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The loud crack of a collision on the field cuts off T.J. mid-thought. He looks up to see purple-and-yellow jerseys swarming the loose ball. His eyes light up.
The writer Alfred Kazin described his native Brownsville as "a place that measured success by our skill in getting away from it." Yet twice a week, professionals like Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge Sylvia Ash and sales rep Parrish Johnson drive in from middle-class enclaves like Bensonhurst, Kew Gardens, Westchester County, and Staten Island, rolling through tolls and traffic to get their sons to a dilapidated field in one of Brooklyn's roughest areas by 5:45 p.m.
About half of Mo Better's players come from outside the neighborhood. Dwight Clark, a Port Authority police officer, makes the hour-long trek from Bergenfield, New Jersey. Laurisse Rodriguez, a high school teacher in Far Rockaway, sacrifices overtime pay during the season to pick up her eight-year-old at school in East New York, stop at McDonald's so he can eat and finish his homework, then hustle to practice, where she grades papers during the tackling drills and wind sprints.
At Betsy Head, as 13-year-old Quincy puts it, "They teach you how to be a man." The hard lessons begin with the field itself, located almost directly beneath the elevated tracks of the 3 train in a neighborhood most New Yorkers try to avoid after dark. Pocked by divots and coarsened by weeds — barely any grass to soften falls, let alone sprinklers to irrigate the grounds. Back when they played league games here, the fire department would hose down the field in the morning, the better to spare the kids with asthma from wheezing in the billowing dust. An hour into this evening's practice, chalky brown clouds float overhead. The Junior Midgets jog off the field and form a line at the base of the cement steps that serve as bleachers. With the blast of a coach's whistle, they sprint up, then jog down. Many have taken off their cleats for better traction. A few have mistaken the lack of protective footgear for a justification to slow down.
"I don't care about no barefoot!" booms a barrel-chested man in a purple windbreaker, pacing the rubber track at the base of the steps. "Our forefathers had to get up every morning to pick cotton! Your forefathers ain't have no shoes. Nobody feels sorry for us! Nobody feels sorry for us! They didn't have no Nike!"
The man in the windbreaker, Chris Legree, runs this show. He's 57, and built like a bouncer. Bald head, big hands, muscular calves. He's famous around Brownsville, the superstar high school quarterback who returned to his old neighborhood to start up a youth football team. By now, the program's origin story is almost mythic: Legree and his childhood buddy Ervin Roberson went to the Million Man March in October 1995 and returned to Brownsville inspired. They wanted to create something to help the community and football was what they knew best. Legree liked Spike Lee's film Mo' Better Blues, so they borrowed the name.
A whopping two kids made it to Mo Better's first official practice in January 1996. But soon more came, drawn by Legree's renown. That first year, the Midget team won a state championship.
Having spent a season beating up on local teams, Mo Better joined the North Jersey Pop Warner conference, which features some of the region's powerhouse programs. The Brooklyn interlopers continued to roll. In 1998, Mo Better's Midget squad won the Eastern Regional championship. In 2001, the Midgets traveled to Florida and grabbed the brass ring: winning the Pop Warner Super Bowl.
Legree and Roberson rooted the team's philosophy in discipline. There were laps for tardiness, more laps for bad grades. Kids dressed in suits before games and marched single-file to the locker room. The players hit harder than their opponents but seldom lost their cool after the whistle. Within a few years, Mo Better had earned a reputation around the region.
The parents watching practice on Betsy Head's benches know that a recommendation from Legree can open doors for their sons. With a field full of talented and obedient preteens every year, the coach has built pipelines to some of the city's most prestigious high schools.
"Very well-disciplined kids," says Poly Prep's coach, Dino Mangeiro. "High-character kids, good students."
When Fort Hamilton, an esteemed public high school in southwest Brooklyn, plays its 2013 season opener against Brooklyn Tech, Legree is on the sidelines, slapping players on the shoulder pads and shaking hands with coaches. He's here to watch his nephew Sharif Legree, a sophomore quarterback, start his first varsity game. Four fellow Mo Better alums join Sharif in the huddle. A fifth, Sharif's brother Jeff Jr., calls the plays. A decade ago, when Jeff decided to enroll at Fort Hamilton, five of his Mo Better friends followed him. They led Hamilton to back-to-back city championships in 2005 and 2006.
"The kids that come out of the program, even though they may have all of these hardships and handicaps, they're pretty polished. Not only as football players, but as potentially outstanding young men," says Vince Laino, Fort Hamilton's head coach from 1990 to 2009.