Longform

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

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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.'"

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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.