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

Even as Dre speaks, a yellow school bus rolls across the grass and comes to a stop near the football field. Teams of turquoise Jaguars spill out the door and onto the field. Inner City has arrived. "All right, it's showtime!" Coach Streeter shouts. "Get hyped, y'all!"

Nine-year-old Greg Finnie, sporting a Nike headband, Nike wristbands, and Nike cleats, leaps up to lead the cheers. "Everybody ready to throw down?" he hollers. "Yes we are!" the team shouts back. "Breakdown!" The Bulls peel off a series of rhythmic chants. "Bulls, Bulls, Bulls, no limit Bulls! ... Undefeated, undefeated, undefeated! Can't be beaten, can't be beaten, can't be beaten! ... Blue get ready to roll! Gold get ready to roll!..." They stomp their feet and slap twice on their thigh pads. "Blue and gold, rolling to the Super Bowl!"

Under Coach Dre's command, the players drop to one knee to say a prayer. The younger Richard Dunn cranes his neck to catch the attention of his father, standing among the spectators. "This is the part I like best," confides the older Dunn, a minister. "It's holistic, you know?"

When the amens have been said, Coach Dre wraps up his pep talk. "They made us wait. Get mad," he orders. "What are you going to do?"

"Punch them in the mouth!" one boy shouts.
"That's not the answer I was looking for," Dre responds. "No, you-all saying the wrong thing. Teamwork. Play as a team. Teamwork. Let's go! Get mad!"

Through the Second World War and into the 1950s, Gwen Cherry Park was a rock pit. From about 1954, when Scott Homes was built, until 1963, the pit was filled with trash and construction debris. The county park opened in 1980, on top of the landfill. But county, state, and federal environmental officials have recently discovered high levels of lead and arsenic in the park's soil. Although the environmentalists insist there's no danger to the kids who play there, further soil and water testing is under way to determine whether the park qualifies as a Superfund site, making it eligible for federal clean-up money.

"The state and the feds -- the big wheels -- are all here," reports Charlie Brown at a town meeting called in early October to address the contamination. "If it was just the Metro-Dade Parks, maybe this could have been swept under the rug. But for the NFL to spend all that money to find this out, they're not going to be pleased. Not at all."

Brown is referring to the National Football League's Youth Education Town Center, a gleaming year-old complex constructed with a million-dollar grant the NFL awarded in 1995 in conjunction with Super Bowl XXIX. Besides a new football field and a 9000-square-foot gym, the center offers two computer labs, tutoring, and arts-and-crafts classes. NationsBank, the Miami Dolphins, and other businesses covered the rest of the center's $3.1 million cost. The county maintains and protects the building, while the Boys and Girls Clubs provides the recreational programs.

"That center was the best thing to happen to this community, ever," states Danny Dye.

In the years before the YET center was built, Gwen Cherry youth football floundered. Coaches recall scrambling for cash to pay bus drivers to haul teams to away games. Although money had been set aside to purchase both practice and game uniforms, the game jerseys never appeared. Several coaches say the teams' former administrator Anthony Dawkins wore out his welcome in the community he served. "He was going to get himself hurt," asserts coach A.D. Williams, who has worked at the park for eight years. "I mean physically hurt. People were threatening him, driving by his house, accusing him of mismanaging the program and stealing funds. So he got out. He left before Charlie [Brown] and the other administrators asked him to leave."

Brown takes a diplomatic posture regarding his predecessor. "I commend Anthony Dawkins for coming in and trying to make it work," he offers calmly. "But with the Boys and Girls Clubs running the program, it gets a different respect. We came in with a 40-year history of being involved with youth. He was a single venture. Things just didn't work out for him. He wasn't prepared."

Dawkins admits he transferred money from one account to another, in violation of standard bookkeeping practices. And without a staff, he could provide only so much service. But he didn't break any laws and all the money went to the kids. "It was inexperience," he says. "Yes, I shouldn't have bought T-shirts for the kids with money set aside to pay the refs. Yes, it was run inefficiently. If I had been doing this for 40 years [like the Boys and Girls Clubs], I'd probably be doing it better."

The former administrator, who confirms that county police investigated him for embezzlement, points out that he was never charged with any crime. "Do you think if I took government money I'd still be walking around free?" he asks. His problems with the community, Dawkins theorizes, stem from the community itself. "I am a local boy," he argues. "Too local. I grew up in the Scott projects. The people there would see me get a grant from the county and they'd say, 'Why should he have the opportunity?'"

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