By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
By Roy Edroso
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
By Zachary D. Roberts
Last season, Erasmus Hall High School won the city championship. Its best player was an explosive junior running back named Curtis Samuel, one of several Mo Better grads on the varsity roster. He accepted a scholarship to play at Ohio State next year.
Three former Mo Better members are in high-level college programs. In addition to Jarrett and Ogletree, two players have made it as far as an NFL training camp tryout. Another plays professionally in Italy.
"Even when you're in high school, the coaches continue to talk to you about being disciplined and doing what you have to do in the classroom," says Jarrett, who earned a scholarship to Temple University after four years on the varsity football team at Fort Hamilton. "They really developed us into some grown men. They always instilled toughness."
On this night, Sharif seems unfazed as he stares down the prospect of losing his debut. Down 19-18 with fewer than two minutes left, he leads the offense downfield and throws a touchdown pass to win the game.
The next day, 15-year-old Sharif is at Poly Prep for Mo Better's season opener, to man a yard marker and hand out water bottles.
The tragedies live on in Mo Better lore right alongside the successes. The coaches estimate that at least 30 former players are in prison. The most infamous of that bunch is "the Boogeyman" — so nicknamed because as a seven-year-old he always had snot on his face.
A big, strong linebacker and offensive lineman, he grew up to become "one of the most notorious criminals in the neighborhood," in the words of one local. "The sidewalks would clear when he walked past."
Until he got locked up, the Boogeyman would come by the practice field every now and then. He'd pull his sagging pants up, because he knew Coach Vick was watching, and he'd tell the players to make different choices than he did.
Other players who strayed didn't have the luxury of returning to impart life lessons. Dajuan Mitchell, a powerful running back in the early 2000s, might have been the most talented player ever to come through Mo Better. He was shot to death in an East New York apartment building when he was 19. His best friend, who went by "Puerto Rico," was fatally shot soon after. A kid named Darrell, who quarterbacked Mo Better's '98 regional championship team, was also murdered in his teens.
"With Mo Better, I've had some of the highest highs I've ever had, but I've also had some of the lowest lows I've ever had," says cofounder Ervin Roberson.
Vick Davis vividly recalls the night at the Seth Low housing projects more than a decade ago when five young men tried to rob him on his way home.
"Don't move," one said. Two 9mm handguns were trained at his head.
A few seconds of silence.
"Aw," one of the young men suddenly whined. "Come on, Coach Vick, whatchu doin', man?"
Then Davis recognized three of the faces. They'd played for Mo Better. The young man leading the group, nicknamed "Pup," had been one of the program's best players in his day.
"Come on, man, get outta here, Coach!" Pup said. "We was 'bout to get you."
Davis recounts the memory with a mixture of relief and sadness. He'd get home safe — because a couple of kids who'd fallen through the cracks were his former charges.
He always has the names of the fallen in mind when he steps onto the field and looks at a new crop of youngsters. On this Thursday evening, he has gathered the seven-to-nine-year-olds in a circle to talk about school, and punishment: One of his players, Davis has learned, got in trouble for disrupting class.
"If you ain't been in school for two weeks and already your parents are getting phone calls, that's a problem," he tells the boys. "That's something that needs to be dealt with."
At 43, Davis looks 10 years younger. His pointy beard and raspy delivery give off a vaguely menacing air, and among Mo Better alumni he is known as the toughest coach in the program. "Military Man," Legree's brother Jeff calls him. He often surprises kids at school when he hears they've been misbehaving. "Their eyes get big as 50-cent pieces when they see him," says Elsie Davis, his assistant coach and mother. More than once he has sat beside a kid in a classroom and ordered him to do pushups in front of everyone.
"I only got three rules," Davis declares. "You cannot play or what?"
"School!" the players shout. "Responsibility at home! Football!"
"OK," he says. "And that's the order."
He tells the disruptive student to run over to the red steps 20 yards away and wait, then explains to the others that they'll have five minutes to think up a fitting punishment. The players stare up at him, wide-eyed and nervous. Each one grips his helmet, a purple shell with University of Michigan Wolverines-style yellow stripes. Their coach doesn't tolerate seeing a helmet on the ground.
Davis doesn't take his role for granted. He is the first father figure in many kids' lives, and his is one of the last guiding voices they hear before adolescence. During his own high school days, he saw firsthand the temptations they'll face.