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Lots of professional athletes grapple with the idea of what they will do when their playing careers end.
For Robert Golden, the answer was academic.
Golden, who spent six seasons as a safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers before retiring in 2018, founded a tuition-free charter school in his hometown to service the underprivileged children of the southwest Fresno neighborhoods where he was raised.
The school, Golden Charter Academy (GCA), opened in August and has 186 students ranging from transitional kindergarten through third grade. The plan is to add one grade level every year until it’s kindergarten through eighth.
The school’s colors? Black and gold, naturally, just like the Steelers.
“Coming from where I come from, growing up where I grew up, you often don’t see guys that make it all the way through high school, let alone get to the NFL,” said Golden, 31, who will be at SoFi Stadium on Sunday night to watch his former team play the Chargers. “So for me to be able to go to college, get my degree, make it to the NFL and then come back and open up a school, I feel like what more motivation could I provide for children?
“It lets them know that if I can do it, they can do it as well.”
This is no ordinary school. GCA partnered with the Fresno Chaffee Zoo and has made visits there a regular part of its curriculum. Although the school occupies the former campus of a Fresno Catholic school, Golden has audacious plans to build a state-of-the-art learning center next to the zoo. That process is in the fundraising mode.
“We wanted to develop a learning experience where kids don’t have to be tethered to a classroom,” Golden said. “A place where they can be outdoors and have these hands-on learning experiences.”
He walked away from the NFL in 2018, after he was released by the Steelers and briefly picked up by Kansas City. He had lost his love for the game and asked for his release from the Chiefs.
“My heart was tugging on me to do something that was more aligned with my purpose,” he said. “I wanted to do something bigger than sports. The question kind of sat there in the back of my head throughout my career: What am I going to do after football?”
Although he wasn’t locked in on education — he had no background in teaching — Golden for years had been inspired by his friend and mentor, C.J. Jones, a West Fresno advocate who long encouraged him to open a school when he was done with football. That planted the seed.
Larry Paul, a minority owner of the Steelers, made the three-hour drive from his Los Angeles home to Fresno last week to visit Golden and check out the GCA classes. Paul brought with him a Steelers helmet and Super Bowl ring to show the students.
“Rob’s desire to give back so impactfully to his community should be exemplary and deeply motivating for everyone,” Paul said. “His commitment to this path embodies the best of these professional players.”
Golden met with longtime educator Ed Gonzalez and former Fresno Chaffee Zoo Chief Executive Scott Barton and with them refined the idea of starting a school aimed at promoting equity, access and environmental stewardship. Gonzalez and Barton are now GCA board members, and each of the GCA teachers is a certified zoo docent.
“Zoos often have field trips come and they teach kids about animals,” Barton said. “But that's such a low bar, it's so easy to do that because kids are natural scientists. They love to come and learn about animals.
“What Ed and I talked about is you can use zoos to teach math and physics and chemistry. We do water chemistry every day for our sea lions and stingrays. We could teach art — paint or sculpt this animal — or we could teach geography: Where's this animal from? So we could use the zoo as a model and the children's natural attraction to animals to really inspire learning in every subject.”
Already, that’s paying dividends.
“There’s this really cool exploration that’s happening and I think the families see it,” GCA principal Mandy Breuer said. “It’s a safe place for kids to rethink and reimagine.”
Golden quickly learned that founding a charter school was far more complex and difficult than, say, doing some offseason volunteering with kids in Fresno.
“It was all peaches and cream when it was just programs,” he said. “But when I decided to start my own school, that’s when I started to see the political pushback that comes with charter schools and public schools.”
Then again, as someone who carved out an NFL career as an undrafted free agent out of University of Arizona, he’s cleared his share of daunting hurdles before.
“Somewhere along the line, I realized I wasn’t working with someone who’s like most people,” Gonzalez said. “Rob has this relentless drive and focus on his vision to the degree I’ve never seen with anybody. To be a professional athlete, you have to have that drive. You have to have that, 'I'm going to show you. I’m going to do it.'"
Golden sees meaning in launching his school this year. He started his Steelers career wearing No. 21, but later sold that number to teammate Joe Haden and switched to No. 20.
“I’ve been 20, I’ve been 21,” he said. “So 2021 sounded just right.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.