For this week's cover story, I wrote about the journey of a group of 11-and-12-year-old boys playing for the 125 pound Miami Gardens Bulldogs. In 2012, the team bounced back from a season marred by a star player getting shot during practice while the league they played for was engulfed in turmoil.
The Bulldogs, led by Nay'quan Wright, the boy who came back from a gunshot wound to win an MVP trophy, won their new league's inaugural Super Bowl and the Orange Bowl Youth Football Championship during the 2012 season.
I began following the Bulldogs at the Florida Youth Football League's first Super Bowl tournament this past November, when Nay'quan and Co. walloped the Northwest Broward Raiders 31-6. That weekend, two other squads (the 105-pounders and the 170-pounders) from the Miami Gardens Bulldogs youth football club also won Super Bowl trophies in their respective weight divisions. It was also a month after detectives from the Broward County Sherriff's Office had arrested nine men, including six individuals who coached teams playing in the Super Bowl, for illegally betting on little league games.
(Check out the Bulldogs in action in Jacob Katel's video below)
I wanted to explore how the scandal had affected south Florida's predominantly African-American football subculture and ask the adults why they allow their children to continue playing the sport amid the risk of serious injury, the corruption, the violence, and the controversy that has enveloped the game. Unlike the coaches busted for illegal gambling, I found the people involved with the Miami Gardens Bulldogs, from the coaches to the parents, are genuinely concerned about the well-being of the 400 boys in the program.
The volunteers come from all walks of blue collar life. Andre Myles, the Bulldogs football commissioner, is a Publix warehouse supervisor and owner of a sporting goods company. He coached the Bulldogs 90-pound squad in 2012 and has been involved in youth football for eight years. He has two sons who play on the 125-pound and 170-pound teams. "I oversee the football operations and select the coaches," he says. "I make sure everything is on point."
Myles vetted guys like Chavis Wright and Darius Lawshea. Wright, Nay'quan's uncle and coach of the 105-pound Bulldogs (boys ages nine through 10), is a 32-year-old loan service manager who has guided his squad to four Super Bowl championships. The team has only lost one game in five years. "I coach them hard like they were big boys," Wright professes. "They respond well. Growing up, my coaches helped me be a man and accept responsibility. I am teaching them how to become better people."
Lawshea, a 37-year-old speed coach who mentors the 105-pound and 125-pound teams, is a clerk for the Miami-Dade Transit Agency. He also runs Miami Gardens Xpress, a youth track and field club stacked with some of the football players he coaches. "My mom put me in every sport when I was little so I could have role models," he says. "Now I just want to give back. I just got a lot of love for the kids."
Lawshea has turned the stars of the 125-pound squad -- Nay'quan and his teammates Terrence Horne and Tyquan Thornton -- into the fastest group of 12-year-olds in Miami-Dade County. He's also helped 10-year-old Willie Floyd, the best player on the 105-pound team, turn on his afterburners.
He finished fourth and fifth in the semi-final and final, respectively, of 2012 AAU Track & Field Nationals 100-meter dash. The message boards of FootballHotbed.com rank Floyd as the best youth football player 10 and under. His nickname is "Polamalu" because he has wild unkempt long black hair and plays with same crazy talent as the Pittsburgh Steelers' free safety.
"He'll play any position, including offensive line," Wright gushes. "The four years I have coached him, he has never asked for the ball even though he can score any time."
During a game in December, I got to see Willie almost single handedly demolish the Opa-Locka Panthers of the National Youth Football League. On one play, the two-way athlete batted the ball in the air, caught his deflection, and ran the interception back 50-plus yards, breaking at least five tackles.
Floyd's older brother Lorenzo is the star quarterback for the 125-pound team. Their dad, El Tarow Wallace, has been coaching that team for the last seven years. A 28-year-old longshoreman at the Port of Miami, Wallace spends most of his free time, even during the off-season, looking after his sons and their teammates.
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"They are in the same age group as my sons so most of the kids are with me year round," he says. "They are like brothers. You really have to commit to them, especially at this age. They're becoming teenagers and starting to come into their own."
Follow Francisco Alvarado on Twitter: @thefrankness