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

The Boys and Girls Clubs took over the football program in August 1996. One young player showed up for the first practice with a loaded pistol. At the second practice, when a coach scolded one of his players, a gang of young men watching from the sidelines stormed the field and physically attacked him. The park adopted the colors and nickname of the champion Northwestern Bulls. Not one Gwen Cherry team made the playoffs.

This year coaches and parents sport yellow T-shirts emblazoned with the team's new slogan: "From the bottom to the top, don't miss the climb, Gwen Cherry football."

Now, as the 80s prepare to storm the field after finishing their breakdowns, Charlie Brown pulls Coach Dre aside. Even though the Jaguars are here, the referees have already left. It's too late now to get a new crew, so Inner City must -- officially, this time -- forfeit. The Jaguars head coach explains that his administrator misread the schedule and wrote down the wrong starting time for the game. The administrator: Anthony Dawkins.

The play is a halfback pass. Keith Holmes is in at quarterback, Frankie Adams at halfback. For this practice drill, there are no defenders. "Hut one, hut two," barks Keith. "Hike!" As two wide receivers sprint down the sideline, Keith drops back two steps, turns, and hands the ball to the tiny halfback. Frankie carries it five yards toward the sideline, plants his foot, cocks his right arm, and throws.

"WHOOOOoooooooooeeee!" A whistle erupts in unison from three teenage spectators as the ball sails over their heads, the WHOOOO commencing the moment the ball leaves Frankie's fingertips, the last of the eeees sounding as the tight spiral lands perfectly in Sammie Bush's arms, 45 yards down the field. "That git can throw!"

It's an amazing sight, Frankie throwing a football. It doesn't seem physically possible that a boy only 43 inches tall, encumbered by shoulder and elbow pads and a helmet looking as big as an apple crate, can chuck a ball so far. Yet he does, every time, effortlessly. Not only can he throw the ball, he can also kick accurate field goals of 35 yards, making him -- at age ten -- the only kicker in the entire park. Thanks to Frankie, the Bulls are the only team in their league that regularly kicks for an extra two points after touchdowns (which owing to their difficulty at this level are worth twice as much as a running play).

But it's the throwing that dazzles the sideline gits at this practice, one of the few that Frankie attends. When asked why Frankie isn't the team's regular quarterback, defensive coordinator Anthony Snelling twirls a finger around his ear. "That boy be messed up in the head," Snelling declares. "He's got all the talent in the world, all the talent in the world, yet he'd rather play on the train tracks with his boys than play with the real men over here. Ain't that right, Frankie?"

Frankie finds himself in constant trouble at school, where he often fails to complete his homework and acts up in class. "He's screwing up," declares Coach Streeter, who frequently visits his players' schools to check on their academic progress. Frankie's file at Lillie C. Evans Elementary is crammed with disciplinary reports. One of his fifth-grade teachers tells Streeter that it's the boy's boundless energy that gets him into so much trouble. He's a good-humored, smart kid, reports the teacher, but he needs to be less disruptive in the classroom.

Three out of every four children in the Scott Homes are raised by a single parent, usually a mother, says the Boys and Girls Clubs' Daron Chiverton. He believes that age eleven is the cutoff, the time when kids choose to work within the system or to reject it. This dismal vision, that Frankie is on the cusp of doom at age ten, is shared by many Bulls coaches.

"Society says you're a man when you turn eighteen," observes defensive line coach Gary Robinson. "But in real life, rites of passage come much earlier than eighteen. Especially for some of the kids in the Scott Homes. Many of them are the man of the house at age twelve or thirteen. Their parents might be at work, so they have to work in the house helping to raise their brothers and sisters. And some of them can't handle that."

Robinson scans the practice field, where Frankie continues to uncork bombs. "Hopefully none of them will fail in life, but if I had to tell you realistically, and generously, only maybe 30 percent will turn out to be full successes. The other 70 percent? Realistically? Forget about it."

Despite his talents, Frankie plays sparingly on game days. With the exception of kickoffs and extra points, he whiles away most quarters on the bench, absently flipping his kicking tee. In close games Coach Dre itches to insert his secret weapon to drop one of those bombs on the other team's unsuspecting defense. Sometimes he gets to, when Frankie has shown up for practice and stayed out of trouble in school. Usually he does not. "My wife [a teacher at Frankie's school] comes home every day telling me, 'Ain't no way that boy should be playing this Saturday. Ain't no way!'"

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