• Hell Week: On Inner City Football in the Wake of Ferguson

    “Today is when we find out who’s a football player.

    The fathers standing along the fence clapped for the performance.

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    “Good hit, kids!” Marquis’s father, Ramsey, bellowed. “That’s how you supposed to hit!”

    “Both ways good hit!” shouted Dorian’s father, Dwight. “Makin’ some noise now.”

    Isaiah and Oomz had sparked an excitement that now hovered over the field with the dust. It was an excitement familiar on fields across the county: the hitting had finally begun, which meant the season wasn’t far off.

    At every level of football, the first day in pads marked the start of Hell Week, a late summer ritual of rigorous hitting and running, enough hitting to get the body used to contact again and enough running to chisel the body into condition for the season––enough to pare a team down to its toughest parts. Heads would ache and bodies would bruise. Legs and lungs would burn. Boys would pray that the eighth or ninth 50-yard sprint would be the last, and then their hearts would drop when their coach said, “Set!” and blew the whistle again. Coaches would blow the whistle over and over, so many times that every last kid would think about quitting, would question his love for the game and wonder how much he was truly willing to sacrifice for this punishing sport. The boys would fall to the grass, sucking air, chests heaving, splashing water on their faces, groaning, too tired to talk but silently thinking Fuck this shit. And then their coach would tell them to get their asses up and get back on the line because water break was over and it was time for 100-yard gassers, and if everybody doesn’t make it across in 18 seconds, the whole team’s gotta run it again. And when practice was finally, mercifully over, they would pray that the next day would be easier, fully knowing that it would, in fact, be harder. But when the week was finished, they would know that those who made it through were now forged together through this fire.

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    On fields across the country, there was hope that the efforts through the long spring and hot summer months would yield wins in the fall. And on this hard, dusty field in Brownsville, Brooklyn, that hope mostly rested on the two boys wiping dirt from each other’s jerseys.

    “Y’all two thunder and lightning!” shouted one father. “Bruise and cruise!”

    “They don’t know what they in for when they step on the field with y’all,” another father shouted. “But soon they gon’ see what we seeing right now! They gon’ learn what we knowin’ right now!”

    “It was a big day and everybody at Betsy Head that Saturday afternoon would remember it, but for other reasons.”

    “This a big day,” said a third father. “First time Oomz and Isaiah went heads. And they did not disappoint! I’m gon’ remember this day!” It was a big day and everybody at Betsy Head that Saturday afternoon would remember it, but for other reasons. That very hour, 1,000 miles west at an apartment complex in Ferguson, Missouri, a police officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown.

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    To Coach Chris, the first day in pads was the most important practice of the year, and he woke up that morning feeling a rush of adrenaline. This was the practice when he would learn the most about “what kinda heart some of these kids got.” The moment a football player lined up for his first hitting drill was unique to the sport. “You see somebody hit a baseball: OK this kid can do this. You see somebody shoot a basketball: OK this guy can do it. In football, you can’t tell until you see people play. We’re gonna find out who responds to getting knocked down. Some guys quit.” Unlike in basketball, which required exceptional height, and in baseball, which required exceptional eyes or an exceptional arm, in football, a boy could advance through high school and college primarily through toughness and technique. The way Chris saw it, anybody could play football if they wanted it enough, but anyone who didn’t would wash out.

    He’d seen tall, athletic boys who ran fast and acted tough all summer turn soft on the first day of hitting. He’d seen slow, clumsy, skinny boys who’d been afterthoughts all summer emerge as hard-nosed football players on the first day of hitting. There was no higher compliment from a coach than, “He’s a football player.” It denoted toughness, will, discipline, work ethic, desire, leadership—the most revered values in the sport. “Today is when we find out who’s a football player,” Chris said to Coach Gary before practice, as the Pee Wees lined up for shoulder pads, helmets, pants padding, mouth guards, and jerseys. The boys picked out their numbers: 2 for Isaiah, 7 for Oomz, 32 for Hart, 44 for Donnie, 4 for Chaka, 5 for Naz, 1 for Time Out, 21 for Marquis.

    As the boys put on their gear, they showed off the accessories they’d added. Hart had a neck roll. Isaiah wore a clear visor on his facemask. Time Out attached a back flap below his shoulder pads. Marquis had his nylon sleeves and colorful knee-high socks. One player joked that you could spot the best players on another team by their jersey numbers (single digits) and their accessories (the more the better). “’Cause if you can’t play you look like a fool wearing all that,” Esau explained. Oomz, though, kept a minimalist look. He wore a ratty T-shirt under his shoulder pads and old white tube socks that he folded down so that they wrapped the heels of his cleats. While his teammates wore padded football pants, Oomz wore basketball shorts. He’d forgotten to buy football pants.

    “How you gon’ practice with no pads on your legs?” Hart said.

    “Don’t worry about it,” Oomz replied with a calm smirk.

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    Chris called the boys over.

    “It’s a good day!” he said, as they circled around him. “What a day! We gon’ learn a lot today. Now we gon’ really be playin’ football. Who’s excited? I’m real excited. We gon’ be hitting today. Y’all ready?”

    “Yeah!” the boys replied in unison.

    He paused and nodded his head, hands on his hips. “Now—what’s the big national issue in football right now?”

    “Concussions!” Hart and a few other boys shouted.

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    “President of the United States said if he had a son he might not let him play football,” Chris said. “How can you help prevent getting a concussion in football?”

    No boy spoke up.

    “First off, you gotta make sure you got on the proper equipment,” Chris continued. “Gotta make sure your helmet fits properly and it’s strapped up. And this is important: you gotta keep your head up when tackling. See your man”—Chris bent down and mimed a slow motion tackle—“and bam! Your facemask right on his chest, or right on the ball, might even pop that ball loose. Always keep your head up. That’s very important. Very important. Football is a very serious game. Make sure you get a mouthpiece from Coach Gary ’cause we gonna be bangin’ today.”

    The adults lined the fence to watch their boys hit. They weren’t worried much, though they had seen the stories in the news. Scientists were saying that the risk of long-term brain damage was heightened for kids who played football before their teenage years. Studies showed that the primary cause was not concussions, but rather the accumulation of smaller, sub-concussive hits, which were unavoidable in the sport. Perhaps football’s days as America’s pastime were coming to a close. Perhaps one day soon basketball would surpass football the way football had surpassed baseball. Perhaps football would fall from public consciousness the way boxing had. The growing fear about football’s impact on the brain had convinced many parents to pull their kids from the sport. From 2010 to 2012, participation in Pop Warner dropped by 10 percent—the first decline in the organization’s more than 80-year history. In a 2013 Robert Morris University poll, 40 percent of respondents supported a ban on kids playing tackle football before high school. That year, a state assemblyman from the Bronx, Michael Benedetto, became the first legislator in America to introduce a bill banning youth football statewide.

    “He never played football, I guess,” said one father.

    The adults lined up along the fence believed the recent public outcry about football was overblown. And indeed, there was no doubt they were part of a very broad stronghold.“I received an awful lot of criticism about this bill,” Benedetto said at a press conference. “I have certainly received dozens of emails for and against—mostly against—this proposal, I’ll be honest.” Only six other assembly members, from a body of 150, signed on to back the bill, and not a single state senator was willing to sponsor it. In February 2014, a New York City council member proposed a bill requiring that a doctor is present for every youth football game and that only a doctor can decide whether or not a player should be tested for a concussion. The bill stalled and didn’t reach the floor for a vote. But it was clear that a national movement had emerged. States across the country were passing laws establishing concussion protocols for football games and practices. In California, the state legislature passed a bill to limit high school football teams to two full-contact practices a week during the off-season.

    “Perhaps football’s days as America’s pastime were coming to a close. Perhaps one day soon basketball would surpass football the way football had surpassed baseball.”

    “It’s ridiculous,” said another father. “It’s part of this sissy-fication. I had at least five concussions myself and I played through all of ’em. You got high drop-out rates, kids on drugs, headed to jail, violence, poverty—these ain’t the problems. It’s concussions? Get real. For some kids this the one chance they got. This the activity that keeps ’em outta trouble, gives ’em father figures. You gon’ take it away? Mischief is the easiest thing to find.”

    “All that concussion stuff is not from these little guys,” a third father said.

    “You can’t handle this right here, how you gon’ handle life?” said the first father. “You think the hits hard out here? Wait till you see the hits life’ll give you. This right here’s where you build that mental toughness. That shit is key. Mental toughness.”

    The Pop Warner organization depended on this belief that the benefits of football outweighed the risks—so much so that league officials seemed to deny the reality of the risks. In June, in the midst of a heated national conversation about football’s impact on the brain, Pop Warner hosted a panel discussion about health and football, titled “Eat Smart, Play Safe.” Yet concussions were not a focus of the presentation, rather a single health issue among a wide array of topics. A poster board with a diagram of a brain declared how football promoted cognitive development: alertness, focus, mental engagement.

    When the discussion, after more than half an hour, finally turned to concussions, a neurologist on the panel, Dr. Majid Fotuhi, explained that people underestimate the brain’s resilience. The long-term damage from concussions, he told the audience, sets in only if an athlete does not address it, “like a car that is damaged and you do not fix it.” He claimed that sufficient sleep, regular exercise, omega-3 DHA supplements, and a healthy diet will cause the brain to grow and can work to balance out the potential long-term damage a kid suffers from a concussion. “If somebody has a concussion, it’s not over,” he said. “The brain is malleable, the brain is fixable, especially if you’re young.” He did not back this up with any specific evidence.

    The hits became harder and louder as the week went on, and the Pee Wees grew closer and more excited for the start of the season. They practiced every day that week, and each day confirmed the boys’ belief that there was much talent on this team. A sense of urgency gripped them. It seemed to radiate out from Isaiah and Hart and reach every boy. Some days, they reminisced on the losses of the previous season, and they vowed that this season would be different. Almost nobody missed practice. Many arrived early. Their eyes stayed locked on Esau as he described the new plays he’d created. Few goofed around during practice, and those who did faced Oomz’s anger. They ran laps and pushed through punishing 100-yard sprints without complaint.

    By the middle of the week, it became clear that the boys believed this was an important season. Some of them, like Isaiah, Oomz, and Hart, thought about it morning to night every day that week. They fantasized about the great plays they would make. They imagined the wins and the celebrations. It consumed them like a romance. It remained on their minds as they stripped off their pads, traveled home, showered, ate dinner, and sprawled on the couch as their mother or father watched television, which was filled with images of fires, tanks, shields, guns, and scores of angry people barely older than they were, bandanas over their mouths, running from billowing tear gas in Ferguson. Their parents watched the images with strained faces, understanding, praying things would change this time, perhaps wondering if the cost of progress was always blood.

    On Thursday, the second-to-last day of Hell Week, the sun dipped below the horizon of brick towers during practice for the first time all summer. Mr. Hart, Marquis’s father Ramsey, and Dorian’s father Dwight stood side by side at the fence watching their boys run and hit. They were all big men and they all worked in law enforcement. Dwight, with his chiseled arms and chest beneath his gray V-neck, was a Port Authority police officer in New Jersey. Ramsey––who, with his offensive lineman build, bald head, and beard, looked like Rick Ross––drove a bus on Rikers Island. Mr. Hart, short and round and solid as a boulder, had been a correctional officer at Rikers for 27 years. He’d been a dutiful guard who rarely missed work, until the knee injuries that sidelined him in March. He had been on his back at home for months, but he returned to Betsy Head in time for the summer practices.

    The coaches and parents gave him a hero’s welcome. His booming voice had been missed, Coach Chris said. Among Mo Better parents, Mr. Hart and his wife were the center of gravity. They’d attended nearly every practice since their son had joined the team four years earlier. For the anxious fathers who complained about the coaches’ decisions and worried about another losing season, Mr. Hart was the voice of reason, calm, and optimism. He brought energy to the park, and his energy caught on among other parents.

    “Andrew! Andrew!” Mr. Hart shouted at his son. “You gotta extend the arms and drive him back! Gotta block him! Gotta get the ball to your quarterback before you can block! Yeahhh! Yeahhh Andrew!!”

    “Hell Week, baby! Hell Week! Let’s get it!” Ramsey added. “Good block, son!” Dwight yelled. “Good run, Isaiah!”

    Dwight had nearly pulled his son from the team after last season. Why commute an hour for each practice only to lose so many games? There were plenty of teams closer to his home in New Jersey. But Chris had persuaded him to stay. It was an off year, Chris had told him, and we plan on fixing it. Dwight decided to give Mo Better one more chance, but “this will be Dorian’s last year here unless they do something special,” he’d said in the spring. Now Dwight believed that they really might do something special.

    “They shouldn’t lose a game this year,” he said to the other fathers. “The talent is there. It’s just a matter of putting it together and executing.”

    “I come all the way from Queens to come out here,” Mr. Hart said. “They got the talent. The coaches just gotta get it together. We are stronger. We are stronger. We ain’t giving nothing up.”

    “Y’all know I’m coming from Queens, too,” Ramsey said. “Coming all the way out here for this ’cause I heard this is the place to be. What happened last year?”

    “They should’ve gone undefeated last year, but they fell apart at the end of games,” Dwight said. “Brick City, East Orange, and Montclair—they kept it close through two, three quarters, then got tight or something and the other guys pulled away.”

    The Brick City game, Dwight and Mr. Hart recalled, was particularly painful. It was a brutal contest, and the teams looked evenly matched.

    “It was six to nothing for most of the game,” Dwight said. “But they lost confidence in the end. It’s up to the coaches to keep them together and organized at the end. Sometimes they got a bit disorganized. They lost 30-something to nothing.”

    The fathers went quiet and watched the action on the field. The park was buzzing. Latino men played softball in one corner. West Indian men played soccer on a patch of grass in another corner. Five kids on bikes rolled up and down the dirt mounds at the edge of the grass. Three boys played baseball with an aluminum bat and a mini basketball. A group of girls practiced cheerleading moves. Several people jogged around the track. Dozens played handball, cricket, or basketball on the caged-in blacktops.

    “One more play!” Coach Chris shouted at the Pee Wees. It was past 8 pm and the sun had nearly set.

    “It’s already getting dark! What’s the difference? Ain’t this hell week?” Ramsey shouted.

    “I just got here!” Mr. Hart shouted. “I just got here! 10 more plays!” “Sun’s still out!” said Ramsey. “Come on, coach, nobody goin’ home!” “C’mon, coach! S’posed to be Hell Week!” Mr. Hart said. Isaiah took a handoff and Dorian met him in the hole and they collided with a loud pop! “Now we hear some rattling!”

    Never Ran, Never Will

    Excerpted from Never ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing American City by Albert Samaha. Copyright © 2018. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

    Albert Samaha
    Albert Samaha
    Albert Samaha is a criminal justice reporter at BuzzFeed News. He has written for the Village Voice, San Francisco Weekly, and the Riverfront Times, and his work has appeared in the the and the Best American Travel Writing anthology series. His stories have won awards from the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Education Writers Association, the California Newspaper Publishers Association, and others. He is a graduate of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and lives in New York City.

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