When he was a teenager, Verlain Betofe had a run-in with the law that changed the direction of his life. Today, the Indiana State graduate has created a program to help other inner-city youth avoid making bad choices in their lives.
“Where I grew up in southeast San Diego, there weren’t very many good role models around,” he said. “I always dreamed of being someone that young people could look up to for the right reasons and having a positive impact on the lives of others.”
Returning to San Diego after graduating from Indiana State, Betofe created the Team Makasi program to give young people the kind of guidance he didn’t have growing up. With a motto of “A Strong Youth is a Strong Future,” Betofe’s Team Makasi has helped about 35 teens get football scholarship offers from universities.
“There are a lot of kids out there with talents and possibilities, but they often get lost,” he said. “They just need someone to help show them the way. No one helped me back then, and I’m lucky I got out. Many kids don’t.”
Born in Zaire in central Africa, Betofe moved to America with his parents, Cathy and Joseph, when he was 3 years old. The family settled in San Diego, where Betofe’s mother became a nursing assistant.
“It was a rough neighborhood,” Betofe said. “That’s just the way it was. A large percentage of my friends were caught up in gangs or doing drugs. Many of them are now in prison or dead. There’s not a lot of success rate where I grew up.”
The second youngest of three boys and three girls, Betofe’s childhood dream was to grow up to be an NBA player. “Basketball was my first love until I realized I’m not going to be 6’8” tall,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s ironic that it’s actually football that got me the scholarship.”
A talented athlete, Betofe was a wide receiver for Madison High School and went on to earn all-league honors his senior year. He also played basketball for the Madison Warhawks and was a two-time all-league basketball player.
But neighborhood street life almost derailed his future. “I was a knucklehead,” he said. “When I was 17 years old, me and a couple of my buddies got caught up in a big fight. After the fight, some people took stuff so it became a robbery case.”
Since he was 17 at the time, Betofe wasn’t charged as an adult. “I was put on probation for two years, but it made me realize how serious the law can be. I decided to start living my life in a positive way and trying to be a positive leader for others.”
After graduating from high school, Betofe played wide receiver at San Diego Mesa College where he earned all-league honors. Receiving more than half a dozen offers, Betofe signed a Division 1 scholarship with Indiana State for the last three years of his undergraduate college career. The decision, Betofe says, helped him become the man he is.
“I had never seen snow. I didn’t even have a winter coat when I went to Indiana. I thought a sweater would be sufficient. I had a lot to learn. I was just 19 years old and it was a big adjustment,” Betofe said with a laugh.
“The first time it snowed, I called my mom and told her there was a whole bunch of cold white stuff falling in the air,” he said. “It was crazy. Real culture shock.”
Choosing a double major in history and Africa and African American studies, Betofe learned to use his time wisely. “Playing football is a full-time job. Going to college is a full-time job. But I definitely enjoyed my three years at ISU, and I made friends that are still my friends.”
When times got rough, Betofe said, he learned to keep going and he credits College of Arts and Sciences Dean Chris Olsen for guiding him along the way.
“ISU helped me grow and mature, and Dr. Olsen helped me so much,” Betofe said. “I thank him for helping me through a lot of tough times. He pushed me and challenged me and was always there for me. He has meant a lot in my life.”
When he graduated in 2010, Betofe’s parents were there to see their son walk across the commencement stage in the Hulman Center. “That is one of my happiest memories.”
Betofe went on to earn a master’s degree in education from Ashford University in 2013. Betofe decided to return to his old neighborhood in San Diego and make a difference in young people’s lives.
He founded Team Maskasi, named after the Lingala word for strength or strong, and uses his sports connections to help students stay in school. “I mentor kids, train them and help them with academic achievement,” he said.
Betofe coached Madison Warhawks to two California State championships in five years and helped propel them into one of the best high school teams in San Diego. He also was a coach at Mesa College but recently accepted a job at Lincoln High School as the football team’s offensive coordinator. Lincoln has been ranked as one of the top teams in San Diego this coming year. In addition, Betofe is a substitute teacher in English and history classes.
“I’ve seen so many kids wasting their athletic and educational potential due to a lack of direction and opportunity,” he said. “Working with kids is my passion and what I love doing.”
Young people relate to him because “I can be honest with them. I can say, ‘Come on, man, I know where you’re coming from because I was there myself. Whatever you think you’ve done, I’ve done it, too,’” he said.
“I was blessed to make it out, and I want to help other kids have that chance,” he said. “I want them to know that the sky’s the limit. It’s all up to them to reach for it. If you are willing to put in the work and have some discipline, you can achieve whatever you set your mind to, that’s how the universe works.”
His goal, Betofe said, is “to be remembered as someone who made a positive impact on the world and helped inner city/less fortunate kids get an equal opportunity. My family, coaching football and Team Makasi are my life, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It’s a blessing from the man upstairs.”