Wounded Warriors 

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

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In prison, Khalid lived among the type of people who had been his customers back on the streets. It was painful and illuminating for him to confront the malnourishment and disease that he and other drug dealers had wrought. "I'm not that kind of animal," he says. "I have love in my heart." Before getting out, Khalid said he decided that his drug-selling days were behind him. Shortly after his release, he and his younger brother started a landscaping business and began talking to kids in their neighborhood about ways to be successful without dealing drugs.

Now here they were trying to convince Harris that he should welcome them as mentors for the next generation of players.

"Look," Harris recalls telling the brothers. "You can't just come one day and not come the next." But after the Elahis assured him they'd stick it out, he agreed to take them on.

At the next practice, Khalid, now 36, spent a few minutes observing the kids, with their earrings, gold teeth, and excess of attitude. "The poison of the streets had filtered into the program," he recalls. While sizing up the kids at that first practice, Khalid recognized one tough boy he already knew from the neighborhood. Even though he hadn't yet been introduced to the team as one of its new coaches, Khalid signaled Jojo to come over.

"Who's the most aggressive kid on the team?" Khalid asked Jojo.

"I am," Jojo responded firmly.

"Then go tell them coach says run five laps," Khalid said.

Eager to show Khalid that he could carry out an order, Jojo went back to the others with the command. With the Elahis glaring them down, the players nearly sprinted the laps.

"They were confused," Khalid recalls, "They were thinking, 'Who are these dudes?'"

Harris walked on the field a few minutes later. Surveying his players, who were panting and tugging at their jerseys, he grinned broadly.

"There are some real Richmond Steelers in town," he said.

And so began the Elahis' tenure under Fred Harris. Khalid said it was well into their third season before the team gave up a single point. To date, since the brothers joined the Steelers, the team has won more than seventy games and lost only five, none in league playoffs.

But despite the team's overwhelming success on the field, it has been devastated by Richmond's violence off the field. Richmond recently was named the country's twelfth most dangerous city, according to Morgan Quitno, which publishes city and state rankings. It also was proclaimed California's most dangerous city for a second consecutive year.

One particularly jarring act of violence involved former Steelers running back Terrance Kelly. An easygoing eighteen-year-old with a coachable personality and great running skills, Kelly seemed to have avoided his hometown's pitfalls. He moved on from the Steelers to be a standout on Concord's dynastic De La Salle high school football team and earned a football scholarship to the University of Oregon. Then, one evening in August 2004, two days before he was to leave for Eugene, he was sitting in his father's car in the city's notorious Iron Triangle neighborhood. A fifteen-year-old boy nursing a longstanding grudge against Kelly saw him in the driver's seat, according to a grand jury indictment. Armed with a rifle he'd just gotten that day, the youth, standing three feet from Kelly, allegedly shot him four times in the face, head, and back.

Kelly's murder had a profound effect on the players and coaches of his former team. If he of all people couldn't find a way out of Richmond, who could?

Awful as his killing was, though, it wouldn't be the last to rattle the Steelers.

Early on the morning of August 21, Waleed Elahi was walking out of the Nation's hamburger restaurant near the El Cerrito-Richmond border. Although the lack of witnesses makes what happened next unclear, Waleed was in the parking lot when gunfire rang out. It is doubtful he was the target because, by all accounts, he had given up his criminal life years before. Although the parking lot is a common late-night hangout for teenagers, when the police arrived they found it deserted except for Waleed, lying dead on the ground. El Cerrito police have no suspects and no known motive.

"He was caught up in a situation that wasn't meant for him," Khalid says.

The 32-year-old was a mentor to many of the Steelers players, a father figure. Waleed's nickname was "Way Out," as in a way out of Richmond's cycle of violence.

The Tuesday after Harris demoted Walker, he assembled the team for another prepractice discussion. Yet again, the lights were off. On an adjacent field, a group of young Latino men wound down their soccer game and headed for the parking lot. Although the city is divided between blacks and Latinos, the Steelers are not: football remains a black sport here, soccer a Latino one.

Fresh off its weekend victory in the second of two exhibition games in which Walker did not play quarterback, the team remained undefeated on the season. But with the playoffs starting on Saturday, Harris had come to practice angry.

"Some of y'all getting real stupid, saying you're not going to block," Harris said, nearly snarling. "Sam!"

Bernstine looked up, but said nothing.

Erick McDaniel, the team's star running back, had rushed for three touchdowns in Saturday's game. But Bernstine had told teammates he wasn't going to try to stop the other team from tackling him because he wasn't getting the ball as much as McDaniel. After the game, word of this got back to Harris.

"How many times you carry the ball?" Harris asked McDaniel.


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