Defying the odds: Meet the coach who has kids hurdling from Newark's streets to higher ed

By Dan Ivers | NJ Advance Media for
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on May 20, 2015

Kcyied Zahir has coached the Weequahic High School track teams to great success and talks to members of the girls track team after school in Newark, NJ


NEWARK — Ask Kcyied Zahir how many championships he has won at Weequahic High School, and he has trouble giving you a precise answer.

The track coach's resume at the South Ward school includes an Essex County title, two girls state indoor sectional championships, a boys outdoor sectional championship, and, in his words, "at least" 18 city titles.

But what he calls his greatest achievement does not occupy a place on any mantle.

Instead, he cites a statistic of his own accounting — over 12 years, any student who has spent at least two years on his team has either gone on to college or the military.

The feat might not earn much attention at many schools. But this is Weequahic, where the hallways have been notoriously plagued by drugs, gangs and violence, and the graduation rate hovers at only about 70 percent.

"Any kid who's committed to my program, went to college. If they didn't go to college, they went to the military — that's it," Zahir said. "We defy the odds because we don't give life to them. We don't breathe life to them."

A graduate of Arts High School, Zahir is an accomplished runner in his own right, having run track at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore before returning home to Newark.

Technique, however, is only a small part of his craft. More than anything, the 38-year-old considers himself a motivator.

The team holds no tryouts, and he claims to prefer coaching kids with limited athletic ability, who he can push to achievements they may have never dreamed possible.

"I'm talking three left feet, two right hands. Great. Because you'll see and feel so much success from that," he said.

Perhaps no athlete better exemplifies Zahir's approach than Jonathan Moore, better known as "Robo" to teammates. Moore joined the team as a gawky freshman at Weequahic, and at first appeared hard to reach — barely speaking and avoiding eye contact.

Moore speaks with a noticeable stutter, and his running style upon joining the team was similarly disjointed, quickly earning him his nickname. By his senior year, however, he had earned a state sectional title and a full scholarship to run at Iowa Western Community College.

Though he has since returned to Newark, Moore credited Zahir with refining not just his technique on the track, but his belief in his own capabilities.

"When I first started...he didn't believe I could make it to the top. I myself didn't believe I was going to amount to much of anything in track," Moore said.

"He somehow saw a little something in me that made him want to coach me a bit more. After that I didn't have this mentality that if you don't want to stay on the team, you can leave. For some reason, I just wanted to get better."

But physical limitations are far from the biggest challenges most students at Weequahic will face. Shootings and other violent crime is common in the streets surrounding the school, and many young people in the area struggle with poverty, homelessness and other problems.

Raised in the rough-and-tumble Vailsburg section of Newark, Zahir understands their trials all too well.

Though he credits both his parents with pushing him to achieve, he describes a childhood living with as many as 15 other children — siblings, cousins and others included. He alludes to issues with substance abuse in the home, and vividly recalls the day his best friend, a local football player named Alvin Alexander, was shot to death.

Each year, however, he invites his teams over to the home he shares with his wife and children. They gather in his backyard, and are asked to write down their problems on a piece of paper. The sheets are then crumpled up and thrown into a fire, and most are never spoken of again.

"I meet them where they are. I don't celebrate your past," he said. "I don't think you should get an award for having it hard or having it rough. Because I had it hard."

Despite the general ban on excuses, team members say Zahir provides them with much more than tough love.

Yaminah Smith, a senior who has spent four years running for him, said she considers him a close confidante. She cited a recent death in her family, which she said might have caused her to withdraw if not for his guiding hand.

"I felt like I didn't want to run track anymore and I went to talk to him about it. He was like 'use this as motivation. Instead of looking at it as negative, use it as a positive. All the anger that you have toward it, use that on the track'," she said.

This spring has brought yet another city championship for Weequahic's track teams, and their focus is currently on state sectionals, which will begin later this week.

In the fall, a new round of its members will be sent off to colleges around the country, joining fellow alumnae who have gone on to schools like Oklahoma State University and North Carolina Central. The departures are the latest chapter in a now lengthy string of successes that now surprises few — least of all Zahir.

"I coach from a standpoint of love. I give you all the love I got, and when you do wrong, I take some of it away. And it works," he said. "My only reward system is love. I get you addicted to someone who genuinely loves you."

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