Can Football Keep Young Boys Off Of Brooklyn’s Toughest Streets?

Sometimes being a good kid isn’t enough.

Gio arrived in the US when he was 12, in the summer of 2013. He’d grown up in Saint Lucia, in the Caribbean, and had enjoyed life on the island. It was comfortable. He had many friends. They often spent their afternoons on the beach, kicking a soccer ball, swimming, running races, and roughhousing. But it was a small place, and Gio grew bored of the beach. “It gets old if it’s the only thing you do every day,” Gio said. He welcomed his mother’s decision to bring him to America.

He lived with his mother and older brother in a big brick apartment building in the Brownsville neighborhood of eastern Brooklyn. To his eyes, the country was full of wonders. Tall buildings blocked the horizon. Cars filled every driveway and lined every curb. Large flat-screen televisions glowed through living room windows. There was abundance all around him. He saw big shops that sold many versions of any kind of item you could want. Across the street from his apartment building, a block down from a halfway house, stood a Dunkin’ Donuts, a T-Mobile branch, a Dollar Tree, a fried chicken joint, and two pizza chains. Several blocks farther north, on Pitkin Avenue, the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare, the shops lined up, one after the next, as far as his eyes could see. “It’s like you can get anything you want,” Gio said. He liked to go for walks along Pitkin Avenue, dropping into shops and people watching. He wondered if all of America was like this.

One Saturday, on his way home from Pitkin a month after his arrival, Gio cut through Betsy Head Park, a five-block patch of cracked pavement and dried grass. The park teemed with summer life — basketball on the blacktops, splashing in the pool, joggers on the track, old-timers playing cards on chipped picnic tables, teenagers lounging on the jungle gym. Somewhere, a boom box was blasting hip-hop. And, in the center of it all, 50 or so boys, ages 6 to 13, ran across a hard dirt field kicking up dust, moving through the choreographed shuffle of football practice. Though he hadn’t gotten much of a chance to try the sport in Saint Lucia, Gio had always wanted to play football.

From behind a chain-link fence, Gio watched the boys. He wore a dark T-shirt, shiny basketball shorts, and unremarkable sneakers. He had close-cut hair, high cheekbones, and big, downturned eyes that lent him an air of vulnerability despite the ridges of muscle visible on his calves and forearms. When the boys dispersed for a water break, Gio approached the coach in charge, Chris Legree, and asked whether he could join the team. The first thing Chris noticed about him was that he was big for his age. The second was how politely he spoke even without a parent present. Later, after seeing him move on the field for the first time, Chris told his fellow coaches: “This kid got a chance to be a star.”

Gio’s mother didn’t know much about football, but she supported his interest. Though she came to the country with high hopes for the future, she worried about her son’s transition into their new home. It was not the glittering paradise some of her relatives in the Caribbean pictured. There were more opportunities here than anywhere else, she still believed, but soon after arriving she realized that those opportunities were more distant than she expected — especially for boys Gio’s age, especially in working-class neighborhoods like Brownsville, where she landed because rent was cheap.

The summer of 2013 had been violent in Brownsville. Tensions between the two dominant crews of the neighborhood, the Hood Starz and the Wave Gang, had thickened. On some nights, teenagers opened fire on one another on Rockaway Avenue, the boundary between their territories, three blocks from Betsy Head Park. Locals recalled at least six shootings on the avenue this summer. Other nights, boys traded shots in the cluster of housing projects across the street from the park. As the older boys went away, to prisons and cemeteries, younger boys stepped up to replace them and avenge their deaths, keeping alive a rivalry whose origins many of them did not know.

As the older boys went away, to prisons and cemeteries, younger boys stepped up to replace them and avenge their deaths, keeping alive a rivalry whose origins many of them did not know.

For an adolescent boy, the neighborhood was a tinderbox of social pressures, street politics, and the directionless anger that blooms from the daily struggle of poverty and institutional oppression. These were the same factors battering boys in working-class black neighborhoods all over America. In most ways, Brownsville had more in common with blocks in south Chicago, north St. Louis, west Baltimore, and east Oakland than it did with the increasingly gentrified stretches of north and central Brooklyn, much less anyplace in Manhattan. While crime rates dropped across America — most dramatically in New York City — in the 1990s and 2000s, violence became increasingly concentrated in these neighborhoods. To Gio’s mother, dreams of upward mobility still felt remote.

Before her 12-year-old son could go to college, start a career, and buy a house, he had to make it out of the neighborhood, avoiding the traps along the way. She worried how Gio would spend his free time. It calmed her to know that he would be at the park, learning from coaches and meeting new friends, for so many hours each week.

She hadn’t really considered how football could shape Gio’s future until she talked to Coach Chris. He told her that her son might be good enough to go to college for free. In this country, football skills were an exceptionally valuable commodity. Since he’d founded his Mo Better Jaguars youth football program in 1995, Chris had built pipelines to some of the city’s top high schools, including private institutions that offered hefty financial aid packages to blue chip athletic prospects. Many of his boys had earned college scholarships. Some had graduated with Ivy League degrees. A few had played in the NFL. By the summer of 2013, Mo Better was a legendary institution, beloved by its community, feared and respected by youth football programs across the Northeast, a winner of league titles, regional championships, and a Pop Warner Super Bowl.

But alongside Mo Better’s success stories were its cautionary tales. Coaches estimated that around 30 former players had ended up in prison. Several others had been murdered.

When Chris looked upon the group of boys gathered around him at the park for football practice, he knew that some of them would likely be lost. It was hard to tell, at this point, whose childhood struggles were prologues to against-all-odds stories of upward mobility and whose foreshadowed tragedy. Who would make it out and who wouldn’t. To Chris, it sometimes felt arbitrary. Over his years, he’d seen promising kids, from stable households and decent schools, fall into the streets, and he’d seen troubled kids, with poor grades and juvenile records, get on track. The adolescent years were fickle in this neighborhood. One push this way or that could make all the difference, erasing every move that came before. It was both a reason to hope and to despair.

For Gio, hope seemed highest on his first day of seventh grade. He strolled eagerly that morning, bouncing on the balls of his feet down the sidewalk, his face looking wide awake even though he’d barely been able to sleep. A rush of adrenaline had hit the night before — and the thunder of the subway rumbling by on the elevated tracks outside his bedroom window didn’t help. Gio was looking forward to the start of classes. His favorite subject was math. He enjoyed the challenge of quickly working through a problem, the feeling of his brain churning through the numbers, the satisfaction of rattling off one right answer after the next — cold, clean order in a chaotic world. But that chaotic world interested him too. As he walked to his new school on this balmy morning in early September, he was most excited about his social studies class. “I want to know more about how America became the way it is,” he said.

There were several very good schools in Brownsville, but Gio didn’t end up at any of them. For many parents in New York City, school choice was a complicated process. For those in Brownsville, where the pool of tax money and donations funding the local schools was smaller, this process brought especially high stakes: Although the neighborhood’s stronger schools were as good as any in the city, its weaker schools ranked far below the worst-case-scenario options for kids in wealthier places. This dynamic created an increasingly stratified neighborhood school system, where the most promising young kids with the most active parents got filtered into the area’s better schools while the young kids who struggled in their early academic years, or whose parents didn’t understand or weren’t aware of the local public school landscape, got shunted into the same old subpar schools. The students most likely to struggle, including kids with mental health problems and learning disabilities, were concentrated in the schools that were already struggling.

The students most likely to struggle, including kids with mental health problems and learning disabilities, were concentrated in the schools that were already struggling.

Gio went to one of those struggling schools, Middle School 588. It was the school closest to his home, just three blocks away, and it shared a building with one of the area’s better schools, Kings Collegiate. By his first day, the Thursday after Labor Day, the kids at Kings Collegiate had already been in classes for almost two weeks. Gio and his classmates, who wore red and yellow polo shirt uniforms, had shorter school days and older textbooks than their counterparts on the other side of the building, who wore white collared shirts with navy pants. The student-to-teacher ratio at Gio’s school was more than twice as high as in the school next door. Only 4% of students at MS 588 passed the state math exams in 2013, worse than 85% of middle schools in the city. At Kings Collegiate, the 2013 class scored better than 75% of middle schools. The shared building embodied both Brownsville’s progress and its limitations. New lanes of opportunity had opened, but they were narrow, and access seemed frustratingly arbitrary: Names drawn from an annual lottery was sometimes all that separated those who went to Kings Collegiate from those who went to MS 588.

Within days, Gio’s excitement and optimism about school evaporated. The teachers seemed nice, and the principal seemed to care deeply and work hard, but Gio was struck by the lack of order in the classrooms and hallways. “A lot of kids there are troublemakers,” he said. “They act like animals, messing around and causing distractions.” He lost interest in his classes. His grades turned poor, teetering on the precipice of failure in nearly every subject. But school had not been a total disappointment for Gio. He made new friends who lived nearby. He went to their houses after school, played video games, talked about girls, hung out with their older friends from around the neighborhood. When they asked him why he kept ditching them for football practice three times a week, he answered, simply, “Chasing my dream.”

Just a few years earlier, more than 100 kids joined Mo Better’s program, filling five age groups, from 5 years old to 15. Now less than half that number came out. These days, Coach Chris wasn’t sure how many more seasons his program could survive. He’d begun to see teams around the region fold. It was a national trend: Pop Warner, the largest youth football league in the country, lost around 10% of its players from 2010–12, the first stretch of decline in the organization’s 84-year history. For many of the parents who still sent their kids to Mo Better or other programs, avoiding this hazardous sport seemed like a luxury they couldn’t afford. There were more full-ride college scholarships available for football than for any other extracurricular talent.

Gio played in the 11- to 13-year-old Junior Midget age group, the oldest of Mo Better’s three teams to take the field in the 2013 season. Before the season had even started, the number of 12- and 13-year-old boys showing up to practice had dwindled to 14. To meet the Pop Warner requirement of 16 players, Chris had to bump up two 11-year-olds from a younger team.

Gio’s team wasn’t very good and midway through the season boys began to quit. By mid-October, there were rarely more than six or seven Junior Midgets at practice, and only 13 or 14 were making it to games, meaning the team had to forfeit. Rather than waste the day, the coaches on both sides would agree to unofficial scrimmages. A strong and graceful defensive lineman, Gio was more dominant each week, and after the games, high school coaches came up to him to ask if he’d thought about where he wanted to go.

He didn’t miss games, but he now occasionally skipped out on practice to hang with friends. With few teammates attending and the season in free fall, practice no longer felt urgent. Gio welcomed this new freedom. He’d begun to feel more comfortable around the neighborhood.

One night after an October practice, Coach Chris ran into Gio’s mother at a takeout spot down the street from the park.

“What happened to Gio today?” Chris asked Gio’s mother, a kind-eyed woman wearing a paisley blouse, black slacks, and kitten heels. “He wasn’t at practice.”

“He wasn’t at practice?” she said, confusion on her face. “He told me he was going to practice. I don’t know where he went to!”

They stood there silently for a moment, both knowing full well that sometimes being a good kid wasn’t enough.

She shook her head gravely and told Chris that this wasn’t the first time Gio had misled her. He wasn’t home as much, and when she asked where he was going or where he had been, he offered only vague replies, with a typically teenage don’t-worry-about-it tone. She didn’t know who he was spending his time with, but she noticed that her son’s demeanor had turned a bit hard, a bit distant. Perhaps it was a natural development as a boy approached his teenage years and yearned for independence. He disobeyed her orders to finish his homework before football practice. Instead, he’d go straight to the park or meet up with friends after school. Some nights, he had to stay up past midnight to get his homework done. She was worried about him, she told Chris. Her son’s transition into the neighborhood was even harder than she had expected, she added.

“I’ve been trying to talk to him,” she said to Chris. “I need your help.”

“We’ll talk to him,” Chris said.

“I just don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know. I need to do something.”

“He’s a good kid.”

She nodded. They stood there silently for a moment, both knowing full well that sometimes being a good kid wasn’t enough.

A thick, hard layer of ice covered the field for three months. It was a cold winter, by far the coldest Gio had ever experienced. This was the 12-year-old’s first winter outside the Caribbean, of course, but even his friends, Brooklyn born and bred, told him that this winter was harsher than normal. He was not as annoyed as they were about the cold and constant snow. He appreciated the novelty of bundling up in multiple layers, and he marveled at the snow. He would look back at footprints he had made, or bend down on his walk to school and crumble the powder through his fingers. He made his first snowman. This was the sort of winter he had seen in many movies. He was disappointed that it didn’t snow on Christmas.

With the field frozen over, Gio spent much of the winter inside his family’s small two-bedroom apartment with his mother and 20-year-old brother, in a big brick building with a broken front door, a broken elevator, and a lobby littered with trash. Antsy from being stuck inside, Gio was primed to butt heads with his mother. Their relationship had already begun to fray just weeks after his arrival. His mother was stricter than his father had been in Saint Lucia. She’d been worried about the influences of the neighborhood and vowed to protect him. She was cautious. She wanted him in before dark and she shouted at him when he missed curfew or when he went somewhere after school without first asking her permission. Gio, who craved independence, pushed back. He rebelled in small ways. He talked back. He ignored her calls. He stayed out at the park without telling her. The park was where he let off steam.

Over the winter, the pressure simply built up. The arguments between mother and son turned louder and nastier. One night, after his mother chided him for returning home too late, Gio punched the living room wall. He found other places to go after school and on weekends. This only made his mother angrier with him. By the time the field had thawed in late March, Gio’s mother was ready to disown him. This was no empty threat. She’d contacted the family court, seeking to send Gio to foster care. The stress was more than she could handle. She’d begun the process and paused only when Coach Chris found out and convinced her to rethink the decision. Once he’s in the system, Chris had told her, there’s no going back.

Naïveté was a trait many kids in Brownsville had shed early on.

So, though spring had come late, it had come at a much-needed time for Gio and his mother. He was eager to return to Betsy Head and the sanctuary of the field and the mind-numbing repetition of football drills. On the first Saturday in April, the sky bright and the air cool, he arrived at the park at 11:15 a.m. for Mo Better’s opening practice of 2014. He wore a black compression shirt and white basketball shorts and carried a small gym bag containing a water bottle and cleats.

Gio had been coming to the park less often since the late fall. He’d been spending more of his free time with kids around the neighborhood his own age or older, at friends’ apartments, on stoops, in housing project courtyards. They played video games and talked about girls and the NBA. Most of them were affiliated with a neighborhood clique that claimed an unofficial allegiance to the Crips. Some of them sold drugs. Gio didn’t sell drugs, and he didn’t consider himself a gang member. But he appreciated the other kids’ company. They had the same day-to-day struggles he had. He concluded these were the ties he needed to survive in the neighborhood.

When practice ended, Gio headed to the long green bench near the front of the park. He swapped his cleats for sneakers, zipped up his gym bag, and turned toward the gate.

“Giooo! Good work today,” said Coach Vick Davis, the respected deputy in charge of the 7- to 9-year-old age group. They slapped hands and hugged.

“Thanks, coach.”

“I don’t know why I’m saying this.” Vick paused and clasped his hands in front of him. “Stay off them corners. Stay off them corners. I don’t know why I’m saying this. Stay off them corners. Where you live at?”

“Off Kings Highway.”

“That’s Crips, right?”

“Yeah,” said Gio, eyes a bit wider with surprise, lips curled into a nervous grin.

“Crips. High Bridge. Wave Gang. Hood Starz. You running with any of them?”

Gio shrugged and stared at his shoes. He was taken aback.

“I don’t know why I’m saying this...” Vick repeated.

He did know why he was saying this. He knew this neighborhood, the pressures that pushed against a 12-year-old boy, especially one new to the country. He’d noticed that Gio was funny and confident around other boys, the type of kid who’d have no trouble making new friends. Yet his mature disposition veiled an underlying innocence, an inquisitive interest in the world without a deep understanding of how to navigate it. Maybe “naïve” was the right word. Maybe “being a kid” was a more accurate description. But naïveté was a trait many kids in Brownsville had shed early on. One 8-year-old on Vick’s team had witnessed a man get shot in the head. Some of his 7-year-olds knew that lampposts covered with flowers, teddy bears, ribbons, and handwritten notes were memorials for people who’d been killed. Most knew to crouch down and get away from windows if they heard gunshots outside their home. Vick feared what this exposure to violence did to a kid — how it stunted childhood, eroded innocence, burrowed deep, and shaped whatever worldview was blooming inside a young mind. And yet, perversely, there was a way in which this hardened mindset helped protect youngsters from the environment they would face in adolescence, instilling an early-onset world-weariness that kept them attuned to the neighborhood’s minefield.

“I ride my bike out around here and I see you out here on them corners, you don’t even wanna know what I’ma do,” Vick continued. “You out on them corners, you gon’ die. Do you wanna grow up? Don’t be hanging around certain people. You know who I’m talking about.”

Gio nodded.

“Them corners gon’ bring you down or get you in jail. Can’t get no coochie in jail.”

Gio snickered. Vick pointed to Gio’s bag.

“Focus on this right here and this’ll take you to college for free. That’s where the real coochie’s at. You think you getting coochie now? Boy, they’ll be all over you in college. Say you from Brooklyn, they’ll be all over you. You seein’ the same hood rat girls you grew up with. In college, you got girls from all fifty states. Name a state. And they’ll be all over you. Stay off them corners. I don’t know why I’m saying this. All right?”

Gio smiled and lifted his bag in recognition.

He appreciated that his coaches cared. He respected them, and he really did want to be the kind of kid they wanted him to be. But the coming football season and getting into a good high school — those were distant concerns. Gio’s immediate objective was making it to school and back home without getting jumped.

“You out on them corners, you gon’ die. Do you wanna grow up?"

He was an obvious target during his first few months in Brooklyn, when he was new, with few friends and a thick West Indian accent. He was bigger than most kids his age, but older kids messed with him once in a while. It was nothing serious, just mildly threatening taunts: “Where you from?” “You live around here?” “Yo, we’re talking to you.” But Gio was no punk. He didn’t walk by, head down and meek, absorbing the blows. He stepped to the older boys and told them to mind their business. Sometimes things would get a little heated, with smack talk back and forth, but in the end, everybody would cool and Gio would be on his way. Going solo was asking for trouble, Gio knew. So he stuck closer to the friend he’d made. They were cool kids, who wore Air Jordans and snapback hats, and they treated him warmly. He began walking to and from school with three, four, five others. The walks became easier. The friendships developed.

But Gio soon found that his decision to simply walk to school with a group brought its own complications, which Gio didn’t like to talk about. A couple of his teammates had heard about the situation, and when they shared the story they made up pseudonyms because they didn’t know the real names of those involved: Word on the street was, one of the kids in the group, DT, had gotten into an argument with a kid nicknamed Eazy over a girl. Eazy said he would fight DT. Out of solidarity, Eazy’s friends declared each of DT’s friends an enemy. DT’s friends did the same. The two crews now had a beef. Like it or not, Gio was part of it. Eazy’s crew had seen Gio out with DT and DT’s friends. It didn’t matter that he and DT weren’t particularly close. They were associates, and that was enough. Lines had been drawn, ranks closed. Gio knew that he might get jumped if he was alone outside and ran into two or more boys from Eazy’s crew. So, he tied himself even tighter to his neighborhood friends. It was these friends, not his coaches, who made sure he got back to his block every afternoon.

Chris was in high spirits as the second practice of 2014 came to a close. It was the happiest he’d felt in months. More than 30 players had shown up, double last week’s turnout. He had new purple Mo Better hats and new yellow Mo Better T-shirts to sell to parents for $10 each. Best of all, many of his blue chippers had impressed the high school coaches who’d come to Betsy Head to get a look at the latest crop of Mo Better prospects.

It had been a perfect Saturday but for one thing: Gio hadn’t come to practice. This disappointed Chris. Gio had occasionally missed practice without good reason last season, so his absence wasn’t a shock. But Chris had been eager to introduce Gio to the high school coaches at the park. With practice over, he asked them to wait while he called Gio’s mother. Gio lived a five-minute walk from the park, and Chris hoped the boy could hustle over before the coaches left.

Gio’s mother was in a panic when she picked up the phone. Gio had been missing since Thursday, she told Chris. He didn’t show up for school on Friday and he hadn’t been home. He hadn’t answered his cell phone, either. “I’ve already called the police,” she said. ●

From the book Never Ran, Never Will by Albert Samaha. Copyright (c) 2018 by Albert Samaha. Reprinted by permission of Public Affairs, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Never Ran, Never Will is out Sept. 4.

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