After football practice at Overtown's Williams Park each day, 13-year-old wide receiver Gerald Johnson walks off the grassy field with sweat sluicing down his forehead. "Bye, Fat Albert," his buddies call. That's Gerald's nickname, even though he's skinny as a twig. He tucks soggy shoulder pads into a bag and saunters home through Town Park Village -- a smattering of tightly packed public housing that borders the field. Folks on door stoops nod. A few whistle. He's a hero.
"This is where I grew up," the Jose De Diego Middle Schooler says with a crooked smile. "People in the neighborhood know me. They take care of me."
Williams Park is an oasis in the center of one of the most infamous neighborhoods in the American Southeast. Decades ago, rioters burned down this part of Miami's Harlem, which is located at NW 17th Street and Fifth Avenue. Murder and violent crime continue at double the county average. Just two weeks ago, a young woman sitting on a bus bench near the neighborhood's Frederick Douglass Elementary School was wounded in the crossfire of a midday shootout. Kids like Gerald can as easily end up dead on the street as sitting in math class.
The Overtown Optimist Club Rattlers have practiced here since 1993. They've won four national championships and produced not only model citizens but also astounding athletes.
For example, there's former Rattler Dave Thomas, a cornerback who earned a Super Bowl
ring with the New York Giants. Then there's Ben Hanks, who played pee-wees and ended up a linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions. Treon Harris, who quarterbacked Booker T. Washington High to the nation's top ranking last year, took snaps here. University of Florida phenom receiver Quinton Dunbar grabbed passes here.
But on September 5, after months of pressure, the City of Miami ordered the team out of Williams Park. There are two better fields a mile or so away, city Parks and Recreation Director Stanley Motley told me last Tuesday.
"There's artificial turf," he said before sloughing off comment to a city spokesman who didn't call back. "Better facilities."
Problem is, neither the kids nor the coaches want to go. This park, they say, is a cocoon that protects the young players from the poverty and violence that pervade Overtown. Coach Joe Sweeting is perhaps the most eloquent of the many opponents to a forced move. His parents grew up just a few blocks away. Sweeting has overseen the Junior Midgets program, mostly 12-year-olds, for the past five years. He volunteers about 24 hours a week.
Sweeting seems like the kind of guy you want mentoring your kids. A few years ago, the bearded, brown-eyed 46-year-old came through for one of his players. The kid came from a broken family and was often hungry, recalls Sweeting. He ate only at school. So the coach bought him dinner after practice every night, just so he'd have something in his stomach.
This team is a neighborhood passion -- both for parents and kids, Sweeting says. One notable player here was defensive end Aaron Willis, who was 15 years old in 2012 when he was riding a bike home from a friend's house near the field. A gunman in a white Nissan Maxima shot Aaron in the back, shattering two vertebrae, then drove off.
"It really affected the team," Sweeting says. "Even afterwards, he'd come out to the field in his wheelchair to see us play. We dedicated that season to him."
Almost all the players from the program's two senior teams, with players 12 to 15 years old, live within a few blocks of the park. Move the practice site to another park and some will almost certainly quit, Sweeting says.
"They'll likely end up smoking weed here or joining gangs," he explains. "Out of all the parks in the city, this is the one that needs a football team the most. This area has the highest dropout rate, the highest drug rate. This is about more than sports."
There's a community center nearby where some of the staff has complained about the boys dragging in dirt when using the bathrooms and drinking fountains, say the coaches. The authorities there have waged a two-year campaign to try to force the team out. First, they built an asphalt walking path through the end zone of the football field. Last year, they forced the team to move a blocking sled to another park nearby, where it was stolen. More recently, city workers prohibited the teams from storing water jugs and blocking dummies in a shed. They were kept outside overnight and, of course, disappeared.
Indeed, the fields where the city wants to move the kids -- at Gibson and Moore parks -- are already jammed with younger and smaller players, says Optimist Club Executive Director Emanuel Washington. Nine teams already practice at Williams, he says. Five are at Gibson.
Washington, a genial retired firefighter, has pushed the city to reconsider for months.
"We want to keep these kids doing something stable and focused, because if they weren't here, they would be out there puling the trigger," he says. "The only reason this area is not a war zone is because of programs like ours. If we weren't there, God knows what this city would look like."
I attended several practices at the park last week and then called Commissioner Keon Hardemon's office a half-dozen times. His chief of staff, James McQueen, was hard to reach because his voice-mail was full. I left detailed messages with the staff about the campaign of harassment against the team but didn't get a return call.
Then on Monday, as this column was going to print, I finally reached McQueen, who directed me to Assistant City Manager Nzeribe Ihekwaba -- the administrator said the forced relocation to Gibson or Moore Parks would be put on hold. "I have asked staff to set up a meeting with the Overtown Optimist Club," Ihekwaba told me. "There will be no move for now."
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As for the campaign of harassment -- the sidewalk built in the end zone and the forced movement of equipment -- Ihekwaba pledged to investigate. "I don't think this rises to the level of publicity," he said, adding that he has been on the job only three months. "We will handle this."
Parents and coaches at the park, however, remain skeptical. They can't comprehend the city's inability to aid, rather than inhibit, such an important program.
"It baffles me," said Clarence Moss Jr., whose 13-year-old son, Jamal, plays running back for the Rattlers. "This program is unique because it really is part of the neighborhood."