Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Inner city youth football is a game apart

In a wealthier, safer zip code, funereal humor might not have been so jarring.

In a place where murderous violence isn't epidemic, the youth football coach's pregame antic might have been ignored.

But the sight of the coach and six little cheerleaders in their pink and purple outfits wheeling an actual white coffin on a chrome casket trolley around the playing field was too reminiscent of real life tragedies visited on so many kids in Miami Gardens.

Last year, the city of 111,000 suffered 23 murders, young men and teens making up most of the victims. City cops investigated 110 non-fatal shooting incidents in 2013, some involving middle schoolers.

The killings of youngsters in Miami Gardens are just too real to be accepted as a trite football metaphor. The coach of the Miami Gardens Ravens could not be allowed to use deadly intimations, no matter how lighthearted his intent, before the game with the Carol City Chiefs.

“We moved quickly,” said Starex Smith, the city's assistant parks and recreation director. “One of our volunteers put a stop to it.”

By Tuesday, the volunteer coach behind the coffin display had been suspended.

In Miami Gardens, Smith explained that volunteer youth league coaches are expected to do more than teach tackling, blocking, passing and the other football fundamentals that might occupy youth league coaches in less dangerous communities. Smith said in Miami Gardens they've got to get at the “value of human life.” Not such an easy assignment in the murder capital of South Florida.

The considerable reaction to the coffin display also says something about the extraordinary importance South Florida's black community invests in youth football. This isn't at all like youth soccer or lacrosse or Little League baseball or the like played in middle-class suburbs, where the spectators are mostly the players’ parents or grandparents.

Game Day Saturdays in these urban leagues are community outings, with crowds attracting more than just the players’ families. Camp chairs and canvas canopies line the sidelines. Smoke from barbecue grills wafts across the playing fields. Feasts are set atop portable picnic tables. Smaller children scurry about everywhere. When the action pauses, teams of cheerleaders, as competitive as the ballplayers, race onto the field and perform elaborate choreography.

In something of an understatement, Smith called South Florida’s urban football leagues and the attendant fuss over a competition involving kids in elementary and middle schools, “very unique.”

Of course, organizations reaching out to pre-teens in South Florida's poorest communities can't depend on the usual kind of business support. Recording star Flo Rida, originally from Carol City, founded the Florida Youth Football League that outfits 18 teams, including four from Miami Gardens, the rapper’s high-minded effort to show these kids a way out of the streets.

But peewee leagues operating in crime ridden inner cities can't quite escape the usual urban maladies. In 2011, the ESPN investigative series Outside the Lines found rampant gambling was tainting games staged that fall by the South Florida Youth Football League (not the same as Flo Rida's Florida Youth Football League), which fields teams from Miami-Dade to Palm Beach counties, serving some 6,000 children ages 5 to 15.

OTL reported, “Groups of men in their 20s and 30s fill the stands and sidelines, to the point that passers-by must jostle for space as they walk along fences separating the bleachers from the field. And then something else becomes obvious: Wads of bills start switching hands; cheers and fist pumps are followed by exchanges of money; and men debate how much to put down next time.”

The report added, “Marijuana smoke is often in the air, and adults walk around with cups of alcohol seemingly without concern.”

OTL, using hidden cameras, “recorded the men openly exchanging money with one another, even as they were just a few feet from a uniformed police officer in one instance.”

Beyond the minor amounts bet in the stand, OTL reported that some games “had tens of thousands of dollars bet on them, and players were often paid for making big plays.”

OTL found that gamblers would actually pay parents of star players to join certain teams.

The ESPN story prompted an investigation by the Broward Sheriff's Office. In 2012, BSO detectives busted nine men associated with the league, including several coaches, on gambling charges. Investigators said that the coaches routinely met before games and set point spreads. They cited one game that inspired a single bet of $20,000. Investigators found that six coaches in the league had previous criminal records, including convictions on felony drug, assault and theft charges.

None of this much shocked Robert Andrew Powell, the former New Times reporter who explored Miami's inner city youth football culture in his 2003 prize-winning book, We Own This Game: A Season in the Adult World of Youth Football. “It’s pretty hard to overstate how important football is in South Florida’s black communities. The engagement with the game is amazing in its excess,” Powell told me via email. “I’ve stood among more than a thousand fans watching a game between six year olds. I’ve seen five grand gambled on the kick return of a game between eight year olds. I’ve watched more than one playoff game between junior high students end in gunfire.”

The same outsized importance of youth football that contributes to unseemly adult behavior also nurtures an extraordinary level of excellence in the players. These kids account for a local football culture that has made Booker T. Washington, Northwestern and Miami Central high schools into perennial contenders for national high school championships, and provides star players the chance to join major college football programs all through the Northeast, South, East and Midwestern states. This year, college recruiters count more than 150 blue chip high school prospects in this area, most of them veterans of these same inner city youth leagues.

“The simplistic cliché about football being the most visible route out of poverty is very much true. This inspires an intense commitment to the game, starting at a very young age,” Powell said.

“This commitment speaks to a bigger picture. Blacks have lived in South Florida longer than anyone else, but their community remains marginalized, lacking political power or much cultural visibility,” he said. “Football gives a chance to demonstrate excellence. There’s a lot of pride in how well the game is played.”

Which might explain why a coach and kids wheeling a white coffin around a football field — no big deal in some communities — just wouldn't do in Miami Gardens.