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Northwestern coach Stephen Field shares common bond with players

Coach Stephen Field with his daughter Leah Skye Field in 2006
Coach Stephen Field with his daughter Leah Skye Field in 2006

It’s another sweltering July afternoon at Miami Northwestern Senior High, and as usual the Bulls are preparing for another high-pressured football season.

Outside on the school’s basketball courts, a group of about 40 boys dripping in sweat are bending and bouncing under the direction of three instructors from Fast Twitch Training.

Inside, a group of about another 40 young men are taking turns grunting as they lift dumbbells and bars inside the school’s newly furnished weight room. Former Dolphins offensive tackle and Northwestern alumnus Vernon Carey — who paid for the new weight room — is watching senior offensive lineman Gerald Wright use all of the might in his 6-2, 321-pound body to squat more than 400 pounds.

A moment later, a coach’s voice bellows: “How you feel?”

The room responds in unison: “Like a Bull! Like a Bull!”

It might sound like business as usual at Miami’s foremost football factory, a program that has won four state championships and recently had three former players from the 2008 national championship team taken in last April’s NFL Draft.

But it isn’t entirely.

The coach in charge is white.

Stephen Field, a former University of Miami graduate assistant under Randy Shannon, never saw race as a big deal when he took over in January. And maybe it isn’t.

But it is historic. Northwestern, a school built in 1951 and still 93 percent black, never had a white head football coach until Field was hired to replace three-time, state-championship winning coach Billy Rolle, who stepped aside last fall after the Bulls missed the playoffs for the first time in 18 years.

A comfy welcome mat wasn’t exactly laid out for Field when he arrived either. Not everyone among the alumni or the school’s Liberty City fan base was happy.

And the players? At first they thought it was a joke.

“First time we saw him, first meeting I was like, ‘Nah, I ain’t playing for this guy here,’ ” Wright said. “He don’t know us. Why would he even sign up for this job? He can’t handle the pressure. But as weeks went by, we realized he wasn’t what he thought he was.”

Said junior cornerback JoJo Robinson: “He’s not too much different from us. Even though he has a different skin color, we’re really the same.”

Truth is, Field, 34, shares a similar rough childhood with his players, many of whom have grown up in the poor neighborhoods and broken homes surrounding the school.

Tough upbringing

Field lived with his birth parents until he was 2 but was adopted at age 4. Details are sketchy, he says, but something tragic happened and he lived in foster care for two years. He can’t remember how many different houses he lived in during that time, but says there were “emotional scars.”

“All I know is I was born in Fort Lauderdale and my parents that I have now picked me up through an agency there. They’re a really good family,” said Field, who went on to become an all-state tight end at Palm Beach Lakes High.

“But the only blood-related person I know is my daughter [Leah Skye Field] who is 9. So that’s why I can relate. People may say ‘Who’s this white guy? He don’t know what I’ve been through.’ But I do. And I want to help these young kids get to college the same way I got help.

“There was no better feeling in the world when I could tell Gerald Wright -— who had no offers — that Marshall wanted him.”

Field has poured his heart into proving to his players and the community that he really cares.

Before Field, Carey, receivers coach Brett Perriman (former UM and NFL star) and other assistant coaches raised money this summer to take 54 players on a chartered bus for two weeks to visit colleges and practice with different high school teams in Georgia and Louisiana, Field went door-to-door in Liberty City introducing himself to his players’ parents.

He walked in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade with Northwestern’s band, and shook hands with some of the people who hated the hire. He went to local churches on Sundays and has had lunch and dinner at various local restaurants just to be seen as part of the community.

Field said the team has even dedicated the season to late Liberty City Optimist commissioner Sam Johnson, who passed away last year, and said he wants “people in the community to know we’re playing to represent them.”

But not everyone has accepted Field. Players and assistants say they have had heard family members and friends criticize Field because of his skin color.

Longtime track coach Carmen Jackson said she has heard “nasty” comments about Fields as well.

But Field said he’s determined to win them over.

“You can’t please everybody,” Field said. “But it’s not about pleasing another man. It’s about pleasing the young men you coach and making sure they’re successful.

“We kind of have a wall around our team and we’re not really worried about what other people see or think. You cannot please man. They’ll talk about you no matter what. You win? You didn’t win by enough. You lose? You should have won. You won state? That’s because you had talent. It’s a no-win situation.”

Field, who graduated from Tuskegee University, knows what it’s like to coach with high expectations. He was as an assistant at traditional powers and predominantly black schools Central, Deerfield Beach and Belle Glade Glades Central, where he won a state title in 2006.

He then spent 21/2 years working with defensive players at UM before spending the last three years at historically black Hampton University in Virginia. He coached running backs and was the school’s recruiting coordinator.

He took a pay cut to come back and coach high schools. But the opportunity to lead Northwestern was so enticing, he looked past that.

Hitting the books

Principal Wallace Aristide, who coached football for almost a dozen years in Miami-Dade and hired Field, said the school’s new coach “has done everything he promised in his interview” and then some.

“One of the big things Coach Field helped me with — and encouraged me to do — was giving our academic kids the same size trophies as our athletic kids at the end of the year banquet last May,” said Aristide, who in one-year on the job helped improve Northwestern from an F to a B school.

“You should have seen their eyes. I think when you talk about Miami Northwestern, it’s a school that’s been on one leg for a long time — an athletic leg. Now, I think we’re on both feet.”

Field said that while five junior varsity players were under academic review this summer, all 74 of his varsity players had at least a 2.0 GPA and were eligible entering August.

Although the Bulls’ lost their preseason opener to rival and nationally ranked Miami Booker T. Washington rather decisively last Saturday, Field is optimistic the Bulls can hold their own for a playoff spot in a tough district featuring nationally ranked Central, Belen (which ended Northwestern’s 18-year playoff run), Carol City and Homestead.

Defensive coordinator Luther Campbell, the former lead rapper for 2 Live Crew, said that although the community might have initially been shocked when Northwestern hired a white football coach, it will soon realize Field is a quality leader.

“Northwestern has always done things first. Northwestern traveled out of state first. Northwestern had multiple uniforms first. This is the school of doing things first and before anybody else,” Campbell said.

“It wasn’t like they just got some guy coming from Palatka, Fla., or somewhere. It’s a guy who understands coaching in this community. He isn’t a stranger. We just need to take care of our business on the field and he’ll be all right.”

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