he believes that their willingness to take his course indicates that they want to change. Which is what MANA is all about.
“[MANA] has a specific curriculum, and it prepares them for transition to the outside with specific problem-solving and conflict resolution [skills],” says Nick Prickel, the education coordinator at the correctional facility. Prickel worked in jails for 16 years prior to his current position and says he hasn’t seen many programs as positive or effective as MANA. “Our whole correctional system has been based on containment and punishment. Here, our goals are based on the need to be challenging, engaging, and taking on self-responsibility.”
To complete Fulcher’s course, each member must attend 11 classes, complete 11 accompanying “pod-work” assignments, and deliver a graduation speech on what they’ve learned, how they’ve changed, and how they’re going to enact change. Barring an occasional guest speaker, every class is dual-faceted: the first part is more or less lecture, with Fulcher holding forth on whatever life lesson—inspirational, informational, confrontational, or otherwise—he believes will help these men change; after that, the “class” session begins. Each has a core topic—parenting, working, banking—with the attendant slideshows and paperwork. Over the length of the course, Fulcher covers a lot of what it takes to kick-start an adult life: how to obtain identification cards, the types of credit to pursue, setting up checking accounts, seeking help from parenting groups. It’s the type of material that, frankly, more high schools should offer.
“This class is about common sense,” says Fulcher. “If I can get that in guys’ heads, they’ll probably stay out of trouble.”
Changing the system, however, is easier said than done, especially to the degree that Fulcher is striving for. The program has already found its way into the London Correctional Institution in central Ohio, where Bill Stone, a former inmate and pupil of Fulcher’s, is spreading the word, but Fulcher wants to take MANA out from behind bars and into communities and other states. Most of the program’s participants are also awaiting sentencing, meaning it could be anywhere from another couple of weeks at the county lockup to years in a federal prison before they have a chance to apply the program to their everyday lives on the outside. That variance makes the already daunting task of empirically measuring the program’s success virtually impossible; as a nonprofit, it’s been a struggle to attract the financial backing necessary to create a major movement. MANA receives some funding from Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil, but is otherwise funded entirely out of Fulcher’s own pocket, despite his tireless efforts to find grants and donors.
A significant aspect of this struggle stems from the outside perception of the individuals MANA is often working with. “It’s tough to get work funded to help people who have been in trouble,” says David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center. In the age of the wildly popular Serial podcast and Making a Murderer documentary, and with advancements in DNA technology helping to vindicate those wrongly convicted, it’s easier to justify funding programs like the Ohio Innocence Project—which received a record $15 million donation in September—as opposed to a program that largely focuses on rehabilitating guilty offenders. (Or in MANA’s case, one that doesn’t discriminate between the guilty and innocent among its ranks.)
“In the criminal justice world, innocence projects are at the top of the list of where the money is moved, at least in terms of individual donors, because it’s easy to wrap your mind around it,” says Singleton. “No one wants to see someone locked up for something they didn’t do. But when we’re talking about folks who are guilty, it’s easier to write them off.
“It’s just as important to fund work that is about repairing people whose lives have been broken, and often for reasons that are beyond their control, and we ought to be wanting to repair that damage,” adds Singleton. “We’re all in this thing together.”
Those close to MANA know its unique value, as well. Fulcher has a brigade of former star pupils he utilizes to provide a “seeing-is-believing” aspect to the cause. Antwann Staley, who Fulcher points to as the likely heir apparent to MANA, is one of them. “I got out [of jail] on June 27, 2009, and [Fulcher] put me to work on the 29th,” says Staley. “There are a lot of things guys don’t know when they’re incarcerated. Life don’t stop when you’re in there, and when you get out, life hits you and picks right back up where it left off. It’s like jumping rope—the rope never stops, and you’ve got to jump back into it. MANA prepares you for that. It was life-changing.”
Fulcher’s usual Monday–Saturday schedule runs basically nonstop from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., trekking back and forth between CCU’s campus and the downtown jail most weekdays, and then traversing the Midwest by bus with about 80 college kids on Saturdays. Fulcher and his wife Judy, a Cincinnati native, also commit a significant amount of time to the David Fulcher Foundation (which benefits multiple sclerosis), assisting other programs at the jail, and attending the many public speaking engagements that Fulcher uses, in part, to fund MANA. He also has two kids, David Jr. and Kayla, the latter of whom plays softball at Thomas Moore College. Beyond that, he occasionally sleeps.
For a man of many obligations, it’s obvious that MANA is not some miscellaneous good deed started out of post-career boredom. Fulcher refers to the program as “landing within his family tree.” His father was an LAPD officer for 25 years, and Fulcher even considered a career in law enforcement after football. But it’s his older sister, who has spent the better part of the past three decades incarcerated, and his desire to help her that pushed him to learn more about the law and inmate rehabilitation.
“She got out [of prison], and she tried to rob a Dillard’s department store in Las Vegas,” says Fulcher. “[She] robbed it, got to the front door, stopped and put the money inside one of the sock bins, and waited for the police to come get her. Said she was just institutionalized. She wanted to go back to jail, and she’s in there right now.”
It’s the kind of behavior Fulcher has spent the past eight years trying to defeat.
“I don’t know everything about the law, but I do know common sense, and this class is about common sense,” he says. “If I can get that in guys’ heads, that if they do for their family more than they do for themselves, they’ll probably stay out of trouble.”
Fulcher hangs in the back of his classroom while the inmates pile in.
“Sign in—make sure I can read it, none of that doctor signature,” he says as handshakes and fist bumps abound. He’s greeted in a number of ways—Mr. Fulcher, Coach, Coach Fulch, and simply David by a few of the program’s elder members—but there’s a clear level of etiquette expected of the class members. Fulcher makes his way to the front of the room, props himself up on a desk, and checks in on any struggles the men have had since yesterday’s class. In exchange, they check in on him.
“Well, Coach Fulcher isn’t doing too well,” he says, placing extra emphasis on his title. “I’d settle for a first down.”
As the final wave of attendees arrive, they begin class with a reading of the MANA Pledge: I must focus on my children, my family, and my community. I must become a positive member of society and learn to lead future generations. I must be bold enough to break down the barriers that I allow to hold me back from being great.
Fulcher then leans across his computer desk pulpit and points to a weathered 40-something in the back row. “How many kids you got?” he asks.
“All right six,” Fulcher repeats, now turning toward a baby-face in the second row. “How many kids you got?”
“One, [a 3-year-old].”
“All right, you’re probably going to hear me say this every class, because I’m a father,” says Fulcher, addressing the room. “My son, my daughter, and my wife are more important than anything in my life, so I have to be the best I can be for them. I have to be around for them. Does that make sense? Because right now your kids are saying Where is Daddy? Or maybe even Who is Daddy? How do you fix that? Get yourself outta here. Change yourself.”
Surprisingly, Fulcher does not engage in much “coach speak.” His lectures aren’t riddled with macho clichés. He talks in arcs—always building toward something and rarely in the stereotypical rah-rah, scared straight, God-finding rhetoric most would expect from a man of prominence speaking to men of little. And he never strays too far from the theme of fatherhood.
Fulcher pauses abruptly, pointing back to the young man with the 3-year-old.
“Daughter or a boy?” he asks.
“What’s his name?”
“So if James is sitting here right now, what do you think he says to you?” asks Fulcher.
“Where you been? I miss you,” the man chokes out, failing to fight back tears. “I love you.”
Fulcher has them now, and he knows it. “I can see it in your face and eyes, and I’m tearing with you, but you didn’t think about that when you did what you did,” he says, addressing one and all simultaneously. “I don’t say this to hurt, I say this because it’s real, and this class is about being real: You as an individual have to take pride in what you got, what you want to have, and where you want to go. What’s your purpose? You’ve got a little man, he’s 3 years old, and he needs you.”
After about an hour, MANA’s second period of more traditional teaching begins with Fulcher cutting the lights, turning on some music, and firing up a slideshow on topics such as banking, how to get a loan, job hunting, and credit. Fulcher’s stern voice cuts through the noise. “How many of you have an active checking account?” he asks.
Three hands go up.
“How many of you have résumés?”
Seven hands this time.
For the most part, this is not a group of men whose pasts afforded them ample preparation for adulthood. When you realize that the cumulative number of checking accounts and résumés in the room is less than the number of those with children, you start to comprehend just how monumental a challenge the MANA program, and our society, is up against. How do we break the cycle of fatherless children growing up to be absentee fathers? As far as Fulcher is concerned, the answer is pride—having pride in your work and in being a father, but also knowing that having too much pride can send you back to a life behind bars.
Fulcher transitions to his definition of work, which is spelled out with bullet points on the screen. Work: Putting in the time. Finishing what you started. My family.
Work and a job are two very different things, he explains. Family, and being a father to one’s family, is the most integral element of his definition. But part of that is also finding a legal, paying job and sticking to it. “What is the best job?” Fulcher asks. “The best job is a job. If you don’t like that job, keep working that job until you find the better job. When you let your pride get in the way, pride don’t make a payment.
“If I lost my job and everything that I have today, and I knew that White Castle and McDonald’s were hiring, David Fulcher is in that drive-thru saying, ‘How can I help you?’ You know why? Because my family gets to eat.”
Fulcher moves on to financing and then something on a slide reminds him of the success story of a past MANA member. From there he blurts out 10 local companies that hire felons, then flows right into the next slide on how to get proper ID. As the session draws to a close, he flips to a slide on job interviews.
This is the only topic all class that brings out the coach in him. His tone gets locker-room loud. In this moment, he can’t help himself. It’s emblematic of just how high he knows the stakes to be, the challenge this group must overcome to get back on the path to fatherhood, responsibility, and pride that he’s practically begging them to pursue.
“This is where it starts, men: the interview,” he says. “You’ve got to get the mind right. You’ve got to walk in there with confidence. I feel good about this, I’m ready to go, and ain’t nobody gonna stop me.”