Wounded Warriors 

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

Page 5 of 8

"I can throw," Jackson said.

"Like a girl," Bernstine said. "Like two inches."

"You just said I could throw a yard," she said.

"I gave you too much credit."

Jackson, a solid 14-year-old with a pretty, expressive face, demanded a ball, gripped it and threw a perfect twenty-yard spiral to her intended receiver, who caught it without having to take a step.

"In your face," she triumphantly told Bernstine. "Don't you feel stupid."

Jackson strode across the grass to participate in a drill, leaving Bernstine alone.

He saw McDaniel, the star tailback, who had suffered a slight fracture to his hand, taking turns at running back.

"Look who's got a cast on his arm and still running the ball," Bernstine muttered. "I miss one practice and I'm out."

As practice wore on, Bernstine grew increasingly agitated. At one point, he wandered the perimeter of the field, singing to himself a line from a song by the rapper Turk: "You can take me out the ghetto. But you can't take the ghetto out of me."

A bystander named Lonnie Carter, a high school teacher and former Steeler, came over to Bernstine.

"Go over there with your team." Carter advised him.

Bernstine looked past him, humming to himself.

"You got TO syndrome," Carter said, referring to Terrell Owens.

"That's my favorite player," Bernstine said.

The coaches ignored Bernstine until Khalid came over to the sideline and wrapped his arms around him.

"They think you got a major attitude problem," Khalid told him, referring to the other coaches. "I say, no you ain't."

Bernstine returned Khalid's intense glare, the first time he had looked anyone in the eye all practice.

"Go out and hustle and prove me truthful," Khalid told Bernstine, sending him to the field to try to keep his opponent from catching the ball.

But Bernstine let the slower boy he was defending run by him three straight times. On the fourth play, he watched as another boy caught the ball a couple feet from him, then ran right by him. He remained where he stood, without even pretending to go after the ball carrier. It was clear he wasn't trying. Finally, even Khalid's patience wore out.

"If he was my kid," Khalid told another coach, "I'd beat his ass."

Practice was not going well, like the others this week. Walker's passes were missing his receivers, the tackling was half-hearted and everyone seemed a step slower than usual. At the previous practice, Harris had sought to address these problems, while touching on one of his favorite themes: the importance of persistence in a competitive and often unfair world.

"My job is to make you winners," Harris told the players gathered around him. "I take my job serious."

"What color are we?" he asked them.

"Black and gold."

"What color is your race?" he clarified.


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