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
By Robert Andrew Powell
What politics is to the Cuban community, football is to the black community.
-- Richard Dunn, former Miami city commissioner
On Friday, Gwen Cherry Park rests. An empty Doritos bag tumbles across the abandoned main football field, lodging itself in one of the hollow diamonds of a chainlink fence. With all the kids in school, no noise bounces off the steel roof of the new gymnasium, a gift from the National Football League. A low-riding Toyota glides down NW 71st Street past the Scott housing project, its muted bass groove cutting the silence, its metallic gold rims glittering in the light of a sun that burns hot at noon on an early autumn day.
Saturday the park comes alive. Hundreds of neighbors have turned out to watch the eight Gwen Cherry teams sponsored by the Greater Miami Boys and Girls Clubs -- all nicknamed the Bulls -- battle for Pop Warner football superiority. Right now the 80-pound Bulls (Pop Warner teams aren't divided according to age but by their weight, which ranges from 65 pounds to 140 pounds) hold a 10-0 lead over Palmetto. Ten-year-old Bulls wide receiver Sammie Bush, barely taller than a man's hip, snags a lateral and, finding himself free of any defenders, darts 45 yards for a touchdown. Six coaches dressed in matching blue-and-yellow shirts, caps, and sneakers gleefully trade high fives and slap their clipboards. Twenty tiny cheerleaders shake pompons.
It's hot out here, it's hot out here
There must be a Bull in the atmosphere!
Beyond the yellow rope that separates the players from their followers, a half-dozen barbecue grills pump out a cloud of charcoal smoke and chicken fat that drifts over the field like a misty blimp. One young spectator parks his rear end on a bicycle seat. His neighbor rests his on a metal folding chair. Standing up in the fifth and highest row of the flimsy bleachers, the gits -- local slang for gang members -- puff on blunts while they berate the coaches.
Y'all better start throwing the ball!
The Gwen Cherry Bulls 80-pounders have dispatched their first three opponents this season -- South Dade, Richmond, and Tamiami -- with relative ease. With a shutout against Palmetto an imminent possibility, Bulls players have already started celebrating. Sammie Bush choreographs Deion Sanders dance steps while linebacker Richard Dunn, son of the former Miami city commissioner, pushes his palms skyward, "raising the roof" on an impending 4-0 record.
"Every Saturday is a festival in this park," beams Charlie Brown, executive athletic director of the Boys and Girls Clubs. "With the inner city, there's basically nothing planned or organized on a weekly basis for people to do. Our football games are a day people can look forward to spending with their neighbors and their families, just enjoying the afternoon."
A fight breaks out on the sideline. Linebacker Steven Green's dad excoriates his son for a mental mistake. The critique is overheard by the boy's stepfather, who is standing not far off, talking on a cellular phone. "That's my motherfucking son!" shouts the stepfather, flashing a mouthful of gold teeth. He turns back to his phone: "Excuse me, I got to deal with this guy." Then: "I'll kick your ass right now, boy!"
The men lunge at one another but are quickly restrained by coaches. The natural father slips free and sprints across the field, hurdling the railroad tracks and disappearing into the Scott projects. "Is he getting a gun?" a spectator wonders aloud. Steven Green's mother grabs her son without wiping the tears from his smooth brown face, pulls him off the field, and incarcerates him in the passenger seat of her car.
"Pay attention! Pay attention!" head coach Andre "Dre" Greene shouts to his squad, most of whom have turned from the action on the field to watch the fracas. "Keep your head in the game, y'all! We still playing a game!"
Not for long. Only four minutes later a second fight erupts. The mothers of Tony Brown and Darrell "Dee" Samuel, both running backs, have been arguing throughout the game about their sons' respective playing time. Both kids' teachers filed "unacceptable" progress reports earlier in the week, forcing the coach to bench the boys for at least part of the game. Yet (and apparently by accident) Dre put one of the boys into the game earlier than he was supposed to, and tempers flared.
"The mother of Tony starts ragging on Dee, saying he only has one finger," imparts defensive back coach Tommy Streeter. (Nine-year-old Dee was born with a malformed left hand.) "You don't ever be saying that!" warns Streeter. "Not to a kid, and especially not to his mother. That's why they scrapped."
Two county police cruisers arrive after the second fight has died down. The officers stroll among the remaining participants of both altercations, calmly asking questions. When the game ends anticlimactically in another Bulls victory, no one cheers.
"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."
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?'"
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!'"
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.
"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.
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.
"We're going to go all the way!" someone shouts. "We going all ... the ... way!"
After the Goulds game, Frankie misses every practice. As punishment he sits on the bench while the Bulls trounce West Kendall, 26-0. A week later he's still sitting as Scott Lake, from north of the Palmetto Expressway, is blown out 36-0. Coach Dre lets him kick off and convert extra points, but that's it.
Linda Adams, Frankie's mother, says her boy missed the practices because he was in trouble at school.
In the regular-season finale, Frankie doesn't play a down as the team loses its first game, to the Northwest Boys Club, a league power. He doesn't even get in to attempt an extra point because the Bulls never score. "Keep your heads up and feel good about Gwen Cherry Park," Dre orders after the 26-0 drubbing. "It ain't nothing but one loss, baby. We're 9-1, we'll see them again." Despite the upbeat words, tears stream down the faces of tackle Lawrence Hook and several of his teammates.
The loss means little: With nine wins the Bulls had secured home-field advantage for the playoffs even before the kickoff. Still, Dre pulls Frankie aside afterward. "This is the playoffs now, Frankie. Do or die," says the head coach, grasping his kicker by the shoulders. "I need you to show up for practices this week. We need you in there at tight end. Can you show up for me? Can you do that for me, Frankie?" Frankie stares blankly at Dre, nodding slightly.
Frankie does not show up for a single practice in preparation for the first playoff game, against defending champion Liberty City. Coaches Dre, Streeter, and A.D. all pay separate visits to Frankie's row in Scott Homes to try to persuade his mother that practice is the best place for him to be. Sometimes she says Frankie is sick, other times that he's being punished for poor behavior in school. "She says that," spits Darrell Greene, "then we see him outside playing on the street. Man, I give up on Frankie."
At practice the Friday before the first round of playoffs, Dre cannot mask his disappointment at Frankie's absence. He recalls how he first saw the boy back in August, playing on the railroad tracks while the team practiced. Not knowing anything about Frankie's talents, the coach persuaded him to join the team and paid the entrance fee out of his own pocket. "Frankie breaks my heart," Dre laments, watching his offense run through a drill. "Every season I try to get through to all my players. But Frankie, I just can't get through to him. I tried to work with him. I tried to talk to him. But I can't break through."
Frankie doesn't show up for the contest against Liberty City, his first game-day absence all year. Before the coin toss, Dre gives the kicking duties to Ant Henderson, a wiry nine-year-old. To everyone's surprise, Ant converts after a Bulls touchdown, providing the winning margin in a close 8-6 game.
Needing just one more victory to reach the championship game, Gwen Cherry finally feels the loss of its regular kicker. This past Saturday morning, on a field slick with drizzle, Ant returns a punt 60 yards to give the Bulls a 6-0 first-quarter lead over the visiting Kendall Hammocks Chiefs. But his two-point attempt sails wide left, and the missed conversion proves costly when Kendall scores its own touchdown minutes later and amazingly makes the kick, taking a lead it will carry into the last minute of the game.
Down by two and out of timeouts, Gwen Cherry manages to move the ball 70 yards to the Chiefs' four-yard line. After Keith Holmes attempts a futile quarterback sneak up the middle, Dre frantically calls for a running play with less than ten seconds remaining.
Keith takes the snap and turns to hand off to Sammie Bush, but there's a miscommunication and the ball falls to the ground. As time expires, players on both teams scramble to recover the fumble, which squirts into the end zone. Somehow, amid the tangle of legs and shoulder pads, Sammie spies the bouncing pigskin and falls on top of it.
"Everyone on both teams was just standing there looking at him," Coach Dre will later recall. "Everybody was quiet. Finally, after maybe ten seconds, the ref threw up his hands."
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Touchdown: Bulls win, 12-8.
Sammie, mobbed by frenzied Bulls, breaks into tears. Dre and A.D. leap onto the pile. As Charlie Brown tries in vain to keep fans from hopping the fence to join the fray, the Kendall Hammocks players slump off the field dragging their helmets on the grass. The 80s remain in the end zone to bring in the 110s, who are about to face Liberty City. Clapping, laughing, still crying with joy, the Bulls break it down. Blue and gold, rolling to the Super Bowl.
The Gwen Cherry Bulls 80s will meet the Goulds Rams in the Super Bowl on Saturday, December 6, at 9:00 a.m. at Harris Field in Homestead. Tickets are $3 for adults and $2 for children six and under. For information call the NFL YET Center at 694-4889.
In his cover story "Coming of Age on the 50-Yard Line" (November 27), staff writer Robert Andrew Powell erroneously stated that Anthony Dawkins had transferred money from one account to another while he was running the football program at Gwen Cherry Park. New Times regrets the error.