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

Frankie says he learned how to throw and kick by watching his three older brothers. "I was good at kicking kickballs, but I didn't know how to kick a football. I kept kicking from the top of the ball, but my brother Cecil taught me to kick from the bottom," he says, punctuating this recollection by spitting on the ground.

When asked what his favorite food is, Frankie unspools a verbal list that embraces the entire nutritional pyramid. "I like macaroni, chicken, rice, spinach, carrots, potato salad, hot dogs, cupcakes, hamburgers," he says, taking more than two minutes to end on crabcakes, which he apologizes for not putting first. He wishes he could have $5000 to buy his mama a house and a pool and a car. "I'd buy myself a little fish, and I'd build a pond with big fishing poles." He also wishes he lived in Heaven.

Why isn't he playing quarterback? "'Cause Coach won't let me play," he responds, spitting again. Is it because of his schoolwork? No response. Why is he struggling so much in school? If the question makes Frankie uncomfortable, he tries not to show it. Instead he snakes his pink tongue around the rim of a can of strawberry soda, spitting out what he finds. His eyes fix on a man diving into a Dumpster in search of aluminum. Absently he rubs the shredded skin of his index finger into one of several infected, nickel-size scabs on his shins. When he realizes that an answer is expected, he continues to poke at his wounds. Eventually he just shrugs.

The Bulls squeak past South Miami 8-0, on a touchdown and Frankie's extra two points. Six games into the season, the team is undefeated, and the dream of a berth in the playoffs is inching closer to being a reality. All that stands in the team's way is next week's road trip to Goulds, which is also undefeated. "Coach told us whoever wins the Goulds game is going to the Super Bowl," relays linebacker Vincent Powell as he dons his helmet before practice.

Most of the spectators at the practices are women -- mothers, usually, though a few men do drive up to the field to lean against their car doors and watch a son or nephew scrimmage. In greeting one another, the men invariably employ the same salutation: coach. "That's a thing that we do in this culture," explains Carlos Guy. "Whenever a man out here sees another man, and they don't know each other, they call each other 'coach.' It's a sign of respect for what they are doing out here, even if they aren't actually coaching."

Watching a practice, when all the Bulls' age groups share the same big field, is like watching a three-dimensional growth chart. The 65-pound six-year-olds are so diminutive they look like a helmet with two cleats beneath it. The 80s are taller (if that's the right word), and appear more stable; their heads fit better into their helmets. The 110s are lanky, with long shins and athletic gaits. The 140s, growing into their adult bodies, are nothing less than smaller versions of the pros.

After stretching and running sprints as a team, the 80s split up for positional work. While Darrell Greene and his brother run the offense through a new pass play, Gary Robinson teaches the linebackers how to sack, and Coach A.D. puts the offensive line through a blocking drill. "That's the definition of insanity," A.D. instructs a lineman who has dressed for practice in a Dallas Cowboys jersey. "You're doing exactly the same thing but expecting a different outcome. You got to crack it back, then come with some force. Some force! Crack it back, lose those zombie arms! Come on, man, you got to crack him!"

Like all the coaches, A.D. is out here Tuesday through Friday from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. Like all the coaches, he has kids of his own waiting for him to trudge home worn-out from his volunteerism. And like all the coaches, he logs the hours in order to repay the debt he feels he owes the game.

"My friends and I were tight," the coach imparts during a short break. "We'd be together from as soon as we got up in the morning until we came home at night and went to sleep. We were tight, you know. So many of them grew up to be messed up with drugs and in jail and all sorts of problems, I look at them and I realize how lucky I was to be involved in Optimist football. If you can look at yourself, and at how you grew up to not be a total failure, it makes you want to give something back."

Dre, the 80s' head coach, puts in his three hours of practice before working the night shift at a Burger King warehouse, his job for the past decade. Gary Robinson replaces broken windshields for Charlie's Auto Glass. None of the coaches are paid for their time. All spend their own money on gas, on food after games, on team sleepovers and Halloween parties, and on the eight-dollar black neck rolls awarded each Thursday to the best defensive player from the previous game.

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