‘Way more important than any play I can make’

The star cornerback is on a videoconference with Jayce Parker, a fourth-grade student.

“I don’t know what my future holds,” says Jayce, who is 10 years old. “But I know that because of Purpose Prep and people like you, my future is going to be bright. Thank you again, Mr. Ramsey.”

Ramsey smiles. A day earlier, he announced a $1 million pledge to Purpose Preparatory Academy — a charter school in his native Nashville, Tennessee, where Parker is among 400 students.

“Jayce, you are welcome and everybody is welcome,” Ramsey says earnestly. “I’m proud of you, I’m proud of everything you are doing. Just keep up all the good work.”

On the football field, Ramsey is known as a lockdown cornerback, an elite trash talker and a fierce competitor whose sole focus is winning. But when he speaks about children and education, Ramsey reveals a softer side. His competitive nature fades, his tone softens yet grows eager, and he’s overcome with humility.

“To me, this is way more important than any play that I can make for the Los Angeles Rams,” Ramsey said. “I play a kids’ game professionally and I love it. … But this is real life.”

At Purpose Prep — a publicly funded, kindergarten-through-fourth-grade charter school that is free to attend for any student within the school district and whose student body is 98% Black, with more than 75% of its students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches — Ramsey isn’t widely known as an NFL All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl selection. Instead, he’s someone who is contributing time and money to make a generational change.

“I know he’s perceived as an athlete,” said Lagra Newman, who founded Purpose Prep in 2013. “But we’ve had a very different opportunity to get to know him as somebody who really cares about education, our community in Nashville and our children.”

‘I wanted to do something that would have a lasting impact’

When the country shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, Ramsey isolated at home. He spent the time reflecting about his faith and self-improvement.

“It helped me put a lot of things about life in perspective about what’s really important,” said Ramsey, who turned 26 on Oct. 24. “That’s family, love, showing love, the youth and a few other things.”

Then, a couple of months into the pandemic, came the social justice uprising that Ramsey says pushed him over the edge. He conversed with his inner circle, including his agent, financial adviser, mom, dad and brother — who he says is the most influential person in his life.

But Ramsey grew impatient with the conversations.

“I said, ‘I’m not doing any justice. I’m not taking any action myself.’ So how could I speak up about wanting change or trying to effect change when I’m able to do something in my community and I haven’t done it yet,” Ramsey said.

He decided to take a leap he had thought about and researched for more than four years.

“I’m just kind of sitting on it and sitting on it, waiting for the perfect time,” Ramsey said. “Then I kind of told myself, I said, ‘There will never be a quote-unquote perfect time.'”


Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey talks with Purpose Preparatory Academy board members via a Zoom meeting.

Ramsey was first introduced to Purpose Prep at a 2016 school gala, where he grew more impressed as the evening wore on. His financial adviser arranged for Ramsey and other clients to attend as an opportunity to network and take part in the greater community.

He sat in the audience and watched several students including Jayce, then a kindergartner, don formal attire to speak in front of hundreds of adults about their experience at the school.

“They were dressed up, they had on like black suits and they were super, super impressive,” Ramsey said.

Newman, under whose guidance Purpose Prep was named a Tennessee Reward School for Academic Performance, equally impressed Ramsey as she spoke about the school’s goals and success.

“People ask me all the time, ‘What’s the secret sauce?'” Newman said. “I really think it comes down to high expectations. When children walk into your door, do you believe they can achieve at the highest levels? We do at Purpose Prep.”

A Vanderbilt graduate who taught in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington with Teach for America, Newman aspired to open a school in a low-income community and settled on north Nashville after witnessing the inequalities in the school district through her time spent tutoring in the area.

“North Nashville has an incredible cultural richness and just a very special history in this city,” Newman said. “Yet the schools are abysmal, abysmally low-performing and it’s an injustice. They’re Black and brown children that are just clustered in schools, going to school every day and are leaving without critical skills, and so I wanted to create a school in this community and I wanted to really prove what was possible. That’s what we’ve been able to do.”

“It has been an amazing experience,” Jayce’s mother, Onya Parker, said about her son’s nearly five years at Purpose Prep. “He’s so confident in his academics, even speaking in front of audiences. Just being a scholar at Purpose Prep has just prepared him in a way I know that he wouldn’t have received the same preparation at another school.”

Ramsey, who grew up in a Nashville suburb and attended a private high school, understands the impact of sound schooling.

“I always, always had that value instilled in me by my parents that education was key and education was the most important because that’s something nobody can take from you,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey, joined by his inner circle, initiated a couple of videoconference meetings with Newman and board members in August to discuss the school’s future but left few hints that he intended to make a significant financial contribution.

A few financial numbers were mentioned that would be considered a major boon to help the school during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced students into distance learning.

But Ramsey, who was still playing under his rookie contract at the time and had yet to sign a five-year extension worth up to $105 million that made him the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history, thought the figures weren’t substantial enough.

So he multiplied them — several times over — to $1 million.

“I didn’t want to just get in there halfway; I wanted to be all-in. I wanted to do something that would have a lasting impact,” Ramsey said. “That number amount was just something that was put in my heart.”

Newman was brought to tears when Ramsey called to inform her. “When he told me the amount, I couldn’t even fathom what that meant,” she said. “It’s transformational.”

His donation is the largest in school history by far, and Newman says it comes without conditions. Ramsey’s only request is that Purpose Prep continues on the path it set.

“To see how she’s been sustaining and doing extremely well for these kids for years and years, it gave me a lot of — a ton of hope that she will do the right thing when a lot is entrusted in her,” Ramsey said.

‘I was overwhelmed at the generosity’

When Onya Parker heard about Ramsey’s donation, it quickly dawned on her that Ramsey was in the audience when her son, Jayce, spoke at the gala more than four years earlier, and that Ramsey later posed with him for a photograph.

Jalen Ramsey met Jayce Parker in 2016, when Parker was a kindergartner at Purpose Prep Academy. Four years later, Parker got to thank Ramsey for his $1 million donation to the school. Courtesy Purpose Prep Academy

Back then, she didn’t know much about Ramsey, only that he was a professional athlete. And she certainly didn’t foresee Ramsey impacting her son’s education in the years to come.

“I was overwhelmed at the generosity,” said Onya, who grew emotional as she reflected on her son’s opportunity to receive a high-quality education. “[Ramsey] saw something in these children and wanted to contribute to making their futures brighter.”

Ramsey’s donation enabled Purpose Prep to turn entirely virtual to accommodate distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic. Every student, including Jayce — who loves math and aspires to be a sports agent — was provided a computer and internet hotspot to ensure they would not miss a day of class. With the added technology came the need for tech-savvy staff members who could help the kids and families navigate any technical issues at home, which the donation also covered.

“In the immediate, certainly Purpose Prep is able to get out of survival mode as we think about overcoming ourselves in this pandemic,” Newman said.

Because of Ramsey’s generosity, the school’s leaders can think about its long-term future.

“That’s just so many challenges that come with creating this school,” Newman said. “And I think to have somebody to invest to that extent, it opens up a few different things.”

It will provide enrichment opportunities beyond the bare minimum of a high-quality education, said Newman, who dreams of the day when every musician in the school can play his or her own instrument and the band can practice in a space that’s not a conference room. She envisions Purpose Prep’s physical education classes taking place in a gymnasium instead of the cafeteria. She hopes additional technology can be incorporated into everyday learning.

“Only now have we been able to really think big and think like, ‘Wow, what could school for our children be when we actually have the resources to support the type of education that they actually truly deserve?'” she said.

In it for the long haul

When he’s not preparing for a football game, Ramsey joins Zoom conferences to participate in school board meetings. He keeps in touch via text messages and is “super personable,” Newman said, adding that he’s quickly becoming family.

“He’s somebody who is really in tune with what’s happening socially,” Newman said. “He sees this as his opportunity to also be a part of social change and making an impact and leading in that way.”

In board meetings, Ramsey is described as engaging, a good listener and participant.

“He’s not just there to just dump off a lump sum of money and say, ‘Bye,'” said Lara Henley, a school board member who helps oversee fundraising. “He’s very adamant about the fact that he’s in it for the long haul.”

Ramsey provides ideas and feedback, but also emphasizes his trust in Newman.

“I wouldn’t have done that [donation] for just anybody,” he said. “They were doing right by the kids and the teachers trying to bridge the gap.”

A father of two young daughters, Ramsey says he wants his girls to attend Purpose Prep, “100 percent,” and he wants other children, even those outside of Nashville, to experience the same high-quality education.

“We want to do this in Texas, in California,” Ramsey said, clarifying “this” means establishing more Purpose Prep-inspired schools. “We want to continue to do this with everybody in our kind of friend group and within our family group. We want to continue to do this.”

‘I’m excited to be in the presence of a hero’

On that August day when Ramsey rode to the Rams’ practice facility, he thought he was joining a school board meeting. He had no idea a kindergartner whom he met years earlier would appear on screen, then deliver a speech that would leave him practically speechless.

“Who knew that when I took a picture with you in kindergarten at the gala that our paths would cross again. Back then I was excited to be in the presence of an NFL player, but now I’m excited to be in the presence of a hero.”

Jayce Parker, a 10-year-old student at Purpose Prep Academy in Nashville, Tennessee, to Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey

“Who knew that when I took a picture with you in kindergarten at the gala that our paths would cross again,” Jayce said to Ramsey. “Back then I was excited to be in the presence of an NFL player, but now I’m excited to be in the presence of a hero.”

The moment filled Ramsey with joy.

“This means more to me than the contract or some of the other blessings that have been coming in my life,” Ramsey said. “I genuinely believe in the youth. I think the youth is our future and them having a great upcoming will be what changes the world. Maybe I won’t see it in my generation, but maybe in my daughters’ lifetime they see it, or maybe their kids, long from now, will see it.”

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