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"He's my quarterback," Khalid said of Walker. "But this don't have nothing to do with football."
Walker said Khalid is a friend and a mentor.
Khalid said Walker "is on watch."
But Walker also was back taking directions from Harris, reinstated as the starting quarterback just in time for the playoffs.
Over the years, the Steelers have played in a number of leagues, from the Police Athletic League to Pop Warner. For the past few seasons, they've been in the California State Youth Football League, a grouping of eight teams from the East Bay, Sacramento, and points between.
No matter the league, for as long as anyone can remember their archrival has been the Oakland Dynamites, a team not unlike the Steelers in terms of the daily challenges its players face. Since the Elahis joined as coaches in 2000, the Dynamites have beaten the Steelers twice, although never in the playoffs, where the Steelers' five-year winning streak remains intact.
On a cool Saturday evening at Hercules High's lush football field, the Steelers were slated to play the Dynamites in the semifinals of the league playoffs. Teams from the younger divisions had been playing since morning, with the Steelers sweeping their games. There were more than a hundred fans on the Steelers' side of the stands, and a sense of anticipation as the big kids got ready to take the field.
Just before game time, the team huddled together on a dark practice field, looking downright fierce in their black jerseys. The players were fired up. Khalid, his voice hoarse, had each player tell the person across from him what an honor it was to go to war with him.
"We're the big dogs," Harris told his team. "It's time to eat."
As they jogged out to the field, the players shouted out their well-worn battle cry: "Who want it? I want it! Whose house? Our house! What time is it? Showtime!"
But thanks to poor planning, the league had rented only four portable lights for the field, which has no lights of its own. Large swaths of the grass were left dim. After much frustrated discussion between coaches and league officials, it was decided that the game be postponed until the following morning. The players were upset, with most insisting the lighting was fine. That night, Harris' adrenaline kept him from sleeping.
The crowd was considerably thinner the next morning. Accustomed to playing at night, the Steelers were slow to get going, but were up by a touchdown midway through the third quarter. That was when the Dynamites tried to sneak a player who was not on their roster onto the field. Suspecting that something like this might happen, the Steelers coaches spotted it immediately. After they informed the officials, the game was promptly and unceremoniously forfeited.
Khalid turned to the fans in the stands and raised his arms in victory. Meanwhile, the confused Steelers' defensive unit remained on the field. Walker jogged to the sideline where his mother, a pretty woman with long, straight hair who was wearing a large button with a picture of her son in his Steelers uniform, handed him a bottle of Gatorade. They exchanged broad smiles before he rushed back to the team.
This was the second time in three years the Dynamites had tried this on the Steelers. The last time was two years ago in the championship game, and they forfeited that one, too. After the game, a relaxed Harris leaned against his truck in the parking lot, collecting his team's uniforms for washing. "What kind of message are those coaches sending to their kids?" he wondered aloud.
About fifteen minutes after the game ended, a tall skinny boy with a nervous smile arrived at the field and walked up to Harris. Marshaun Shepherd had been the team's starting defensive end all season, but he had arrived too late to enjoy the forfeit.
"What are you doing here showing up at 10 a.m.?" Harris asked.
Shepherd shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his eyes fixed on the ground. He mumbled unintelligibly.
Instead of laying into him, Harris let him wander off, then laughed.
"Sometimes, I just got to let it go," he said. "These kids have a lot of problems."
His gruffness had returned by the following Friday, the final practice before the championship game. Bernstine hadn't suited up, complaining of a swollen hand, but he didn't have a note from either his doctor or his parents.
"Sam's out Saturday," Harris told the other coaches. "I'm sick of his ass."
Bernstine, standing at the sideline, watched a couple of his teammates play catch. He was standing next to Juanita Jackson, the only girl in the Steelers program. Jackson, nicknamed "Big Wawa," was in her second and final season with the Steelers. A three-sport athlete, she went out for the team with her mother's blessing to see if she could hack it.
Bernstine struck up a conversation.
"You can't even throw," he taunted Jackson, a starting offensive tackle. "You can throw it like a yard."
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