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T.J. sits in street clothes on the sideline, 15 yards behind his teammates. Lips tight, brow furrowed, the 10-year-old watches as his buddies, clad in the Mo Better Jaguars' signature purple and yellow, take on the Montclair Bulldogs in their Pop Warner league season opener. T.J.'s injured, hurt his thumb in a scrimmage a few weeks back. Doctor says he tore a ligament. It's the first time he's ever sat out a game in his five-year Pop Warner career, and being out here as a spectator doesn't sit well with him.
"Mostly I like the contact," he says. "When you're mad, it's the best part. Like, it gets your anger out and stuff. I hit hard when I'm mad. If I'm not mad, I'ma hit you hard, but I'm not gon' hit you as hard."
He reaches down and picks at the rubber pebbles embedded in the artificial grass, scoops up a pinch, then sprinkles the stuff back down. The field is pristine, like most everything at Poly Prep High School. Banners strung up on a fence boast that three of Mo Better's five age groups — eight-to-11-year-old Junior Peewee, 10-to-13 Junior Midget, and 12-to-15 Midget — won a Pop Warner conference championship in 2011. The 2012 Midgets won a title, too.
T.J. looks up, gazes around. A grassy area adjacent to the football facility, alive with teens playing lacrosse and soccer. The school's main building, a colonial-style red brick building topped with a domed white clock tower. Beyond one end zone, a wall of trees hides a pond filled with ducks. Past the other looms the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, gleaming in the late summer sun. Rows of houses with garages and neat lawns surround Poly Prep's Bay Ridge campus.
"It's pretty nice out here," T.J. deadpans, eyes now on the game.
Brownsville, the central Brooklyn neighborhood where T.J. lives and Mo Better is based, is a half-hour's drive from here, and a world away. The neighborhood's two square miles — bordered by Crown Heights, East Flatbush, and East New York — are home to the largest concentration of public housing of any zip code in the nation; more than a third of the locals live in one of 18 housing projects operated by the New York City Housing Authority.
Mo Better used to play its home games in the heart of Brownsville, in Betsy Head Park. On Sunday afternoons, it seemed the whole community would come out to watch. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, circled the field, filled the adjacent handball and basketball courts, eager to see one of the best youth football teams in the U.S. and cheer stars like Jaiquawn Jarrett, now a safety for the New York Jets, and Kevin Ogletree, now a Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideout. More than one local will tell you that so many folks would turn out for Mo Better games that "the crime rate would go down."
But a few years ago, Pop Warner officials deemed Betsy Head's field unfit for competition. Now Mo Better only practices at the park. Administrators must scramble for a location before each home game, begging high schools throughout Brooklyn to accommodate their boys. Parents never know the time or place until Thursday.
T.J. almost didn't make this trip.
"I tried not to come to the game, 'cause I knew I'm gonna wanna play," he says.
But the coaches made him, told him he had to be here, had to be part of the team. They've known him long enough to see the changes: innocent curiosity morphing into indifferent swagger. The eyerolls. The backtalk. Over Mo Better's 17 years, they've seen it hundreds of times. "One foot on the turf, one foot in the streets, " as Vick Davis, head coach of the seven-to-nine-year-old Mitey Mites, puts it.
"It's a turning-point age," adds Justin Cotton, who coached at Mo Better for 15 years. "The boys have a choice: They can go with the gangs, or they can come out on this field with us."
The field takes up only a few hours of T.J.'s week, so the coaches try to control the influences he faces when they're not around. They enrolled him in a big brother program. They encouraged him to join an African dance group at the local church. They put in a good word to help him get into a top charter school in East New York. He's pulling A's and B's. He can rattle off his top three college choices.
Ask him if he's going to stay off the streets and he says, "yes."
But then after a beat, he adds, "Probably." He pauses. "I'll try." Looks down. Drags his cleat along the ground, making the rubber pebbles pop like fleas.
"I don't know," he says. "Just probably. Because, I just . . . I might, like . . . I'm trying to see a way to put it."
He looks up, eyebrows raised, head tilted, like a guidance counselor about to break some bad news to a child.
"I might, like, one day get in trouble," he says. "I know people that get in trouble. Like I got into a situation when my cousin, he got in trouble, and the people he got in trouble with were looking for me. My cousin told me, 'Watch your back.' I tried to tell him, like, stop being in a gang and stuff. I dunno. He said probably, probably not."