One evening last July, Marcell Frazier plopped down on an air mattress in a classroom full of high schoolers in northwest Oregon.

“I remember lying in bed and thinking, ‘Man, I’m not even getting paid to be here,’” Frazier said.

By “here,” Frazier was referring to Camp Rilea Football Team Camp. The skills camp takes place at the campsite on the Oregon coast each summer, attracting prep players in the region from as close as nearby Astoria and as far as Canada.

Frazier’s presence at the camp might have been hard to imagine in December 2017 when Frazier, then a standout defensive lineman at Missouri, left Columbia for the NFL. He went undrafted before spending time with the Seattle Seahawks and Cleveland Browns. He also had two practice squad stints in the Canadian Football League.

Yet there he was at 25 years old, NFL dream sitting idle, months into a job coaching at Portland’s David Douglas High School. All 6-foot-5, 260 pounds of him was tucked into a sleeping bag at a summer camp wondering what, exactly, he was doing there.

Shared backgrounds

On Saturday afternoon, Frazier’s pro football career will begin again when he makes his debut for the Seattle Dragons as a member of the new-fangled XFL.

It’s been 548 days since he played in a football game, last appearing with the Browns in August 2018. When Frazier returns to the field, the chase for another shot at the NFL will be on again. His outlook on the opportunity, after a year coaching teenagers at his alma mater, has changed now.

Lying down in a classroom and trying to fall asleep quickly provided perspective. It didn’t take Frazier long to remind himself what he was doing there at Camp Rilea.

“Think about how much of an impact this will have on the kids?” he thought to himself.

He knew the neighborhoods those kids grew up in, the family lives they came from and the perilous paths others before them had gone down in their particular neck of East Portland. Frazier was familiar with their backgrounds because their backgrounds were his background, too.

He knows just how fast a community can change. As a student at David Douglas, Frazier witnessed friends descend into crime, watched peers fall into drugs and had classmates who were murdered.

That’s why he was there, sleeping on that air mattress, and why he was back at David Douglas in the first place.

And it’s why when it became clear that a number of his players couldn’t afford to attend the camp, Frazier turned to the David Douglas community for help. In the end, he managed to send half of the players sleeping in that classroom to Camp Rilea for free.

“Marcell believed in our kids,” said Greg Carradine, the school’s athletic director. “They felt like they had someone who cared about them, someone who was in their corner. He was a champion for them and their success and their future.

“We hadn’t seen anything like that before.”

The turning point

In the 23 years that Carradine has worked at David Douglas, he’s seen the demographics of the school and community itself evolve, for better and worse.

The corner of East Portland that the David Douglas school district covers is home to a strong immigrant population and includes refugees from war-torn nations such as Myanmar and Somalia. In turn, the school is recognized as one of the most diverse in the state, with as many as 60 different languages spoken on campus. A majority of the student body also comes from low income households. Of the 3,000-plus students at David Douglas, 74% receive free or reduced meals. Carradine boasts that David Douglas hasn’t hiked fees for its families in nearly a decade.

But in the community, issues have been mounting for years.

When Frazier returned for his senior year after a short time living in Las Vegas, he noticed a difference. Friends were beginning to sell drugs. Classmates were getting murdered. Administrators, teachers and coaches weren’t equipped to slow the spiraling situation. Memorial services in the school auditorium were becoming all too frequent.

In the summer after Frazier’s sophomore year, his dad was driving him to a workout when the pair noticed police tape and a broken down fence outside a nearby home. A drug deal gone bad. A classmate Frazier had seen walk across the stage in a cap and gown weeks earlier had been murdered.

That was the turning point at David Douglas.

“I think that’s when they sensed that they had to step up their coaching,” Frazier said. “It was more about mentorship and guidance and love. That’s what’s important.”

As the attitude around the school evolved, so did the coaching and mentoring philosophy within the athletic department, and Carradine came up with a culture-defining outlook for measuring success: At the end of an athlete’s season or career, when they take off their uniform, what did he or she take away from the experience? Work ethic? Discipline? Communication? Handling failure?

“Essential life lessons that make a real impact on the athletes,” said head football coach Cal Szueber.

Carradine admits it’s cliche, but he stands by the mantra and where it has taken his students. The goal — not all that long ago — was just to keep students alive.

‘Belief’

When free agent interest from the NFL and CFL slowed in October 2018, Frazier came home to Portland. For the first time since fifth grade, there was no football to play. It was time for him to set up his life, even if he knew football would only be on the backburner for so long.

A few months later, while pursuing a masters in education online, Frazier joined the coaching staff at David Douglas. At school, he was a coach. He was a study hall monitor. He even spent a few days as a substitute teacher. But it was the opportunity to be a mentor he valued most.

Respect, among the defensive linemen Frazier worked with, was earned, not given. The players didn’t care that he’d played in the SEC or about the accolades he received while doing it. They didn’t care which NFL teams he played for, either. None of that mattered.

What did matter, though, was that Frazier was from David Douglas. He was the model for getting out and getting to the top. To them, Marcell Frazier was a walking example of what they had to do in order to play football in college or to simply not end up in a holding pattern. He was someone they could relate to, someone they could connect with and someone they could emulate.

“For them to see an African American guy from their neighborhood who had ascended to the top levels of football, that was massive,” Frazier said. “We just didn’t have representation in the coaching staff when I was young. That doesn’t always matter in coaching, but it does matter sometimes in mentorship and character development to have someone you can relate to.”

When Frazier took the job, he thought deeply about what he wanted his players to take away when they had their “take off the uniform” moment. The word he came back to was “belief” — to have belief in themselves as athletes and as people. “Belief” became the buzzword for the season.

Some days, instilling belief came in the form of encouragement. Frazier wasn’t the only recent David Douglas graduate to go pro, and he told his players stories about Owa Odighizuwa and Samson Ebukam, who both went on to play in the NFL. “They came from the same backgrounds as you guys,” Frazier told them. “There’s no reason that can’t be you, too.”

Other times, belief was summoned through quiet talks on the sideline. One Friday night, a particularly short-fused defensive lineman came off the field frustrated after a series of mistakes. Szueber and Carradine weren’t sure if he’d be able to return to the field. After Frazier pulled the player aside, he returned refocused and ready to go. He believed in himself again.

Sometimes, all Frazier’s players needed was a postgame chat at a local burrito joint.

“I wanted them to know that they could accomplish whatever it was they wanted to do,” Frazier said.

By season’s end, their confidence on the field and off of it had swelled, and the Scots won their first conference game since 2015.

Lasting impact

As Frazier progresses into his next chapter, there are bittersweet feelings with the idea that he’ll no longer get to see his players each day. His impact in the short time he was back at David Douglas is incalculable. There’s no telling how much of a difference he made, how many lives he changed or how many outcomes he altered. The lone tangible moments Frazier can speak to with certainty were those days at Camp Rilea.

At first, he intended to sponsor his guys, the defensive linemen, out of pocket. But when Frazier saw just how many players needed assistance, he understood the extent of the situation. Thinking back, he wasn’t sure if his parents could have covered the cost back when he was in high school. That’s when he turned to the community. Once word spread, donations began pouring in. Small contributions of $10 and $20 helped send nearly 20 kids to the camp.

Camp Rilea was not only an opportunity for skill development and team building. It was also the ultimate confidence booster. Competing with kids from all over the region, the players from David Douglas grew during the camp, becoming more assured as the days went on. On the final day, David Douglas won the camp’s passing league championship.

At Camp Rilea, Frazier’s players got to do all the things a real football team should do.

“He gave them the opportunity of a lifetime,” Carradine said. “They got the chance to go compete at a camp, and when the football season began, they felt that they belonged. Their confidence was changed.”

As Frazier heads into this next journey in the XFL, he leaves David Douglas certain that he achieved what he set out to do there. When his players took off their jerseys at the end of this season, they believed in themselves. He helped get them there.

But what about Frazier himself? As Carradine would ask, what did he get from the experience?

Frazier will tell you it was humbling and that it changed his approach to football. After surviving the rigors of the SEC, the enthusiasm he saw in his players renewed his own vigor for the game. They showed him that “football is still fun.”

As Frazier trades in his coaching polo for a jersey, he says he’s grateful for this next opportunity and thankful for the chance he had to make a difference at David Douglas.

That experience will travel with him to the season opener in Washington D.C. and far beyond.

“When I was there as a student it was about saving men,” Frazier said. “Things have changed so much at David Douglas, for the better. For me now, there won’t be any second guesses.”