The Miami Dolphins — even if it’s only for a week, so far — are undefeated. And the University of Miami helped its fans erase the painful memory of an opening-game loss with a 77-0 blowout over Savannah State. And yet the hottest South Florida team on television this week won’t be either one of them. Liberty City’s Warriors, the terror of Pop Warner football, launch their own national cable TV show on Sunday.
“And by the next morning, I think they’re going to have fans all over the country,” says Evan Rosenfeld, producer-director of “The Warriors of Liberty City,” a six-episode documentary series debuting at 8 p.m. Sunday on the Starz cable network.
“These are kids who not only play great football, but face up to death and tough times and all kinds of adversity. They live in a tough world, and the show is a window into it.”
The players, none of whom is older than 15 or weighs more than 155 pounds, may not have much marquee value outside their own neighborhoods, at least not yet. But “The Warriors of Liberty City” packs plenty of star power. The executive producers are LeBron James and his childhood-friend-turned-business-partner, Maverick Carter. And one of the show’s leads is Luther Campbell, the bad-boy Miami rap star who launched the Warriors 25 years ago with a $75,000 donation.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Campbell is not exactly a stranger to the public stage — his rap shows drew thousands of fans back in the day, and he sometimes was seen by hundreds of thousands more on TV when he got arrested afterward on obscenity charges — but he sounds positively giddy when he talks about the show finally reaching the air after more than a year of preparation.
“It’s going to be very moving for me,” he says. “I got emotional when I watched the first episode... To know that the world is watching this right now, I don’t know how I’m going to take it.
“Out of all of my accomplishments and all the projects I’ve worked on, this is probably the most important project that I’ve ever worked on. I think it’s going to make a great impression on everybody. Not just African-American people. Everybody.”
“The Warriors” follows the 2017 season of its namesake football team, which is actually 10 different teams — something on the order of 300 kids — divided into different age brackets of the Greater Miami Pop Warner Association league. But the show is really a window inside the rough-and-tumble inner-city neighborhood in which the kids are growing up.
The meanness of Liberty City’s streets is undeniable. In one seven-month stretch of 2014, the neighborhood’s main public housing development was the scene of 43 shootings. The violence has declined somewhat since then, but it still strikes fast and hard. One of the main story lines in “The Warriors” is the kids’ reaction to the death of one of their teammates, 6-year-old King Carter, caught in a shootout between two street gangs as he walked to a candy store.
“The PTSD element of the story was pretty shocking to me,” admits Rosenfeld. “I never dreamed that I’d be filming so many kids who, even at age 8 or 10, have lost someone to violence. One of the coaches told me that he had a kid on his team who, as they ran out to line up for the first game after King Carter was shot, asked very matter-of-factly if King would be playing with God that day.”
South Florida native Rosenfeld has a business degree from the University of Miami and worked on the ESPN documentary “The U” that examined the football program’s remarkable success during the 1980s and ‘90s. During that project, he met Luther Campbell, and the two had stayed in touch.
For every scene of a heroic shoestring tackle or fingertip catch in “The Warriors,” it seems there are two or three that are wrenchingly poignant or upliftingly resilient about the way Liberty City kids and parents work their way through the detritus of inner-city life:
▪ Destiny Martinez, a 13-year-old Warrior cheerleader (her father, uncle and brothers all played for the team), gives a cameraman a tour of her neighborhood, casually pointing out the landmarks — “around here, most of these houses got shot up, my parents don’t like me walking around here” — and then reveals her main complaint about the neighborhood: “The hardest thing, growing up in LIberty City, is that people who don’t live in Liberty City think all of us are the same, like ghetto, fighting all the time.”
▪ George Harris Jr., a 9-year-old running back, gravely discussing with his father, who is also his coach, the subject of the first tattoo he’ll get when he turns 18: “A tree of my family, all the people that died that I know.”
▪ Lamont Beneby, one of the older Warriors, his face impassive following a telephone conversation with his jailed dad, talking stoically about what it’s like to not have a father around on Father’s Day or birthdays, until he confides that “sometimes I get mad, because he left twice, he went to jail twice, all for stupid reasons,” and then his face crumples.
If the tough side of Liberty City is on display even in the most casual moments in “The Warriors” (in the background of a scene with parents talking about the approach of Hurricane Irma, a sign in somebody’s yard is plainly visible: YOU LOOT I SHOOT! WINNA TAKES ALL ), there are also plenty of scenes of parents determined that their kids are going to rise above it.
“I had a 1240 on my SAT,” says Herb Ritchie, the coach of the 155s, the oldest of the Warriors teams. (The number 155 refers to the maximum weight the players are allowed.) “But the day before graduation, I got into a fight. I got expelled. I couldn’t graduate.” He doesn’t have all the answers, Ritchie admits, “but can tell you what not to do.”
The parents are certain that football is helping their kids find a way out of hard times. A few might hit the jackpot and get an NFL contract some day; no American city contributes more players to the league than Miami, and a half dozen or so — including Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman, retired Cincinnati Bengals (and Miami Dolphins) wide receiver Chad (Ochocinco) Johnson and Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson among others — have made it to the pros. A couple dozen others have earned college scholarships.
But parents resolutely believe their sons learn things at Warriors practices that will help them make their way in life whether in football or something else.
“It teaches him to be a team player, to be disciplined, to act in the manner of a professional,” says Tysheka Lucas, whose son Dread has been playing with the team since he was 4. “In this neighborhood, you see a lot of negative things.”
And in a neighborhood with a high percentage of single-parent homes, the coaches play an extra role, many of the mothers believe.
“Some of these kids don’t have father figures, they don’t have role models,” says Valencia Cotton, whose son Tyler Williams plays for the Boom Squad team. “Some of them are the only child. So this really gives them a family feeling. ... Kids at these ages, they are easily influenced. So this kind of brings everything home for them — a comfort zone with them.”
When Luther Campbell first donated money to the Liberty City Optimist Club to set up the Warriors a quarter of a century ago, the idea that he might be a role model for young kids would have been — well, amusing doesn’t begin to cover it.
As a rapper in the late 1980s, with his group 2 Live Crew recording CDs with names like “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” containing songs with names like “Me So Horny” and “The F--- Shop,” Campbell was the scourge of parents’ groups that still thought there was hope of cleaning up popular music.
He was arrested on an obscenity charge at about the same time he became the only man in the history of the world to be sued at the same time by singer Roy Orbison (for using samples of Orbison’s hit record “Oh, Pretty Woman” in a 2 Live Crew rap) and the filmmaker George Lucas (for recording under the name Luke Skyywalker, which Lucas said was too close to the name of the hero in his “Star Wars” movies). He got arrested for failure to pay child support. He was linked to a pay-for-play scheme that got the University of Miami football team heavily penalized by the NCAA.
Many of the Warrior parents were teenagers at the height of Campbell’s rap career, and they start guffawing immediately when it comes up, because they know exactly what question is next.
“No, sir, not in a million years could I have imagined him being a mentor or something like that to kids,” says a laughing George Harris Sr., a 36-year-old Warriors coach whose 9-year-old son, George Jr., plays for the team.
But that, as Luke Skyywalker might say, seems to the parents like it happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
“If he still has that side to him at all, we don’t see very much of it,” says Harris. “I would say he’s very straightforward now. Whatever he believes in, he believes in, and that’s that.”
For his part, Campbell says that however notorious his rap persona may have been, it was never more than a tiny part of who he was.
“Unfortunately, people have always look at me from the music standpoint of it as the bad guy and the 2 Live Crew guy,” he muses now. “But honestly, that was only for one, maybe two hours on the weekend on the stage and maybe a few hours in the studio. That was it. I’ve always been involved in my community.”
His real ambition, even then, was to make enough money to buy his mother a nice house and his father a big car — and after that, to start a youth program in Liberty City. And as much as he wanted it, he was surprised to find that Liberty City — where ragamuffin football teams had been organized on the streets for decades, without much more in the way of equipment than a ball — wanted it even more.
“My first check was about $75,000,” Campbell recalls. “And then I spent another check for about $25,000 because I didn’t really know that so many kids were going to come out. I mean, the first day, there were hundreds of kids that signed up to play football and cheer. It was a hell of an undertaking.”
Campbell continued to put money into the team while seeking out local businesses and the occasional corporation as sponsors. Successful Warriors alumni broadened the contributor base, and local governments put in some money. But it wasn’t until recently, when the Miami-Dade Children’s Trust pledged a very substantial amount for the next five years, that the Warriors really reached a secure financial footing.
Still, the cost of insurance, equipment, pre-game meals and all the other things that go into operating a football team run the per-player price tag stupendously high. In more genteel parts of the county, parents have to contribute as much as $300 a kid to play, a figure that’s out of the question for many in Liberty City.
For Campbell, the Warriors are worth every penny. Saturdays at Charles Hadley Park, where the Warriors play their home games, are like a city-wide party, he says.
“Man, it’s like no other. It’s family. It’s grandmothers. It’s granddads. It’s dads. It’s moms. It’s everybody coming together. Everybody migrates there. No matter where you play football, you always end up at Charles Hadley Park,” he says. “You’ll see family members. It’s almost like a festival every Saturday we have a home game. And then you’ll see people from other teams gravitate to the park. Everybody ends up at Charles Hadley Park no matter where you play football. It’s just a family atmosphere.”