Thousands of track and field youths have benefitted from Providence Cobras

You can’t fake passion.

When you have the desire and the dedication for anything in life, success often follows.

For 35 years and counting, Thom Spann and Kevin Jackson have shared their passion of track and field to thousands of youth as coaches of the Providence Cobras, a club that has produced numerous all-staters and a few All Americans over the last three-plus decades.

“It’s been hundreds,” said Spann, a track and cross-country coach at Hope High. “Going back to 1984, we’ve had tons of kids. Some of the kids, like Pam Hughes for example, she was All American. She was actually my first all-stater at Hope. She has a daughter that has already graduated from college. Her daughter is running for me now. We have kids whose parents have run for us training with us now.  I lose count on that kind of stuff.”

Spann was at Hope last week conducting one of several summer practice sessions. On one side of the track, Spann along with volunteer coach Steve Gorrigian, a standout sprinter for Toll Gate and Brown University in the 1980s, were assisting about 40 youths in a series of running drills with the primary focus on form and quick leg turnover. On the opposite end, the older members of his track club, a few high-schoolers and some collegiate athletes, were fine tuning their skills, working on resistance training as well as pace and form work.

That’s a typical scenario for the 58-year-old Spann and his Cobras. Nearly every day during the summertime and a few times during the week the remainder of the year, one of R.I. oldest and most successful track & field programs is in business.

“We have a year-round program,” Spann said. “Basically the summer we are five days a week, some of the high school kids come on Tuesdays and Thursdays and they’ll do special events like the hurdles, long jump and triple jump. Our main practices are Monday, Wednesday and Friday. In the fall, we have a cross-country program that goes Monday, Wednesday and Friday. In the winter, during the months of January, February and March, we have a winter program at Moses Brown, two nights a week. We go year round, just like the high school season. We don’t have any time off.”

The Cobras were essentially created in the late 1970s by Jackson and former Brown runner Tinker Morgan. At the time, the two were work-study students at the YMCA on Hope Street. The original name of the club, which primarily serviced the city youths, was the East Side YMCA track team.

Spann, who coached track at North Kingstown and South Kingstown in his early years, joined forces with Jackson in 1981 after moving from South County to Providence where he was the director of the Chad Brown Recreation Center. Morgan left the program during that time after graduating from college.

“I went to the ‘Y’ and said I want to volunteer and Kevin said sure no problem,” Spann recalled. “The rest is history.”

After moving away from the YMCA, which dropped youth sports only a few years after the club started, Spann and Jackson expanded the program to reach other young athletes in the capital city and decided to come up with a more widespread name. Thus was born the Providence Cobras.

“It started out originally in Providence, kids from the East Side and Chad Brown,” Spann said. “That’s how we started the program, to service those kids and do something to the sport of track and field because there wasn’t anything like that being offered. Kids didn’t run track until they got to high school. There was no middle-school program. There was no youth program in the city of Providence and that’s how the Cobras developed.”

Spann and Jackson own a wealth of knowledge in track & field. Spann has been the head coach at Hope for 30 years. Jackson, a city councilman, also coached with Spann as an assistant at Hope and later was a head coach at Pilgrim. He is now in his 13th year at Rhode Island College where he’s the head coach of its men’s and women’s cross-country, indoor and outdoor track teams.

The list of quality athletes that have come out of the Cobras’ program is endless. Hughes was the first to achieve All-American status. She was a top sprinter and jumper for Spann during her high school years in the 1980s and still holds the long jump record of 19 feet, 2.5 inches, set at the New England Championships in 1985. Her daughter, Destiny Hughes-Barnes, was a freshman runner for Spann this past year.

Among other athletes that have been nurtured through the program is former Hope star and multiple state record-holder and champion Royal Cheatham and current standouts Maddy Berkson of Classical and Hope’s Quashira McIntosh. Berkson, a senior-to-be, ran with the Cobras for four years, beginning as a 12-year-old. She has earned several state titles in the middle and long distance events and finished third in the 800 at both the indoor and outdoor nationals this past year. McIntosh just finished her sophomore season for the Blue Wave and already has six individual state crowns in the sprints on her resume and has etched her name several times in the record books.

Cheatham, who graduated from high school last year, is nearly recovered from an ACL injury that prevented her from competing at the outdoor championships in 2012. She was at the track on Wednesday working out with other members of the Cobras’ older group (high school and college).

She reflected on her first time training with the Cobras as a young and inexperienced runner.

“I honestly didn’t like it at all,” she said. “My first few practices Thom would always cuss me out because I would always give him an attitude because I didn’t want to be there. As I got used to it, me and Thom grew a relationship and track got easier and better.”

During her high school career, Cheatham won 13 individual state titles in the sprints and the jumps and was also on five champion relay squads. She also broke numerous state records, some marks that have since been erased by McIntosh. The former Hope standout feels the influence of Spann and the Cobras has been a key to her success.

“It’s been amazing,” she said.

Nell Smith, a 2004 Hope graduate and an All-American runner at Wheaton College, works alongside Spann as his assistant coach. She was at the track on Wednesday monitoring the workouts for the older members of the Cobras.

She began with the Providence-based club when she was in grade school.

“I started out when I was 11 and that was pretty much the first sport I was ever introduced to,” she said. “I loved it. At the beginning, I was really, really horrible. It was just tough. I couldn’t understand why people thought it was fun to run long distances. Then I started running shorter stuff and started getting good. I just enjoyed the sport.”

“(Spann and Jackson) were definitely intimidating,” she continued. “I started when I was a child. I understood how much knowledge they had. I respected that about them because I was getting better, especially coach Thom. As I got to high school, I started getting faster and won a few state meets.”

Smith, who later earned her Master’s degree in Journalism from Columbia University, feels the Cobras were a big part in her development.

“I think it laid the foundation,” she said. “Obviously high school track is different than collegiate track so I was able to draw a lot from what I learned as a Cobras’ runner into college. I think it benefitted me all around because it prepared me for being an All-American athlete. I think I needed that foundation to keep improving.”

The original Providence Cobras were comprised of just youths from the state’s capital. It now has numerous athletes from the state as well as Massachusetts.

“They are from all over Rhode Island and Attleboro, Seekonk, Rehoboth,” said Spann, whose average squad numbers between 75 and 100 athletes.

Due to his hectic schedule as a city councilman, collegiate coach and educational coordinator for the Whitmarsh Corporation in Providence, Jackson isn’t able to attend as many practices or meets as Spann. But his presence is still integral to the program, especially when it comes time to raise money for out-of-state meets.

It was Jackson that helped Hope get a new, state-of-the-art track in 1999 and also the current Providence Career and Technical Academy field house that high schools use for all their meets during the indoor track season.

“(He’s) really busy but he’s our major fundraiser,” Spann said. “He’s not able to come to practice much because of his commitment to politics and his full-time job and he still coaches at Rhode Island College as well.  Kevin is very much involved. He helped us get this track (at Hope) renovated. This used to be a dirt track. This used to be dirt and cinder. Back then the Cobras used to go to Brown (University). (Former Brown coach) Bob Rothenberg would let us practice there. Brown was very helpful. Moses Brown was great. We couldn’t do it without Brown. We couldn’t do it without Moses Brown. We couldn’t do it without the Providence School Department. We have to have a place to practice. They help us out with transportation. It’s not just about us and the kids. The whole community pitches in and makes this program work.”

Competing out of state is common ground for the Cobras, who often travel the country competing in national-level meets, such as the New Balance Nationals and Junior Olympic events.

“We have been to Spokane, Washington to Los Angeles to Salt Lake City to Omaha to Chicago to Houston to Miami to North Carolina to Maine to Baltimore. We have been everywhere,” Spann said. ”We have had a lot of fundraisers. We have used Kevin’s connections, my connections, the parent connections. We have kids that just qualified (two weeks ago) for the National Junior Olympics in Greensboro (N.C.) so we are going down to North Carolina.  Next year the same meet is going to be in Houston, Texas. We have to start raising money now for Texas. A lot of these kids, their parents don’t have the means to go to Texas for a track meet.  Local business people, funds of Hope track, funds of the Cobras, former athletes, we get everybody up. We nickel and dime our way. We used to stand on the corner in front of Stop and Shop with cans and their uniforms on. We haven’t done that in a long time. Now we go through corporates.”

Even though it occupies a good portion of his time throughout the year, Spann wouldn’t have it any other way. He also doesn’t plan to leave the Cobras anytime soon.

“This is my passion. It’s what I love doing. It keeps me young. It keeps me in shape. I try to practice what I preach,” he said.  “Every year you get a new kid that comes along and you kind of hang around and say, ‘Okay, I got to stay around for this kid,” he said. “It’s good now that people like Nell are coming back so I don’t feel bad if I miss a few days here and there. I didn’t travel as much last summer because I was away on vacation with the family; knowing that we have former athletes coming back and helping that’s a big thing.”

Spann believes the Cobras or any other organized athletic club is a benefit to younger kids.

“Anything that can keep kids off the street, any program be it track, basketball, football, is a plus,” he said. “With all the problems we have with our unemployment, violence, 12-year-old girls getting shot, anything that we can do to keep kids motivated and keep them in a structured program. A lot of what you learn in track you can carry over to everyday life. Making a commitment, being dedicated, hard work, sacrificing, how to be a winner, learn how to be a loser. All those little things come into play in real life. Everything we do here, we don’t just teach them about track, we teach them life lessons and hopefully it benefits them later on.”