Wounded Warriors 

The Richmond Steelers try to overcome violence and loss to win their sixth straight state title.

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"Sam, how many times you run the ball?"


Having established this fairly even division of labor, Harris continued: "The next time I even think you ain't doing your job for a selfish reason, I'm taking your uniform. Whoever scored a touchdown, they didn't do it by themself. Don't let us have the conversation again."

The lights came on and Harris pulled out that day's West County Times sports section. He started reading from a column on Terrell Owens, the former 49er wide receiver who had just been suspended by the Philadelphia Eagles for, among other things, badmouthing his quarterback, attempting to renege on his year-old contract, and refusing to listen to his coach.

"Owens got what he deserved," Harris read. "His DISRUPTIVE and SELFISH behavior threatened to destroy the team chemistry that had taken years to build." Harris looked up from the paper and gave his players a meaningful glare. He read the excerpt again. The players remained still and silent, kneeling before him.

"Now he's officially on probation," Harris said. "Some of y'all on probation."

His point made, Harris instructed the players to split into offense and defense. The players lined up in two rows facing each other. Harris stood behind the offense, deciding which play to run and who to put where.

Bernstine sulked his way through practice. At one point, he sat down on a metal grate at the edge of the field, out of hearing range of Harris while the latter gave his running backs instruction on barreling through the defense.

The young man has played for the Steelers for seven years, coming up through each of the organization's five age divisions. A freshman at El Cerrito High, Bernstine said he hopes to keep playing football "forever." His goal is to play professionally and "get my mom and dad out of the ghetto."

Although he is strong, quick, and coordinated, his attitude has kept him from being the impact player he might be. He carries the additional expectations of family heritage. Like many of the players out here, his father also played for the Steelers. Sam Sr. was a standout running back for Harris' squad in the mid-'80s.

"Why you sitting down?" Harris demanded of Bernstine, seeing that the player had missed the directions he'd just given the other running backs. "Put your helmet back on."

Bernstine got up slowly, taking his time pulling his scratched black helmet over his head.

"Superstar," Harris said acidly.

"I ain't no superstar," Bernstine said.

"You acting like one," Harris said.

Meanwhile, Khalid Elahi surveyed the players from his usual perch, crouched in the middle of the field. A round man with an animated face wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt with a huge white T-shirt sticking out of the bottom, he was on the far side of the players from Harris, focused on defense. His big eyes wide, he looked for players not staying close enough to their assigned opponents, not crashing into the ball carrier with enough force, and not doing whatever else they should have been doing. After one player, a shy kid in his first season of organized football, let the running back slip through his grasp, Khalid sent him sprinting to the fence and back before the next play. It was about a 100-yard dash.

Shortly thereafter, the offense waited as Khalid made the defensive players do a series of ups-and-downs, in which a player starts prone, jumps to his knees and then upright, before flopping back down again. On his whistle they did 25 of them. After the next play, Khalid made them do another 25.

"Don't cheat yourself!" he admonished them.

Like Harris, Khalid is deeply dedicated to instilling discipline in the kids.

"There are seven guys on this team we could hand-walk to the NFL," he said at one practice. "We make Terrance Kellys."

The player Khalid spent the most time grooming this year has been David Walker, the demoted quarterback who, like Bernstine, doubles at cornerback. Already on probation for theft, Walker was accused in late October of threatening to beat up his teacher at Berkeley High. He was kicked out of school and sent to juvenile hall, and his mother couldn't get him out. His father, like the fathers of most of his teammates, is not active in his life.

When Khalid found out that Walker was locked up, he spoke first with Walker's lawyer and then went to court to plead his case before the judge. He explained his credentials -- "If they taught violence in class, I'd be a Harvard professor on what your options are and what's going to happen to you" -- and talked about the nonprofit after-school tutoring and mentorship program he runs in Richmond, an offshoot of the Omega Boys Club in San Francisco. It's called Way Out, in memory of Waleed.

The judge, apparently impressed, dropped Walker's case and imposed mandatory enrollment in the Way Out program.

Walker calls Khalid every day and they get together regularly to go over his schoolwork. Walker's next court date is May 9. Although the season will be long over, Khalid will be there with him, reporting on his progress.


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