Wounded Warriors 

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

Page 6 of 8

"Black," the players replied.

"When the form asks what ethnic group you in, you got to put down black. You better be three times better than the others. You better not put up any problems. It happened to me before. I was a grown man with a family. Drove home crying because I was laid off. Until I got a reputation as an electrician."

Harris let his words hang in the air. The players remained silent, looking up at him.

"The challenge is sitting out there on Saturday," Harris said.

That Saturday evening, the team carpooled from Richmond to Cosumnes River College in Sacramento for the championship game. They were facing the Berkeley Cougars, the same team the Elahis watched overwhelm the Steelers the last time they lost in the playoffs, in 1999.

The players lined up in rows for sit-ups as the coaches, dressed in their black and gold game day sweats, walked a few feet away and stood in a circle, holding hands.

The players, seeing their coaches gathered together, got up and crowded around them. Harris addressed the team, his voice unsteady.

"Six years ago, Khalid and his brother came to me," Harris said. "They wanted to coach. Waleed ain't with us no more. Right now the coaching staff feels the pain because we ain't used to him not being with us. We ain't used to it."

Khalid, looking at the ground, began to weep. He and another coach, Jaleel Abdullah, a close friend whom Waleed convinced to join the staff last year, wrapped their arms around each other. Both were sobbing.

"We going to leave it up to you to uphold coach Way," Harris said, referring to Waleed.

He pulled out a lanyard with three items attached to it: a whistle, a pocket watch, a first-place medal from a tournament in Las Vegas the team plays in each year.

"Coach Khalid gave me this," he told the team, showing them Waleed's coaching lanyard. "Every time until the day I die, I don't care if it's twenty years from now, if you see me at a Steelers game, this going to be around my neck.

"He was one of my sons," he added, his voice cracking. "Just like every one of you."

A few moments later, the team started walking toward the field. Someone within earshot of Bernstine cracked a joke.

"Stop playing," Bernstine snapped. "This shit ain't funny."

As the team took the field to run a few last practice plays, Harris announced that Bernstine would play at cornerback.

The first quarter began well. Erick McDaniel, returning a punt, slipped out of the arms of a tackler at his own ten-yard line, then sauntered ninety yards up the sideline for a touchdown. Helping clear McDaniel's path for the score was Bernstine, who energetically pushed a Cougar out of his teammate's way near midfield. The team added a second touchdown in the third quarter and took a 14-0 lead into the fourth.

In the waning moments of the game, the opposing Cougars, who had given the ball to their running backs for most of the night, started letting their quarterback throw the ball. With only a couple of minutes left on the clock, the Cougars offense faced a third-and-long, needing to complete a pass to keep possession of the ball. Harris called over Bernstine, who was defending one of the receivers.

"I'm counting on you, son," he told him.

Bernstine ran back out to the field. Seconds later, the Cougars' quarterback threw in his direction. The ball was slightly underthrown and Bernstine, who stayed in front of the receiver, knocked it down, breaking up the play and just missing an interception.

"Come over here, Sam!" Harris roared from the sideline. "Come over here!" Bernstine jogged over apprehensively. Harris, his face lit with intensity, gave him a high-five.

Moments later, the game was over.

A beaming Walker embraced one of the coaches. "Good championship, coach," he said. "Good season. I love you."

Harris, with his years of experience, sensed his players creeping up behind him with the water cooler. He ran away, peering over his shoulder.

"You better not dump no water on me," he said with all the authority he could muster. "Throw that water on me and everyone does one hundred ups-and-down. Y'all better get that water away from me."


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