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

"These coaches are the best teachers these kids have," notes Carlos Guy. "Until they are six, they're growing up with their mamas. They're waiting to find out what they're supposed to do as men. No one around them can show them, and the mamas know they can't show them, and the boys sure as hell can't know it. So they come out here and they see the coaches and they learn how to be men."

Gits who've dropped out of football still swing through the park on mountain bikes to scout for talent. Mothers sit in lawn chairs beneath the trees, idly chatting while they wait for practice to end. Across the park echoes a smack of plastic on plastic. "Tough!" someone cries out. "Oh baby, good hit!"

"Lil'" Tim Torrence stands on a steel scale in a storage room at Goulds Park, hoping to make weight. Though a ten-year-old might play on a team with kids who are twelve if he's heavy enough, far more common is the phenomenon of "making weight" -- shedding pounds to play against younger kids. Under the careful watch of his father, nine-year-old Tim maintains a strict diet.

"When they come home for dinner, I feed them a tuna salad and some water," the father elaborates as his son steps off the scale, having made weight. "That will fill them up and they'll get tired. They'll go to sleep. In the morning I give them breakfast. They need that, and then they'll burn it off anyway during the day. One of my boys, I'm telling you, he lost nine pounds."

During the first half of the Goulds game, the Bulls offense bogs down, blowing several gimmick plays. Frankie is in, but his halfback pass fails twice and he's sacked by the Goulds defense. Reverses, in which the halfback hands off the ball to a wide receiver, gain little. At the end of the first quarter the game is scoreless.

Goulds threatens early in the second quarter, breaking off a fourth-down run for 40 yards to the Bulls' one-yard line. But penalties and the Bulls' inspired defense keep the Rams out of the end zone and force a turnover on downs. Still scoreless at the end of the first half.

"Let's play authenticity football," Darrell Greene urges at halftime. "This is just like the playoffs. This is when the big-time players step up. If you want to make a name for yourself in Optimist football, now is the time to do it."

The Bulls catch a break on a fluke at the start of the second half. Frankie's kickoff travels only twelve yards, transforming it into a de facto onside kick, which the Bulls manage to recover. Once again Darrell Greene calls for a trick play, but this time it works: Quarterback Keith Holmes fakes a handoff to his halfback, then hides the ball in his midsection before taking the defense by surprise. He throws 25 yards downfield to a wide-open Sammie Bush, who is brought down at the seven-yard line, not by a tackler from the opposing team but by an equipment failure of sorts. "I would have made a touchdown," Sammie later reports, "but my pants were all baggy. I had to stop to pull them up." Two plays later the Bulls score on a straightforward running play. Frankie's kick sails true for the extra two points, giving the team an 8-0 lead.

But as the Bulls offense continues to sputter into the fourth quarter, Goulds finally begins to click. The Rams' halfback gains good ground outside, and as the clock winds down his coaches keep calling for halfback sweeps, a strategy that pays off in a Rams touchdown with only twelve seconds remaining. Dre, Darrell, and Streeter muffle their curses while the parents let the profanity fly. Tie score, pending the point-after kick.

At this level of football, where it's against the rules to rush the kicker, distraction is the Bulls' only weapon. The defensive line commences jumping jacks. Sammie, at free safety, stares down the kicker, hoping to unnerve him. From the Bulls bleachers, parents chant, "Miss it! Miss it!"

The snap sails over the holder's head. Fetching the ball and running back to his place, the holder sets it down. The kicker hesitates, crossing fingers on both hands and clenching his eyes tight as if in prayer. "Please," he begs as he finally approaches the ball. His toe strikes the pigskin awkwardly, causing it to wobble wide left.

Bulls win.
The offense, the coaching staff, all the mothers, and everyone else in blue and yellow storms the field. "Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!" A.D. roars, flexing his muscles like a bodybuilder. Bulls players race to meet their coaches, hollering their own squeaky cheers. "I felt like I'd been touched by an angel!" cries an ecstatic Sammie. "It felt so good I jumped in the air higher than I've ever jumped in my life!"

Coaches hug players, players hug their mothers, mothers hug the coaches, cheerleaders frantically wave their pompons. The celebration subsides only for the handshakes at midfield. Cheerleaders on the right, players on the left, both teams march single-file toward the opposite sideline. Triumphant Bulls slap hands with sobbing Rams. Coach Streeter commands his team to gather at the end zone to usher in the next weight division by forming a human chute for the 90-pounders to run through. Coach Dre, chugging a can of orange soda, hovers around midfield, looking for more people to embrace.

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