Coming of Age on the 50-Yard Line

Most of the boys who play in Gwen Cherry Park's pop warner football program live in the Scott Projects, but they do their growing up on the gridiron

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Coming of Age on the 50-Yard Line
Most of the boys who play in Gwen Cherry Park's pop warner football program live in the Scott Projects, but they do their growing up on the gridiron

By Robert Andrew Powell
What politics is to the Cuban community, football is to the black community.
-- Richard Dunn, former Miami city commissioner

On Friday, Gwen Cherry Park rests. An empty Doritos bag tumbles across the abandoned main football field, lodging itself in one of the hollow diamonds of a chainlink fence. With all the kids in school, no noise bounces off the steel roof of the new gymnasium, a gift from the National Football League. A low-riding Toyota glides down NW 71st Street past the Scott housing project, its muted bass groove cutting the silence, its metallic gold rims glittering in the light of a sun that burns hot at noon on an early autumn day.

Saturday the park comes alive. Hundreds of neighbors have turned out to watch the eight Gwen Cherry teams sponsored by the Greater Miami Boys and Girls Clubs -- all nicknamed the Bulls -- battle for Pop Warner football superiority. Right now the 80-pound Bulls (Pop Warner teams aren't divided according to age but by their weight, which ranges from 65 pounds to 140 pounds) hold a 10-0 lead over Palmetto. Ten-year-old Bulls wide receiver Sammie Bush, barely taller than a man's hip, snags a lateral and, finding himself free of any defenders, darts 45 yards for a touchdown. Six coaches dressed in matching blue-and-yellow shirts, caps, and sneakers gleefully trade high fives and slap their clipboards. Twenty tiny cheerleaders shake pompons.

It's hot out here, it's hot out here
There must be a Bull in the atmosphere!
Beyond the yellow rope that separates the players from their followers, a half-dozen barbecue grills pump out a cloud of charcoal smoke and chicken fat that drifts over the field like a misty blimp. One young spectator parks his rear end on a bicycle seat. His neighbor rests his on a metal folding chair. Standing up in the fifth and highest row of the flimsy bleachers, the gits -- local slang for gang members -- puff on blunts while they berate the coaches.

Y'all better start throwing the ball!
The Gwen Cherry Bulls 80-pounders have dispatched their first three opponents this season -- South Dade, Richmond, and Tamiami -- with relative ease. With a shutout against Palmetto an imminent possibility, Bulls players have already started celebrating. Sammie Bush choreographs Deion Sanders dance steps while linebacker Richard Dunn, son of the former Miami city commissioner, pushes his palms skyward, "raising the roof" on an impending 4-0 record.

"Every Saturday is a festival in this park," beams Charlie Brown, executive athletic director of the Boys and Girls Clubs. "With the inner city, there's basically nothing planned or organized on a weekly basis for people to do. Our football games are a day people can look forward to spending with their neighbors and their families, just enjoying the afternoon."

A fight breaks out on the sideline. Linebacker Steven Green's dad excoriates his son for a mental mistake. The critique is overheard by the boy's stepfather, who is standing not far off, talking on a cellular phone. "That's my motherfucking son!" shouts the stepfather, flashing a mouthful of gold teeth. He turns back to his phone: "Excuse me, I got to deal with this guy." Then: "I'll kick your ass right now, boy!"

The men lunge at one another but are quickly restrained by coaches. The natural father slips free and sprints across the field, hurdling the railroad tracks and disappearing into the Scott projects. "Is he getting a gun?" a spectator wonders aloud. Steven Green's mother grabs her son without wiping the tears from his smooth brown face, pulls him off the field, and incarcerates him in the passenger seat of her car.

"Pay attention! Pay attention!" head coach Andre "Dre" Greene shouts to his squad, most of whom have turned from the action on the field to watch the fracas. "Keep your head in the game, y'all! We still playing a game!"

Not for long. Only four minutes later a second fight erupts. The mothers of Tony Brown and Darrell "Dee" Samuel, both running backs, have been arguing throughout the game about their sons' respective playing time. Both kids' teachers filed "unacceptable" progress reports earlier in the week, forcing the coach to bench the boys for at least part of the game. Yet (and apparently by accident) Dre put one of the boys into the game earlier than he was supposed to, and tempers flared.

"The mother of Tony starts ragging on Dee, saying he only has one finger," imparts defensive back coach Tommy Streeter. (Nine-year-old Dee was born with a malformed left hand.) "You don't ever be saying that!" warns Streeter. "Not to a kid, and especially not to his mother. That's why they scrapped."

Two county police cruisers arrive after the second fight has died down. The officers stroll among the remaining participants of both altercations, calmly asking questions. When the game ends anticlimactically in another Bulls victory, no one cheers.

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