One Thursday evening last month, darkness had overtaken Nicholl Park. The field lights were not yet on. About twenty adolescent boys and one girl, wearing old Raiders jerseys and grass-stained T-shirts stretched tight over football pads, looked up at a scowling figure. In a voice part preacher and part drill sergeant, Richmond Steelers head coach Fred Harris spoke:
"Two of you have something to say to the team."
David Walker, a slight boy of fifteen with downcast eyes and an overbite, stood up.
"Teacher said I threatened him."
"You lost your mind," Harris said, his voice rising. "You're lucky you're out here. How come you're here?"
"Coach Khalid got me out," Walker said. His gaze remained fixed on Harris' chest.
"Football just saved your ass," another coach chimed in.
"He just lost his job," Harris announced. He turned to Walker, his quarterback. "You're fired," Harris thundered. "And you was doing good, too."
The next player to stand up was Sam Bernstine, a wiry, athletic boy with close-cropped hair who had removed the ornamental gold casing from his front teeth. The trace of a smirk registered on his face.
"I got caught in a stolen car," Bernstine said.
The coach's broad face was rigid with disgust.
"How you get out?" he asked.
"It was my first offense," Bernstine said, shoulders slumped, smirk gone, eyes staring down at the grass. "It ain't happening no more."
There was a long silence. Harris, whose glasses framed his narrowed eyes, glared from one player to the next. Some met his gaze, others looked down or past him.
"It's amazing to me that you still get in trouble," he said. "I don't understand that. You guys don't be listening to us. Go in one ear and out the other. Thirteen and fourteen years old. You get sent to jail."
After an assistant coach added a few cross words of his own, Harris, an athletic retired electrician in his early sixties, gave them another prolonged, menacing look.
"We can't save 'em all," he told his team. "We can only save the ones that want to be saved."
Harris' determination to save his players, both on and off the field, has changed little in the 26 years he has overseen the Richmond Steelers midget football team. "The kids are talented, but we have to teach them how to excel," Harris said in an interview one night before practice. "I do it to the best of my ability."
Like many adults involved with the Steelers, which fields teams in five divisions between ages six and fifteen, Harris got his start when his own son went out for the team. Back then, more than one hundred players would try out for thirty spots on the midget squad, the final stop in a progression that begins with mighty mites, and continues through junior pee wees, pee wees, and junior midgets. These days, his team consists of every single one of the twenty-odd players who showed up to the midgets' initial practice and decided to stick out the season. By any measure, though, his tenure has been a success.
The players crouched before Harris were hoping to win a sixth consecutive California State Youth Football League title, with the championship less than three weeks away. But the team has faced obstacles, and the youthful indiscretions that provoked the coach's ire are not the worst of them. The Steelers, like much of the city, have been caught in a merciless swirl of violent, painful loss.
A switch was flipped and, slowly, the lights came on, shining down on the players as they lined up on either side of a row of orange cones. They were in for two hard hours of push-ups, tackling drills, and encouraging shouts of "more violence!"
It was six years ago that two brothers sat in the bleachers at Oakland Tech, looking on as the Steelers fell behind 28-0 before halftime. Khalid and Waleed Elahi left that league championship game with tears in their eyes, unable to watch any more of the drubbing their former team was enduring at the hands of the Berkeley Cougars. It was then that the reformed drug dealers made a vow: Next year they would return to help their old coach establish a new dynasty.
The following August, just before the second practice of the season, Harris saw his two former players walking across the field at Kennedy High, where the team practices until the lack of lights forces it to migrate to Nicholl Park. He hadn't seen the Elahis in years but recognized them at once. Hands were shaken, pleasantries exchanged.
But Harris was skeptical when the Elahis told him why they'd come. His own commitment to the Steelers was unwavering. In addition to three practices and one game a week from late July through early December, there were the nights spent going over strategy and the occasional afternoons spent in courtrooms attesting to players' better sides. Yet his assistant coaches have not traditionally matched this level of dedication. Harris had little reason to think the Elahis would be any different.
Growing up in Richmond in the 1980s, Khalid and Waleed came of age at the height of the city's cocaine binge, which was soon to be a crack epidemic. By the time Khalid was on Harris' team, his friends were getting rich selling cocaine, driving to school in Jaguars and Benzes. Unable to resist the temptation, Khalid started dealing himself. Within a few months, he recalls, he went "from being a happy kid to a destructive young man." In 1992, he was convicted on drug and gun possession charges and sentenced to nearly two years in San Quentin. Waleed later followed in his older brother's footsteps, serving time in county jail.