By Keith Groller of the Morning Call

Allen and Dieruff will meet for the 60th time in a high school football game Saturday afternoon at J. Birney Crum Stadium, and while there are more meaningful games in terms of championships and district seedings on this rivalry weekend, the game still means a lot to the kids on both teams.

The teams are a combined 3-15 and their District 11 playoff hopes were doused a few weeks ago.Yet, the Canaries and Huskies who keep competing, who still strive to do good things, and who know there’s a bigger picture and purpose to high school athletics beyond the standings and district rankings, deserve to be recognized.

Allen and Dieruff players continue to participate and thrive in a program sponsored by the AthLife Foundation.This is the sixth year the Allentown School District is participating with AthLife, and the results remain positive, much more so than what the scoreboard shows every week.In a nutshell, AthLife is an academic support program that works to ensure that deserving student-athletes from some of the nation’s most challenging communities can achieve in their careers long after they take off their helmets and pads for the last time.Because many Allen and Dieruff kids don’t have the family structure and financial backing that kids from other school districts may have, AthLife fills in the blanks and helps to keep kids on the right path.

“The program is still going strong,” said Melissa Roehrich, an Allen High teacher who is the adviser for the school’s SOAR program. SOAR stands for Students Overcoming Academic Roadblocks. “This is my sixth year of doing it and every year we’re more successful. A big plus is having [Allen head coach] George Clay as an ally. He preaches that academics must come first. A program like this won’t work unless you have the support of the head coach.

“Last year we had 14 seniors and nine of them went to college, including Wilberto Sicard, who is at Lehigh, two went into the military, one went into the Job Corps program and one went straight into the workforce. We’re pleased to have so many kids do well.”Clay’s Canaries have won just four games in the last five years, but he realizes that his job is much more important than merely winning games.

“AthLife is amazing because it helps our kids get an education and gives us support in places we need it,” Clay said. “Through AthLife we can provide a variety of experiences for the kids, like the Jason Garrett Camp [run by the Cowboys head coach] and other fun, educational programs. We’ve got former football players at Lehigh and Moravian and Kutztown and East Stroudsburg. AthLife teaches the kids what it takes to get there.”

Dieruff coach Kyle Beller agrees that AthLife has been a great help to him and his staff in keeping kids eligible and out of trouble.”It’s great for our kids because we have the opportunity to have tutors and mentors there to assist the kids and get them working on their grades,” Beller said. “It has been a very beneficial thing to our program. All of our kids go through it because we require them to attend study hall twice a week throughout the year.”

Beller said that there have been some exciting field trips over the years such as attending the NFL Draft when it was in New York City, and also going to watch Lehigh games.One special moment came last year when former Dieruff player Tariq Jarrah, who is a freshman at Lehigh, got to speak on behalf of 15 honorees at the AthLife Foundation’s annual conference in Philadelphia. He got to meet former NFL players at the function.

“We keep stressing to the kids that football is more than just playing a sport,” Beller said. “It can help to open doors to college and future careers. It also teaches you how to overcome adversity and just grind and get to work. It has raised our grade-point average and has done wonders for our kids.”

Roehrich said she’s not even a football fan, and doesn’t even understand all the fuss, but she cares about her kids and wants them to excel, just as Chris Smith does as Dieruff’s adviser in the Husky Leaders program.”At the college level, it’s commonplace for the athletes to get extra help with their work, and that’s whether it’s Division I, II or III program,” Roehrich said. “Colleges have support programs specific to the student-athletes, but at the high school level they don’t have that. So that’s where AthLife comes in.”

AthLife also arranges field trips to colleges and provides workshops on things like how you go through the college application process. Roehrich is aware of the struggles of the team on the field, but she stresses that no matter what happens on the scoreboard, they can still win in the classroom.

“Most of these kids will not be going on to play Division I football, but that’s OK,” she said. “Some of our young people think that sports are the only thing they can do. I want to show them that that’s not the case.

“I see it with the football kids who sometimes feel disappointed in themselves and get down because they’re not doing as well as they want to,” she added. “I try to highlight that there’s other things that they can be good at. Allentown kids can do good things, too. They just need to know that.”

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