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

"We're 4-0, but I tell you, this has been the hardest season of my life," grumbles Dre's brother Darrell Greene, the team's offensive coordinator. "It's the worst season, so hard, so difficult. I mean, man, this team can go to the Super Bowl! If they just stay focused, they can go."

The National Football League's annual Super Bowl has become an unofficial American holiday, watched by nearly 130 million people nationwide. But in terms of pure passion, the Super Bowl of the Greater Miami Pop Warner football league may eclipse its grown-up counterpart. Nearly 6500 people turned out for the two days of last year's championships, held in Liberty City's Curtis Park. That's 6500 people to watch kids as young as six (and as Lilliputian as 65 pounds) play football.

When Darrell Greene says that "the Super Bowl is what it's all about," he's not referring to the professional game. "When I was a kid playing Optimists, we won a championship in 1975," Greene recalls. "I'll never forget that banquet afterward, how good we all felt from moving toward a goal and accomplishing it together. I want these kids to understand that feeling."

To win the Super Bowl in Miami-Dade County is to beat the best young teams in the nation. The local Pop Warner leagues (also known as Optimist football, after the charity that sponsors several teams) are the breeding grounds for the county's superlative high school teams; local high schools have won four of the past six Class 6A state championships. In turn, many of the county's top high school players stay in-state to play for America's best college programs: The University of Miami, Florida State, and the University of Florida have won five of the past ten national championships.

"The success of the University of Miami a few years ago inspired a lot more inner-city kids to play Optimist football, which has really improved the overall quality of football in Dade County," affirms Billy Rolle, head football coach at Northwestern High, the 1995 Class 6A state champs. "Our high school teams are some of the best in the country, and I think that's due in large part to the strength of our Optimists."

The Boys and Girls Clubs' Daron Chiverton, commissioner of Gwen Cherry's football program, believes football is ideally suited for the kids who grow up in and around the Scott Homes. "Football is the most natural for them," says Chiverton. "Basketball puts limits on their aggression; baseball puts limits on their aggression. In football they had better well be aggressive. And with the background of these kids, where these kids come from, aggression comes naturally."

Danny Dye, who coaches a 65-pound team and is the stepfather of the 80s' quarterback, offers another theory about why football dominates Miami's inner city. "I could sum that up in a couple of words: Everybody wants to see their kid play in the NFL."

Indeed, despite brutally long odds, several parents who stalk the sidelines on game days see football as a legitimate career option for their progeny. The Boston-based Center for the Study of Sport and Society reports that only one in one hundred high school football and basketball players will earn a college scholarship and only one in ten thousand will play pro sports. Yet a few who have beaten those odds came from this very neighborhood; Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brett Perriman and New York Jets linebacker Marvin Jones both played for Northwestern in the late Eighties. Coach Streeter, a former Northwestern linebacker, played college ball for the University of Colorado and professionally in the Canadian Football League. Such anecdotal evidence is hard for some parents to ignore. "It's realistic!" imparts Tim Torrence, a coach of the 105s and father of a linebacker who plays for the 80s.

"Somebody a long time ago came to the idea that this -- football -- was the very best way to show that we could make it out, that we could rise above the slave mentality, segregation, and really be what we want to be," theorizes Carlos Guy, an aide to County Commissioner James Burke and the uncle of a boy on the 65s. "With the generations that passed since then, over time, things have gotten stronger and stronger. It's not a part of the culture now. It is the culture."

And the culture reveals itself at the Super Bowl. Speedy wide receiver Sammie Bush played in last year's Super Bowl for one of the Liberty City Warriors' 65-pound teams. Now with the Bulls, he dreams of making it back. "We was 10-0," he says of last year's final against the Northwest Boys Club Falcons. Time was running out as Liberty City marched toward the end zone in pursuit of a game-tying touchdown. "The clock was ticking, and the crowd was chanting 'three ... two ... one,' when their team intercepted the ball," Sammie remembers wistfully. "I hope to meet them this year in the Super Bowl. It'll be exciting to see them try to beat the Bulls."

Noon is the scheduled kickoff for today's home game against the Inner City Jaguars, based in M. Athalie Range Park across from Edison High School. At close to two o'clock, players and coaches still laze under a shade tree near the field, wondering where their opponents are. Eventually, and reluctantly, Charlie Brown calls the game. "All right, those niggas be scared of us. They forfeit," announces Coach Dre, prompting his players to cheer. "Listen, listen!" he instructs, hushing the celebration. "This don't mean we're off the hook. We don't want to win this way."

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