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UCLA Transformative Coaching and Leadership Alums Making Waves in the NFL

Flip on an NFL game any given Sunday and you’re more than likely to spot at least one UCLA alum somewhere on the gridiron.

Consistently one of the top-ranked programs in the NCAA, the UCLA Football machine has exported hundreds of professional players over the years, with nearly 40 former Bruins currently active on NFL rosters. Another handful tote clipboards or sport headsets on NFL coaching staffs. 

What you may not realize, however, is that nearly a dozen of those alums hold Transformative Coaching and Leadership (TCL) Masters degrees from UCLA’s School of Education and Information Studies. Taught by legendary former Bruin coaches and renowned UCLA instructors, the program emphasizes a holistic understanding of persons, an ethic of social justice and the development of one’s own coaching and leadership philosophy. 

This fall alone, nearly a dozen graduates of that TCL program are suiting up for NFL organizations, representing Bruin Nation coast-to-coast, from Seattle to New England. 

Selected by the Patriots in the fifth round of this April’s NFL Draft, Northern California native Atonio Mafi is back east as one of 14 offensive linemen playing for eight-time Super Bowl Champion coach Bill Belichick. In Los Angeles, there’s Chargers defensive tackle Otito Ogbonnia and Rams safety Quentin Lake. 

Meanwhile, 2022 UCLA alum Qwuantrezz Knight recently inked a new contract with the 49ers before being poached by the Arizona Cardinals earlier this month. The six-foot cornerback and former team captain at UCLA was kicking off his second year with the Gold Rush, following a season of work as a reserve defensive back.

“I was able to learn a lot, despite not playing my first year,” Knight says. “(Just) watching how the league operates on the business side and how big-name players move throughout the NFL – I was able to sit back and take in all of that.”

A fan favorite at the Rose Bowl, Knight was turning heads at San Francisco’s training camp practices. Known for his on-field enthusiasm, the former East Gadsden High (Gretna, Fla.) standout’s leadership skills have been on display in the Bay Area since his arrival. 

This past winter, he was one of several 49ers players that brought joy to the families of incarcerated men at San Quentin State Prison (California’s largest and oldest correctional institution) by providing holiday gifts from the wishlists of their children, nieces and nephews. 

Knight didn’t think twice about providing a helping hand when the opportunity presented itself.

“Nothing’s changed,” he says. “I’m still the Q Knight that Bruin Nation knows.”

Studying John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success as part of his coursework at UCLA, Knight says the Wizard of Westwood’s framework of successful behaviors continues to guide his actions as a professional.

“Wooden’s Pyramid… all that goes beyond sports,” Knight explains. “Shout out to the Bruin Nation. Fours up for life. The aspects of leadership that we talked about every day (at UCLA) can be applied to anything, even business. 

“Even though I’m a young guy, there are still players that look to me as a leader and I’m always talking to the team and giving guys encouraging words.”

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Qwuantrezz Knight surprised the families of incarcerated men in 2022 as he delivered Christmas gifts to the children of San Quentin State Prison inmates. Ben Warden/49ers.

Knight’s optimism and guiding presence were recognized by San Francisco’s coaching staff this past spring as he was named Practice Squad Player of the Year. During his playing days at UCLA, Knight also joined several of his graduate school classmates in the TCL program as they mentored local student athletes at Crenshaw High in South Central Los Angeles. 

Leading that ten-week mentorship program was one of Knight’s UCLA School of Education and Information Studies professors, Dr. Julia Pelikhova. The TCL program advisor, who has worked as a counselor in Los Angeles public schools for over a decade, says Knight and his classmates’ impact on the students was considerable. 

Each of her grad students guided a pair of Crenshaw pupils. 

“(They) led the young players in huddles, made sure to teach them teamwork, and inspired confidence in their ability to overcome barriers,” says Pelikhova, adding that most of her program alumni have remained in contact with those Crenshaw students to this day.

“Everyone can tell that football, for Qwuantrezz, is a way to inspire others,” Pelikohova recalls. “Q Knight is an unforgettable young man and he often talked about being a role model for inner city youth.

“His ‘hype’ energy was felt in the classroom among peers during group discussions,” she added. “And he always had something insightful to add. But, most importantly, it always came from the heart.”

Small wins, Knight says, are the Cardinals’ main focus as they gear up for a week No. 4 showdown against Knight’s former team, in San Francisco, on Oct. 1.

“Things aren’t going to happen overnight,” he acknowledges. “But you stay the course and get better each and every day. And I brought that same attitude into (this) offseason. 

“And hopefully, at the end of the day, after those small wins, it’ll be enough to be a player on any NFL staff.”

Learn more about UCLA’s Transformative Coaching and Leadership Master of Education program.

UCLA School of Education and Information Studies alumnus Quentin Lake (‘22) is gearing up for his second season with the Los Angeles Rams. Los Angeles Rams/Courtesy photo