Opening Young Eyes to Tennis: Marcus Hooks’ Story
STAMFORD, CT- It’s Thursday at 3:30 pm at the Boys and Girls Club of Stamford, CT, and when 21-year-old Marcus Hooks walks in, he is greeted with hugs, high-fives, and exclamations of “Hey, Coach Marcus!”
This is the same Boys and Girls Club that Hooks attended when he was in elementary and middle school, and although the faces have changed, the passion for learning, sports and community has remained constant.
Hooks recalls his childhood memories of playing tennis, basketball and making friends at the club, explaining how they were some of the best experiences of his life. But one day during his freshman year of high school, shortly after his family moved from Stamford to Norwalk, he was given the painful news that his parents wouldn’t be able to make the daily drive to bring him to the club.
“I was very sad when I found out I wouldn’t be coming back. I had been coming here since first grade and some of my best friends were here. That was also my year to be a CIT (Counselor in Training) at the camp so I was looking forward to getting paid too,” he said.
Seven years later, and when he least expected it, Hooks was given the opportunity to step back into his beloved club, this time as a coach.
After attending and playing three years of tennis at Bethel College in West Virginia, Hooks decided to take a year off for personal reasons and move back home.
He took a job at a local restaurant, and from there, he made connections which led him to a meeting with Art Goldblatt, founder of Stamford Youth Tennis Academy (SYTA), the organization Hooks has been employed with since September 2016. Shortly after he was hired, Hooks was approached by Executive Director, Linda Cremin, about an opportunity to teach tennis at a new site—the Boys & Girls Club of Stamford.
“It was very exciting. I was back to my old stomping grounds,” Hooks said. “I was teaching tennis in Brooklyn previously, and on the same day I was asked about doing the upcoming session in Brooklyn, Linda asked me about the Boys and Girls Club opportunity. Once I heard that, I said sorry, and I immediately said I don’t want to work in Brooklyn anymore.”
“As soon as we met Marcus, we hired him on the spot,” Cremin said. “He just has a great presence about him. I love his style with the kids. You can tell he’s great with them, engages them and really gets to know them on a personal level.”
Fast forward to January 2017, where Hooks added the Boys and Girls Club gig as his third and most personal Stamford-based program through the academy. He had already been running programs at Shippan Racquet Club and KT Murphy Elementary School.
“When I was here (Boys and Girls Club), nobody wanted to do tennis .They had a program, but it was unorganized, the instructors weren’t great and their hearts weren’t really in it,” Hooks said. “It’s great to see they actually have a structured program now in place, and I feel like it’s easier to coach this than somewhere else. I know where these kids are coming from, where they’re at and how they feel about tennis.”
Similarly to when Hooks was attending the Boys and Girls Club, tennis isn’t the most popular activity for kids in the inner city. But Hooks is now determined to open the eyes of the younger generation to a sport that gave him such great joy and opportunity in life.
“I was surprised when I got so many tennis offers for college, and I want kids to realize that there are tons of opportunities out,” he said. “There are tons of schools dying to give out money to minorities, and if these kids keep playing and really work at it, it’s amazing the opportunities they will get.”
This is the second year SYTA has run the tennis program at the club, but for seventh grader Amare Leak, he picked up a racquet for the first time in January when he was assigned to play by his club coach. A blossoming basketball player, Leak immediately took a liking to tennis. He initially was attracted to the cardio, but stayed because of Hooks.
“Marcus is inspiring and makes me want to come back every week and learn new things,” Leak said. “He’s such a great coach, he’s easygoing and not uptight with us. Him knowing what the kids are like here and sharing similar experiences also really helps me learn.”
Hooks doesn’t come in with a set plan week to week, but he bases his lessons on the students’ moods on a given day. The program could consist of cardio, technique, games or a combination of the three, and he says keeping an open mind and being flexible is how he’s succeeding in such a short time.
“Some days they’ll come in and say, ‘Coach Marcus, my backhand is bad, can we work on that today?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, of course!’ I’m so willing to change up what I was going to do to what they want to work on. I really come in open minded every day and vibe off what the kids feel, and they seem to like that.”
“Not only do we do drills, but we play a lot of games as well. Marcus is funny, he listens to us and what we want to do and pushes us, but doesn’t push us too hard,” said fifth grader Joeffrey Augustin.
Hooks truly knows how to relate to his students, not just at the Boys and Girls Club, but everywhere he goes. He makes an effort to show up early, stay late, play basketball with the kids, and he makes it a point to take an interest in their schooling and personal lives.
“I’m going to school to be a social worker and working with kids has always been in my nature, Hooks said. “I want to know what you’re doing in school, and what’s going on outside of tennis, and that makes a big difference with how they’ll act with you.”
Hooks’ passion for working with kids began when he was 14. When he was unable to continue attending the Boys and Girls Club, he took a job closer to home with Marvin Tyler and his Slammer Tennis World program in Norwalk.
“When I first had him on the court with me introducing kids to tennis, I saw the way he interacted with them and I immediately knew that this could be a future for him,” said Tyler, who was also Hooks’ former coach. “Marcus is a hard-working and dedicated individual, he’s always loved working with kids and he does a great job.”
Hooks is extremely grateful for his time mentoring and teaching kids at Slammer Tennis World during the summers. The experience wasn’t just his first teaching tennis, but he made lifelong memories that still inspire him every day.
He shared a story of a special needs student he worked with at the program named Hannah, who would leave crying every day.
“She told me, ‘I can’t be like the other kids. They’re not going to treat me the same.’ And I told her, ‘Hannah, you can do whatever you want as long as you try.”
So Hooks stayed 20 minutes after every day for the first year to play with her and to work on her footwork and running. She attended the program for the next three years and her determination and passion is what caught his attention.
By the fourth year, Hooks’ senior year in high school, Hannah was no longer attending the camp. When Hooks asked her one day where she had been, she said, ‘You inspired me. You’d always work with me and never gave up on me so I didn’t give up on myself.’ She had lost 40 pounds and got a personal trainer and had been working out all summer.
“She wrote me a letter to thank me, saying I changed her life and she wouldn’t have tried out for any sports team if it wasn’t for me,” Hooks said. “Every day I think about that, and I think to myself who can be the next Hannah.”
Hooks is determined to live a life of inspiring youth, not just in tennis but in life. He knows there are opportunities out there in tennis, and is confident that as with the right exposure and work ethic, many more doors can open.
“I just want to be one of the top junior tennis coaches,” he said. “Honestly, as long as I’m the best I can be at what I do, I’ll be happy. I love seeing the kids progress, and I want to really let them know they can be successful in tennis.”
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