CHESTER >> Donny Dodds will be the first to tell you that he did not always make the right choices growing up. School wasn’t a priority when he was a young man. Basketball was.
As good as he was — and Dodds was one of the best guards of his generation, an All-Delco performer as a senior at St. James in 1978, which earned him a scholarship to Temple — he quickly learned that hoops can only take a person so far.
“I was a hard-headed kid,” Dodds said. “You couldn’t tell me anything. I wasn’t interested in school. I think I would have had a better career if I wasn’t such a knucklehead. It was a hard lesson to learn, but I learned it and it made me a better person.
“That’s why I was the way I was with my daughters (Danielle, Katie and Erin). My wife (Judy) and I stressed education because I didn’t want my kids to make the same mistakes I did, and they didn’t. I’m very proud of the fact that all three of them are going to graduate from college.”
Learning from one’s mistakes is one life lesson the 57-year-old Dodds plans to pass along to the players he will coach and the students he interacts with in his new job as the boys basketball coach and middle school dean at the Chester Charter School for the Arts (CCSA). He wants to make it perfectly clear that he’s more than just a basketball coach.
“The point I try to make to the kids is that it takes more than just being a good player to be successful,” Dodds said. “You have to take care of your academics. You have to be disciplined, which means being on time and things like that. You have to work hard in everything you do, and that’s not always the easiest path to take.
“We have certain rules. If you fail a class, you can’t play. If you have a discipline problem, you can’t play. We’re going to be a first-class program. When we go on the road, the kids have to understand that they’re representing their families, the school and the community. We’re not going to tolerate any nonsense. I’m a Chester guy. They know I won’t put up with anything. If you want to play on the team, you have to earn it and follow the rules. Everything they have offered to them is a privilege that is not taken lightly.”
That philosophy coincides with the mission of CCSA, a nonprofit, non-selective public charter school that uses an arts-integrated curriculum. The school serves more than 500 students in grades K-11, with a 12th grade to be added next year. All students take classes in programs such as dance, drama, music and the visual arts. The 150 high school students, divided equally between male and female, choose an arts major that they take throughout their time in high school.
Athletics are an extension of the academic program. The school has varsity teams in cross country, volleyball and boys and girls basketball, and hopes to add boys and girls lacrosse in the future.
“Sports, for us, is a way to build character,” athletic director Frank Vaccaro said. “It’s a vehicle, and we need the students to see that. That’s why we do the service projects. Service is a big part of what we do here, it make the kids accountable for something other than themselves.”
The basketball team will do its part when it scrimmages Strath Haven Dec. 1. The practice game will serve as a fundraiser for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. The school has set up a GoFundMe page to help in its fundraising efforts. There will also be a dance party in the school that night. Doors open at 6 p.m., and the scrimmage begins at 6:45. Phil Martelli, the men’s coach at Saint Joseph’s, will speak at halftime.
“It’s a chance to introduce ourselves to the PIAA and District 1,” Vaccaro said. “We’re not your typical Single A team.
We know we’re a service-oriented school. We’re just different so we wanted to introduce ourselves in some way. We were brainstorming one night my wife came up with the idea after the hurricane.”
Dodds thought it was a great idea.
“The goal is to raise as much money as possible, but it will also give us a feel of how we’re going to do things for our home games in our new gym.”
This is Dodds’ first foray into being the head coach at the high school level. He was a volunteer assistant at Glen Mills in the 1980s, served as an assistant coach at Archbishop Prendergast for 10 years and spent the last three years as the middle school coach at Chester Community Charter.
The toughest part for Dodds and Vaccaro was putting together a schedule, even though it is the second year of the program. The Sabers, as they will be known, are an independent Class A school. In the age of power rankings, not many Class 6A and 5A schools are willing to play Class A programs.
Vaccaro, though, put together a 22-game schedule that includes two games against Interboro as well as contests against Penn Wood, Glen Mills, Springside Chestnut Hill, West Chester Henderson and Delco Christian.
“We’re going to take our lumps,” Dodds said. “We’re young. We have no seniors and only one or two juniors, but the good news is we have Chester kids.”
Bonner & Prendergast girls coach Tom Stewart, Dodds’ coach in high school at St. James, believes his former player and assistant is up to the challenge.
“He was fantastic with our kids,” Stewart said. “He really showed a lot of patience. I think he’s going to be a good coach.”
The best part is Dodds gets to be a head coach in his hometown, which is still near and dear to his heart.
“That’s the neat thing about this whole thing,” Dodds said. “It’s a chance to come back to the city and coach these kids and work with great people in a great school. I’m excited for the opportunity.”