Miami's Best Youth Football Team Beats Violence, Gambling, Turmoil, and Opponents

With 90 seconds left in the first half, Nay'quan Wright walks slowly back to the line of scrimmage. Like his teammates on the Miami Gardens Bulldogs, the middle linebacker is grabbing his hips and gasping for breath under a scorching December sun.

The West Miramar Patriots are threatening to score from the Bulldogs' 24-yard line. On the sidelines, El Tarow Wallace — known to the Bulldogs as "Coach Row" — waves his arms frantically at Nay'quan, signaling a blitz. A two-way player who earned the league MVP, Nay'quan glares at the quarterback like a miniature version of his idol, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. Inside his black helmet, Nay'quan's cherub face morphs into an icy, contorted scowl.

In the stands of the 20,000-seat Florida International University Stadium, the sixth-grader's mother, Learte Gainer, stomps her feet and cheers with two dozen Bulldogs fans. A full-figured woman with long raven hair, Gainer wears a tank top silk-screened with photos of her 12-year-old son.

"Let's go, defense!" she shouts. "They can't hang with us!"

The referee blows his whistle. The Pats' QB tosses the ball to his running back, and 11- and 12-year-old boys crunch into one another with brutal power. An offensive lineman slows Nay'quan enough for the running back to cut up the field, where he dodges between two more defenders. The Bulldogs' cheering section goes silent as he sprints into the end zone. Coach Row, a scruffy, bearded 28-year-old dockworker who's led Nay'quan's squad for seven years, slaps his hands on his thighs in frustration. "This is not how we win championships," he shouts. "We need to tighten up now!"

In the 125-pound Orange Bowl Youth Football Championship, all the momentum is with the Patriots, who are now up 18-14 with just a few seconds to go before the half. After steamrolling through the Florida Youth Football League and thumping another rival 40-6 in a playoff qualifier, the Bulldogs are suddenly in serious trouble of losing their first game in five months.

What the Patriots don't know, though, is that these pugnacious kids have already rallied from far worse.

Nay'quan and his squad are lucky to be on the field at all. During a practice last November, a drive-by shooting left four people gravely wounded, including Nay'quan.

The preteen's recovery to dominate his league was amazing enough. But the Bulldogs' triumph also comes at a time when the booming subculture of South Florida youth football — which attracts tens of thousands of kids to at least a half-dozen leagues and has produced more than four dozen current NFL players — is reeling from shootings, assaults on the field, scandals over felons with coaching jobs, and a mass gambling bust.

In July 2011, a gunman wounded three boys at a youth football practice in West Little River Park; the violence continued a year after Nay'quan's own ordeal in November 2011, when yet another criminal opened fire in Overtown's Gibson Park, wounding three spectators. A month later, a West Park Saints coach was arrested after punching a referee; reports later showed he was a violent felon. And worst of all, in November, Broward County sheriffs arrested nine men, including six coaches, for leading a ring that bet up to $100,000 on youth games.

The turmoil has highlighted an ugly underbelly of youth football, where adults are illegally profiting off kids they're supposed to be mentoring. Coupled with rising concerns over concussions, the crimes have left some asking whether Florida's passion for youth football needs to cool.

"Do we need to reduce head injuries in youth football? Absolutely," says Dr. Tony Strickland, chief executive of the Los Angeles-based Sports Concussions Institute, one of a growing number of researchers examining links between youth sports and brain trauma.

For Nay'quan Wright and his teammates, though, there's no question at all. The game they've played together since kindergarten is the most stable, positive force in their lives and their biggest hope for the future. "I just love the sport," Nay'quan says. "I just like hitting, doing things with the ball, playing with my teammates, and winning."

As the clock ticks toward halftime, he and his teammates have only one thing in mind: beating the Patriots and taking a title.

Nay'quan and his teammates never noticed the dark Chevy Impala pulling up in front of Bunche Park's football fields in Miami Gardens. They were absorbed on that breezy night in November 2011 with an intense scrimmage led by Wallace, who stood on the sidelines screaming at his star running back.

As Nay'quan burst through a gap between the tackles, carrying defenders six extra yards before going down, a 20-year-old man with short dreads and a thin mustache opened the Impala's rear door and stepped out. His name was Tyrone Vincent Bivins, and he squinted past the kids in pads to spot the man he was looking for, playing basketball 50 feet away. Bivins allegedly pulled out an AK-47 and took aim.

Nearby, one of the volunteer mentors, Ozzie Mathis, a gregarious barber with gold teeth, was watching a 9-year-old boy named Isiah throw tight ten-yard spirals when he heard a popping sound.

"Bottle rockets," Mathis thought. But then lead started pinging off the metal stands. Mathis yanked Isiah to the ground. Coaches screamed at their young players to hit the turf. Assault-rifle rounds ripped into the wet dirt.

When the shots finished and the Impala squealed away, Nay'quan's screams filled the smoky aftermath. As coaches clustered around, a crimson pool spread across the front of his practice jersey. Moments later, an ambulance arrived, rushing Nay'quan to Jackson Memorial Hospital.

For Nay'quan and his teammates, the day was a terrible intersection of their two worlds: the violence endemic in their impoverished neighborhoods and the game they all play to escape. Dreams of balling out of the hood have fueled little-league football into the biggest sport in black Miami for more than half a century, as stars like Derrick Thomas and Frank Gore have emerged from South Florida's kids' teams.

That doesn't mean the shooting dampened their dreams, though. "All Nay'quan talks about is football, football," Gainer says. "He is determined to become an NFL player."

Asked if he has a plan B, Nay'quan shrugs. "I really don't have one," he says.

Miami-Dade's youth football community dates back to the mid-1950s. But the sport didn't really take off until the 1980s, during the emergence of the University of Miami Hurricanes as a national football power coinciding with the founding of the Liberty City Optimist Club by late youth football icon Sam Johnson and Miami rap pioneer Luther Campbell, says Robert Andrew Powell, a former New Times staff writer and author of the 2003 book We Own This Game: A Season in the Adult World of Youth Football. Powell spent years following several Miami youth football programs, documenting the innocence and corruption on and off the field.

"For the black community, football became one of the best ways to demonstrate excellence," Powell says. "Like Luther told me, blacks in Miami don't own politics, they don't own big businesses, but they do own football."

Nay'quan's team traces its roots back to the North Dade Optimist Club, which started on September 26, 1956, says Carl Kingcade, a 50-year-old AT&T technical director who coached for 19 years. "I joined in 1984 on a whim," Kingcade says. "It was run by volunteer members who raised all the funds to support the program. We didn't get a dollar from any city or county government."

Even in those days, Florida was rich with pigskin talent. Kingcade coached Darrin Smith, a linebacker who won two national championships with the University of Miami and two Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. As the league expanded into Bunche Park and Scott Lake Park, players like ex-UM Head Coach Randy Shannon, NFL stars Santana and Sinorice Moss, and New York Giants cornerback Kenny Phillips came through.

"Football runs Florida," says Martin Maultsby, founder of the Scott Lake Optimist Club and Florida Youth Football League president. "It is the native sport of the state. This is what these kids do."

Today, at least half a dozen leagues serving at least 50,000 children operate year-round. When Maultsby started the Scott Lake program 19 years ago, there were only the Pop Warner League and the South Florida Youth Football League, or the SFYFL. Today, both compete with Maultsby's organization, the American Youth Football League, the Tri-County Youth Football League, the National Youth Football League, the Miami-Dade Extreme Youth Football League, and half a dozen others.

"The number of teams has increased dramatically," Maultsby says.

Born in 2000, Nay'quan is exactly the kind of kid who has made youth football into a Florida powerhouse. His mother, a hairdresser, has raised him in a three-bedroom apartment at Cedar Grove, a quiet rental community near Sun Life Stadium, ever since his dad, Nathan Wright Sr., moved to Tampa when Nay'quan was a baby (though his father has remained in his life, Gainer says).

He first strapped on pads when he was 5 years old. "He was a whole lot bigger and stronger than the other kids," recalls Wallace, who coached him then at Bunche Park.

Though Nay'quan cried at first and complained, Gainer didn't let him give up. "You only fail when you don't try," Gainer says. "By his second year playing, he really got into it. He came home from practice, bragging how he loved 'cracking backs.'"

Even as a young player, Gainer warned her son about the risks. "The same way you crack someone's back, they can crack your back," she cautioned, but Nay'quan was unfazed. "He told me, 'Nobody is going to get me like that.'"

Today, Nay'quan and his 13-year-old brother share a room, sleeping in a bunk bed. Four trophies share space with his Xbox game console, and a teacher's proclamation recognizing Nay'quan as a "Kid of Character exhibiting qualities of responsibility" is taped to his mirror.

As a running back and linebacker, he idolizes the 49ers' Gore and the Ravens' Lewis but admits he prefers defense and will probably pick linebacker in high school. Wallace and Mathis are his two biggest mentors. "Coach Row lets us pick plays we want to run," Nay'quan professes.

When he's not on the field, Nay'quan hangs out at Wallace's house with the core members of the team: the coach's son, Lorenzo Floyd, a 12-year-old who can chuck a tight spiral more than 50 yards; wide receiver and defensive back Tyquan Thornton; and running back Terrence Horne. Tyquan and Terrence are also members of the Miami Gardens X-press, a track-and-field team that took first place in the 12-year-old boys' 4-by-100-meter relay of the 2012 AAU National Junior Olympics last July. They broke the 2005 record time of 48.67 by 5.9 seconds.

"Those kids are my junior Olympians," says Darius Lawshea, their track coach and football speed trainer. "Wait till you see them do their thing on the football field."

Lawshea and Wallace, like the other two dozen coaches, volunteer their time without pay. "My son sees Coach Row as his uncle," Gainer says. "It's a very personal connection between the coaches and the players."

During the seven years coaching this squad, Wallace has had only two losing seasons. Yet they never managed to advance to a league Super Bowl. That all looked to change in 2011, as Nay'quan and his friends were dominating the regular season.

Then came November 3, 2011, a Thursday-night practice before the divisional playoffs, when automatic-rifle rounds sprayed into the team and shattered their season. Moments after Nay'quan was rushed to the hospital, a hysterical friend called Gainer to tell her he'd been killed. "I prayed," she remembers. A few minutes later, Nay'quan's uncle and volunteer coach Chavis Wright called to tell her to rush to Jackson.

She found Nay'quan seriously injured but lucky to be alive. One bullet had hit his upper torso, exiting through his left shoulder and miraculously missing his vital organs. He spent four days in the hospital with his family, coaches, and teammates by his side. "The hospital was full of kids," Gainer says. "There is a lot of love between my son and his teammates."

Two days later, Miami Gardens Police arrested Bivins, who wounded three other people in the spree, for attempted murder, and today he sits in jail awaiting trial. But the Cowboys were still reeling. Parents were scared to let their kids return to Bunche Park. "My son couldn't sleep for two days after the shooting," says Kia Myles, whose boy was on the ground next to Nay'quan. "He didn't want to go back. I wasn't about to let him go back either."

Undermanned and rattled, Nay'quan's squad lost a month later in the semifinal. "It was rough," Wallace says. "I told them death and tragedy happens all the time. It might be tough, but we have to move on, stick together, and work together to make it through."

But recovering from the horrible drive-by and his team's dashed Super Bowl dream was just the beginning for Nay'quan. He had nerve damage in his left arm and needed six months of physical therapy before he was cleared to play football.

"An 11-year-old getting shot by an assault rifle is very painful," Wallace says. "But he didn't miss a beat. He wanted to get back on the field right away."

Little did Nay'quan and his team know, but the shooting was only the beginning of the turmoil his team would see in the next year.

With a thunderous crash, a Broward County SWAT officer hurls a metal hook tied to a rope through the glass door of Red Carpet Kutz barbershop in Lauderdale Lakes, then secures the hook to the iron bars on the door frame. A police truck revs its engine, tugging the rope until the door rips off its hinges. The cops rush past two barber stations, kick down a closet door, and find a secret room, pimped out into a Vegas-style sports gambling den with three booths and tinted windows.

A block and a half away, another police team busts into Showtime Sports, a sporting goods store, where another gaming room is hidden in the back. By the end of the day on Oct. 30, the cops have hauled away $40,000 in drop safes and boxes stuffed with documents proving that the spots were operated by Brandon Bivens and five other coaches of Broward-area little-league football clubs.

The raid was the nadir of 17 dark months for youth football in Florida that started with a devastating ESPN special report and ended with one of the area's biggest leagues all but defunct. The arrests proved that not all coaches are like Wallace, a hard-working blue-collar dude mentoring kids and winning football games.

"It's about kids being exploited unfortunately by greedy parents and greedy grownups and coaches who were basically nothing more than criminals," then-Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti said after the arrests.

The investigation began in May 2011 after a report aired on ESPN's Outside the Lines. Coaches were secretly recorded exchanging wads of cash in the stands of SFYFL games in Broward during the 2010 season. The SFYFL, the second-oldest league in South Florida, started play in the 1980s. At its peak in 2010, it fielded 22 teams with 6,000 kids. When the Bunche Park and Miami Gardens teams were launched in 1990 and 2003, respectively, the programs both joined the SFYFL.

ESPN, though, uncovered a seedy underbelly in the league. Reporters interviewed Osbert Small, a coach for the Pompano Beach Cowboys, who was seen on camera exchanging money with several men during the SFYFL's Super Bowl in November 2010. Small later claimed he was only "holding money for an individual."

The report also noted that gamblers recruited children and their parents, offering one mom $2,000 to have her son play for a certain team, as well as providing the kid with clothes, shoes, and money. One coach told ESPN he lost one player when another team offered the boy's mother $3,500.

ESPN showed vice detectives from the Broward Sheriff's Office the footage, and another tipster told the cops to zero in on Bivens, known around the league as "Coach B."

The 36-year-old is the founder and coach of the Fort Lauderdale Hurricanes, which has about 400 kids ranging from ages 4 to 15. He's one of the area's most successful coaches, winning 15 championships since 2004 in several different weight classes. For coaches like Wallace, Bivens was well-known for turning the Hurricanes into an elite program.

But all along, the Hurricanes honcho was playing another role in the SFYFL: head bookie, says BSO Det. Solomon Barnes, lead investigator assigned to the case. "He was in charge," Barnes says. "This is a problem that has been going on for a long time. It is just starting to come out in the open."

Here's how it allegedly worked: Bivens and the other dirty coaches would arrange wagers by phone prior to game day. Before the league Super Bowl in 2011, for instance, coaches from teams hailing from Pompano Beach, Deerfield Beach, and Fort Lauderdale bet enough cash to build up a $100,000 pot on the game.

Deputies also caught coaches handling bets at two games between the Deerfield Packer-Rattlers and the Lauderhill Lions. During a sting on October 14 and 15, Barnes watched a confidential informant place two separate bets with Dave Small, a 42-year-old coach for the Lions, and Darron Bostic, a 29-year-old coach for the Packer-Rattlers.

Barnes provided the snitch with $600 to make the wagers. In one contest, Small allegedly told the informant that the point spread was six points for Deerfield Beach. Both Small and Bostic, who were each charged with one count of felony bookmaking, denied their involvement in illegal gambling in police reports. "That's a bold-faced lie," Bostic said when he was confronted by news crews from ESPN. Added Small: "It wasn't me, buddy. They got the wrong one."

While stalking those games, detectives also kept tabs on Bivens and five other coaches who frequented Red Carpet Kutz and the sporting goods store. Between June 25, 2011, and October 14 of last year, informants and undercover cops bet $50 a pop on sporting events at the two establishments, which were both owned by Bivens. Detectives dug through the trash from Bivens' house, finding wager reports, betting receipts, and deposit slips that matched the checking account number for Bivens, who declined comment for this article.

Even as police were closing in on Bivens and the other coaches, the league was already crumbling in the aftermath of the ESPN piece. Michael Spivey, the league's president, said coaches were upset with his attempts to address the gambling. For example, Spivey wanted the league to require volunteers to watch the ESPN report. He also wanted to be able to kick out any coach or volunteer who was caught betting.

Instead, last January, ten clubs — including Bivens' team, the Hurricanes — left the SFYFL to join the new Florida Youth Football League, AKA the "Flo League," whose founder is Carol City rapper Flo Rida. The league runs under the umbrella of the National Youth Football League, an organization headed by Miami New Times columnist Luther Campbell. In March, five clubs from Miami Gardens, including Wallace's Bulldogs, also switched over to the FYFL.

When Bivens and the other coaches were arrested on October 30, it sent shock waves through both leagues. (The cases are all still pending.) FYFL's chief executive, Lee Prince (who is also known as "Freezy" and works as Flo Rida's manager), and league president Maultsby both denied knowing anything about the illegal ring. They both say the league is clean."We saw how poorly the other league was run," Prince says, referring to the SFYFL. "We're doing things the right way."

Both men said they never would have suspected Bivens of being involved in an illegal ring. "Brandon definitely caught me by surprise," Maultsby says. "I know the good he has done for his program."

Bivens was banned from the league after his arrest. "We have to do right by these kids," Maultsby says.

Barnes, at least, is not convinced the October bust smashed illegal gambling in youth football, nor that Flo Rida's league has any better safeguards in place than the SFYFL. "The publicity has absolutely driven it underground," says the cop, whose investigation found no evidence that Wallace or any other Miami coaches were involved in the ring. "Our investigation is not over by any means."

As for Wallace, he says the busts forced gamblers to stop wagering on little-league games so brazenly out in the open.

"ESPN singled some guys out," Wallace says. "But there are a lot more people gambling on games than those guys. The report makes it look like we are in it for all the wrong reasons. I know I'm here for the kids."

As the Bulldogs run out to receive their last kickoff before halftime, Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert III joins FYFL bigwigs Prince and Maultsby to quietly pace the sideline. Wallace, Mathis, and the other coaches yell at their star players to dig in as they wait to receive the Patriots' kickoff.

"We got less than a minute to score," Wallace yells. "Let's show them what we're made of!" In the stands, Nay'quan's mom nervously grips the bill of her Heat cap. "I can't believe we gave up the lead," Gainer says exasperatedly. "These West Miramar boys can play."

The ball sails 40 yards into the air. Terrence catches it at the Bulldogs' 20-yard line. Like a rocket-propelled grenade, he explodes through the Pats' kickoff team. Five seconds later, the jitterbug is dancing in the end zone. In an instant, the Bulldogs reclaim the lead: 21-18.

As the team heads to the locker room with a new burst of energy, it's only half a game away from fulfilling a dream the players have harbored for seven years: taking home a title. But spending time with Wallace and his team makes it clear his devotion is about more than just wins on the gridiron.

"This is a special group of kids," Wallace says. "But it's not just football. I stress to them the importance of hitting the books and taking advantage of every opportunity presented to them."

One Wednesday in early December is a typical afternoon for the coach. Lugging their pads, his stepsons charge out the front door of the family's mint-green residence near NW 119th Street and 22nd Avenue. The Floyd brothers, holding chicken sandwiches, pile into Wallace's beat-up white Toyota truck.

His first stop is to pick up Terrence, who lives five blocks away in West Little River, a predominantly black neighborhood where the average household earns just $26,000 a year. Wallace has high hopes for Terrence. "He will play in the NFL one day," Wallace gushes. "He physically dominates whoever is on him."

About 15 minutes later, Wallace pulls into the entrance of dilapidated beige apartments called the Gardens in Opa-locka. Mangled, inoperable automobiles in a junkyard next door tower ominously above the subsidized project. Tyquan, a rail-thin boy with long arms and legs, emerges.

Wallace then pulls into Cedar Grove. Nay'quan comes downstairs, throws his gear into the bed, and hops into the back. After their heartbreaking 2011 season, their last as the Bunche Park Cowboys, Wallace's kids — including the rehabbed Nay'quan — have come back strong under the Miami Gardens Bulldogs banner.

From mid-August through the end of December, five days a week, Wallace's routine is to get up at 5 in the morning, work until 3 in the afternoon, come home for a one-hour rest, and head out at 4:30 p.m. to pick up Nay'quan, Tyquan, and Terrence.

"I'm the only head coach they've ever known," Wallace says. "But it is more than that. I take them to birthday parties, we go on vacations together, and they have sleepovers at my house. We're a family."

After opening the season with a loss to the Miami Gardens Ravens, the Bulldogs reeled off nine straight wins. They beat the Ravens and the Miami Gardens Rams in their first two playoff games. Then came the FYFL's inaugural Super Bowl tournament on November 17. Nay'quan (two touchdowns, including a 45-yard run), Lorenzo (50-yard TD pass), Tyquan (almost 100 yards rushing), Terrence (three touchdowns, including an 80-yard scamper), and the rest of the team walloped the Northwest Broward Raiders 31-6.

After the game, Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver presented Nay'quan with an MVP award made out of crystal. He and his teammates also got individual medals and Super Bowl rings, courtesy of Flo Rida.

To get to the Orange Bowl championship, the Bulldogs pounded the Helping Hands Youth Center Bulls of the National Youth Football League 40-6 on November 24. A week later, the Patriots, Super Bowl winners in the Extreme Youth Football League, qualified to play against the Bulldogs in the Orange Bowl by beating the Belle Glade Youth Panthers.

At 1 p.m. on December 8, Wallace and his team poured onto the Florida International University field, pumped to finally claim an Orange Bowl victory; after Terrence's electric run puts them up for halftime, they sprinted into the locker room delirious to finish off the game.

And soon after the second half whistle blows, the rout is on. Terrence adds two more touchdown runs. Nay'quan caps the scoring with a 90-yard run near the end of the third quarter. In the end, the Bulldogs pound the Pats 38-14 to claim their first Orange Bowl trophy.

As Wallace watched Nay'quan and his teammates triumphantly strut onto the winner's stage, he couldn't have cared less about the adults ruining youth football with illegal gambling and violence. "We try to win the right way," Wallace says. "We took our licks and went through some hard times. Now look at us. We're winning."

The Bulldogs' triumphant end to the season masks the looming problems uncovered by ESPN and the Broward Sheriff's Office, many of which have yet to be addressed.

Cops, experts, and some coaches say systemic problems in the leagues and a lack of oversight led to the scandal in the first place. Meanwhile, as medical science brings more evidence to light that concussions in young players can lead to lasting damage, Florida is among 41 states that put tighter controls on the sport.

All in all, youth football has never been in a more tenuous place even as more kids than ever sign up.

Lead BSO investigator Barnes says the leagues should start by making it tougher for convicted criminals to volunteer as coaches. Bivens, for instance, had been found guilty of grand theft auto, possession of marijuana with intent to sell, and carrying a concealed firearm in the 1990s before he founded the Hurricanes. But there was no rule preventing him from starting a team.

"He controlled a private entity that was renting city facilities and using the park," Barnes explains.

Three of the other Hurricanes coaches implicated by BSO — Darren Brown, Brad Parker, and Vincent Gray — had previous convictions for delivery of cocaine, dealing in stolen property, battery on a law enforcement officer, and grand theft.

"You would weed out a lot of bad people," Barnes says, with tighter rules on coaches.

Some cities have tried. Deerfield Beach started doing checks when Broward deputies informed officials about their investigation in May. Miami Gardens also had a rule prohibiting anyone with two or more felonies from volunteering. But Mayor Gilbert, a former state prosecutor, says the rule was routinely ignored.

So last year, while he was a councilman, Gilbert championed an ordinance exempting longtime coaches, noting that 15 out of 52 coaches at Bunche Park would not qualify otherwise. The Miami Gardens City Council approved Gilbert's measure by a 3-2 vote. Gilbert says coaches who have reformed themselves shouldn't be prevented from mentoring kids. "They have paid their debt," he says.

The City of Miami has also tried to tackle violence at youth football games; the Department of Parks and Recreation sent notice to all leagues in September asking them to start games by 5 p.m. so they'll end by sundown to discourage the kinds of shootings that leveled the Bulldogs and struck again at Overtown's Gibson Park last year.

Dade County and the SFYFL also face a new lawsuit from Eduardo Barnes, coach of the SFYFL team that was caught in crossfire at West Little River Park in July 2011. Barnes alleges the county should have done more to protect the park, where his daughter was shot along with three boys.

Gambling and violence aren't the only problems bedeviling the game, though. Medical experts and parents have raised increasing concerns over concussions and whether kids should be playing in full pads. An ESPN survey in August of more than 1,000 parents nationwide found 57 percent are less likely to allow their sons to play because of the research; two-thirds said concussions are a serious issue.

As of March 8, 2012, 41 states, including Florida, had passed laws protecting student-athletes from returning to play too soon after a concussion. Some people, like Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and professor at Boston University School of Medicine, go even further. Cantu believes boys under age 14 should not be playing tackle football at all.

"The young child is particularly vulnerable to brain injury," he told a Boston television station in November. "We believe that kids under the age of 14 should not play collision sports as they are currently played."

But others argue that that's too drastic. "You want parents and coaches to be aware of the problem, but you still want kids to go out there and enjoy their sport," says Gillian Hotz, director of concussions for the UHealth Sports Medicine facility at the University of Miami's Medical School. "Obviously, a kid who comes home from practice or a game dazed and confused shouldn't go back to play until he is cleared by a physician, which is why we got the law passed in Florida."

Strickland, the CEO of the Sports Concussions Institute, concurs. "You [reduce concussions] by raising awareness and educating coaches and parents to look for signs... But I don't think eliminating the sport in absence of empirical evidence is the answer."

As for Nay'quan, his only focus is on the game. When he and his teammates reach high school in three years, he wants the team to stay together. "We want to go to Miramar High," he says. "We'll see if Coach can help make that happen."

While his mom constantly worries her son will get severely injured or develop health problems, she's not going to let him quit.

After all, how can she tell a kid who survived an assault-rifle attack that knocking helmets on the field is too dangerous a risk?

"Football is dangerous," she says. "I worry about him because he is determined to become an NFL player. He went from being too scared to play to wanting to be the most famous athlete in the NFL. We'll see."

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.