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In 2001, journalist Robert Andrew Powell spent a year following two young teams through rollercoaster seasons. The Liberty City Warriors, former national champs, will suffer the team’s first-ever losing season. The inner-city kids of the Palmetto Raiders, undefeated for two straight years, are rewarded for good play with limo rides and steak dinners. But their flamboyant coach (the “Darth Vader of youth football”) will be humbled by defeat in a down-to-the-wire playoff game. TITLE OF BOOK is an inside-the-huddle look into a world of innocence and corruption, where every kickoff bares political, social, and racial implications. By an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The Best American Sports Writing, it is an unforgettable drama that shows us just what it is to win and to lose in America.
A portrait of Miami, a city whose government, even after race riots which crippled the black community in the 80s, serves the interest mostly of the Cuban-American constituency and has been rocked by various political scandals (bribery, fiscal mismanagement, etc.). The author tells how he witnessed inner-city blacks find hope and identity during a high school football semifinal that was attended by tens of thousands. He takes a newspaper assignment covering Pop Warner football games and sees much he admires (“a depressed community proud that its boys could do something better than anyone else”) but also “the corruption of sport at its infancy” (recruiting, fans assaulting the coach after the team’s only loss, parents living through their kids, gambling, etc.). He quits his job to cover a season of Pop Warner, from the first day to the last game, attending every single season and game of the 95-pound Gwen Cherry Bulls, whose coach is dubbed the ‘Darth Vadar of Pop Warner’.
Registration day. Coach Brian Johnson of the Liberty City Warriors is introduced as he prints out ridiculously complicated game strategies for his team, based on the Georgia Southern Eagles game plans. It is his first year as head coach and he is determined to prove himself. “I wouldn’t be a man if I didn’t aspire to run my own team.”
We’re introduced to the “Darth Vadar of Pop Warner” Raul Campos, the ostentatious coach of the 110-pound Palmetto Raiders, who is editing a video hyping his team as the greatest of all time, winners of back-to-back national champions at Disney World Sport Center, undefeated in the last 2 seasons.
We’re introduced to Diamond Pless, a young kid whose uncle was confined to a wheelchair after a shooting with a rival drug dealer, and who is now helping his uncle live his dream of NFL superstardom vicariously
We’re introduced to Mark Peterson, the head of the league who tries without much success to discourage the recruitment of black inner city players to suburban ballparks, and is still torn over last year’s national championship, where a Suniland team made up mostly of recruits won 56-6. The coach lost his job because he ran up the store, but is suing to be reinstated.
CHAPTER ONE: First Practice
The first practice, plus a history of Pop Warner football, the largest youth football league in America, started in 1929 in Philly to prevent youth crime and eventually to over 6,000 teams nationally competing to play in the national champion at Disney World.
CHAPTER TWO: Liberty City
A tour of Liberty City—past the wealthy enclaves of Miami and the poverty of Little Havana is a black neighborhood torn by race riots in the 80s and gang-related assassinations in the 90s. The neighborhood grew out of a black ghetto called Nigger Town which eventually became a progressive experimental black-only community named Knight Manor until a highway ran through it and tore the neighborhood apart. This is wear porno rapper Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew comes from, who helped found the Liberty City program. Since then, the Warriors have won city championships in 7 of 8 weight divisions and have spawned other all-black parks.
CHAPTER THREE: CAMPOS
Inside the home of the Cuban exile turned real estate wizard Coach Campos, who is hated and called a “cracker” and takes his players to games in chartered motor coaches and used to take them in Hummer limos. After being banned from another Pop Warner team, Campos took over the Palmetto team comprised mostly of white suburban kids and replaced them with mostly black players recruited from West Perrine via varsity letter jackets, steak dinnnnnnners, etc.
CHAPTER FOUR: DIAMOND
Diamond’s mom tries to petition for him to get a larger role on the team, but Diamond doesn’t show much promise. Diamond’s uncle Durell describes his gun injury.
CHAPTER FIVE: SUNILAND
We’re introduced to Phillip, whose father is dead from AIDS and whose HIV+ mother’s behavior is erratic because of drugs. He is often left to his own devices. He sees football as his way out. We’re introduced to the Suniland Devils, a suburban team comprised of recruited back players whose coach Gator Rebhan was banned after he ran up the score in a championship game. Rebhan thinks the League is jealous because he took a white ballpark and made it successful.
CHAPTER SIX: GOULDS
The history of the Railroad Shop, a black settlement that developed nearly a century ago, was condemned by the city, but eventually turned black again. Now Goulds is black and poor. In their first game, Liberty City loses to Goulds, with Coach Johnson’s playbook proving way too complex for the pee wees.
CHAPTER SEVEN: SEPTEMBER 11
Warriors lose their second game. News of 9/11 comes, but Florida is very removed from the goings-on in NYC and Washington. The coaches convene at the field despite cancelled games and try to make sense of things.
CHAPTER EIGHT: McADOO
We’re introduced to shadowy figure named McAdoo, who “takes care” of high school and college players in vague ways. He’s a street agent, of which every major college sports program has at least one. They operate under the radar, even going so far as to buy cars for young players even though he has no traceable source of income besides selling watermelons and gambling. He points out all of the players he “raised”— rappers, NFL players, etc. McAdoo’s cash flow is “supplemented by his relationships with some of Liberty City’s more prominent entrepreneurs,” including drug dealers and gang members. McAdoo has switched his focus from encouraging kids to go into football to encouraging them to read.
CHAPTER NINE: LIBERTY CITY AT PALMETTO
Liberty City is now 1-4 and their chances at the championship are slipping. A player is hit hard and has to go to the hospital in an ambulance. Coach Johnson is questioning why he even bothers.
CHAPTER ELEVEN: PLEX
The story of drug-related gang violence in Liberty City. Gang members bet up to $10,000 and intimidated coaches and player. Diamond’s father-in-law “Plex” was arrested for a murder associated with protecting the distribution channels of a crack laboratory. He is serving 5 life sentences.
CHAPTER ELEVEN: ELECTION
The Elian Gonzalez debacle, and how it further turned the black community against the Cubans. The Warriors win a game.
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: THE GAME
A story about a legendary street game decades ago between a group of white kids and black kids. The black kids
A silver Honda with opaque windows rolls to a stop in a parking lot at Hadley Park. The car's trunk pops open as a small boy climbs out the passenger-side door. The boy pulls out a new pair of cleats from the trunk. Holding the footwear in his small hands, he breaks into a sprint. His legs carry him across the jogging path, past a woman power-walking around a paved path, over to the playing field where the 95-pound Liberty City Warriors warm up. Each weight division at Hadley Park occupies its own plot of practice field. The 110s stretch over by the game-day gridiron, which is never used for practice. The 145s run wind sprints near the tennis courts. The 95s own turf along the chain-link outfield fence of a baseball field. Coach Beasley, the offensive coordinator, has tied a yellow-and-black banner to the fence: "Believe it!!! Achieve it!!! 95 lb. Warriors." Head coach Brian Johnson stands in the middle of the field, which is composed largely of dirt as fine and dry as cocoa powder. A black Nike floppy hat protects Brian's head from the 90-degree sun. Prescription sunglasses tint his eyes blue. Sweat trickles down his face, soaking his T-shirt and dotting one ofthe six pairs of Nike sneakers he owns. He's trying to look imposing, like a leader, but as he watches the boys run a lap around the park he starts to smile. He's been waiting for this day. When Brian arrived at the field two hours ago, he brought props. Off-season runs to the Home Depot netted him yards of PVC pipe, elbow joints, glue, and a hacksaw, all of which he used to assemble an obstacle course of impressive complexity. Ten yards of rope netting wait to be skipped. A limbo bar hovering three feet above the grass needs to be ducked under. A dozen orange cones form a zigzag for the players to slalom through as if skiing. During the day Brian delivers bolts, screws, and other machine parts to warehouses around Miami. Today he took the day off and loaded his work van with the obstacle course and the cones. Beasley cashed in a vacation day too. Coach Pete, who also skipped work, stands near a concrete light post, chilling in the narrow beam of shade the post provides. The brim of his black Liberty City baseball visor is pulled so low he has to crane his neck to make eye contact with the three other assistants as they roll in. All the coaches, like all the players, are black. Coach Ed is a towering scarecrow with long, thin teeth stained by cigarettes. He'll oversee the offensive line. Lanky Coach Chico will assist Coach Pete, who is his girlfriend's father. Coach Tubbs has the cornerbacks. During the day Tubbs mows grass for the City of Miami Beach, his eyes blind to the tourists on Ocean Drive, his mower a monotonous whir as he daydreams about his evenings at Hadley Park. "I just love football" Tubbs says after he slaps skin with Pete and Brian. "I was too short to play, you know, so I coach." The first boys arrive back from their laps, breathing heavily. Sweat drips down smooth faces all frozen and serious. "Run all the way in. Put your hands on your head. Run it all the way in. Everywhere we go we run," says Coach Ed. "Got to get in shape to play football. Ninety-five-pound football." The boys stand in the line of shade from the light post, resting their hands atop their heads as they cool down. No one wears helmets or pads this first day. Instead they wear shorts and cleats or maybe tennis shoes as oversized as pontoon boats. Most have pulled their T-shirts up to their armpits to cool their lean stomachs. They are skinny, and tiny. The description "pencil neck" is more accurate than it is insulting. Brian's eleven-year-old daughter, Sha-nise, sprays water into the boys' open mouths. "Boot camp" is what Brian calls the first week of practice. Every day for five straight days the routine is the same. After stretching in a lazy semicircle the boys run wind sprints, then crabs, which entail scurrying twenty yards backward on their hands and feet. At the PVC-pipe obstacle course they run through the netting, trying not to trip. Speed is deemphasized. "Boy, once you get good at it then you can go fast. It's not about going fast. Take your time," Coach Chico counsels a player entangled in rope. "Run with your head up." The boys who trip run the drill again. There is no yelling. Some kids show superior form or surprising speed-"good hands and good hops," as Tubbs says. "Head up," says Beasley to a boy watching his feet navigate the netting. "You've got to see that linebacker coming at you. Good job, little man."
After an hour of conditioning, the Warriors break into groups. Assistant coach Chico schools the linebackers on the proper three-point stance: feet behind the buttocks, chest parallel to the ground, right hand touching the turf for balance. "You've got to get used to the cadence," Chico yells. He blows into a silver whistle. "Ready!" The linebackers drop into a squat. "Set!" They lean onto their fingers. "Hike!" Each boy explodes forward, running a few feet before stopping with awkward expressions. Do we stop here? Do we keep going? Coach Chico asks them to wrap their hands around his waist as if he were an oncoming ball carrier. He's not asking for tackles, or for the boys to use force. Still, Chico is six-foot-one and 205 pounds. The thought of tackling him-most of the boys can hope only to wrap themselves around one of his thighs-reduces them to giggles. "Get mean!" barks Coach Pete in his Army drill instructor voice. "Wipe that smile off your face. Get ready to hurt somebody. Get mean! Come on, get mean!" Ten feet away, Coach Beasley introduces the offense to the different positions in his complicated Georgia Southern system. Five boys form an offensive line. Antwane, the probable quarterback, stands behind them. When asked to stare at the butt cheeks of the players in front of him, Antwane turns toward a teammate and giggles. "He said butt cheeks!"
* * *
In 1929, store owners in Philadelphia banded to solve a common problem: "Teenagers with nothing to do were causing them great losses in acts of violence," according to Pop Warner league history. The founder of the league, Joseph Tomlin, was an ambitious stockbrocker whose job prospects on Wall Street were crippled by the Great Depression. Although the game took off in Pennsylvania, selling youth football to America proved a challenge. Parents feared their boys would be injured playing such a violent sport. "Articles published by doctors, educators and others [stated] that the game should be outlawed," according to the official history. At a symposium on sports for youth, held in 1953 and attended by delegates from the AMA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and others, Tomlin called for professional support of youth football teams. "His presentation is interrupted by boos. At the close of the conference, a vote is taken for a ban on 'kid football' and is supported 43-1. Tomlin being the lone dissenting vote." Tomlin was not deterred. He continued brainstorming ways to promote his unwanted sport. One of his friends suggested what became the first-ever "Kiddie Bowl," played in a snowstorm in front of 2,000 spectators. A team backed by a Philadelphia restaurant faced off against a team from New York, Sinatra's Cyclones, sponsored by the singer. The game became an annual tradition. Within a decade, the league grew from a thousand teams nationwide to more than twice that number. Forty years later, the number of teams has tripled. Pop Warner is the largest football league in America. For all its growth-especially in the last decade-Pop Warner remains a somewhat disorganized operation. There are no Pop Warner leagues in football-crazy Ohio, for instance. The national office takes great pains to point out Pop Warner's emphasis on scholastics, from the recognition of academic all-Americans to the awarding of college scholarships. Yet, for the 350,000 kids in Pop Warner, only $30,000 in scholarships are awarded annually. Even in Miami, rival leagues vie for youth football talent. But Pop Warner is the only league that offers the possibility of playing for a national championship at Disney World. For that reason, Pop Warner is far and away Miami's dominant youth football league, home to the best players and the toughest competition. (Continues...)
Excerpted from We Own This Game by Robert Andrew Powell Copyright © 2003 by Robert Andrew Powell. Excerpted by permission.
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|Liberty City at Palmetto||77|
|Palmetto vs. Goulds||148|