By Albert Samaha
By Amanda Dingyuan
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Albert Samaha
By Tessa Stuart
By Anna Merlan
By Roy Edroso
"On my way to practice, a lot of my friends were on their way outside to smoke some weed, drink some beer," says Davis, who works as a security guard when he's not coaching. "But I had to go to practice. Then when I came from practice, I was physically tired. I got friends that have been incarcerated 25 years, 30 years. And these are the same guys that I tried to hang out with but didn't get the opportunity to because I'm going home to lay down."
When five minutes have elapsed, Davis calls the team over. His players have devised a litany of severe punishments: Run around the track 10 times! Do 200 push-ups! Miss the game! He settles on a penalty of 50 up-downs.
He cherishes these moments with the boys, Davis later confides. All too soon their world will expand beyond his domain — to girls and friends and money and drugs.
"I always tell the kids, 'You're only passing through us. It's all about later,'" Legree remarks as he climbs the Saratoga subway station steps after practice one evening.
"Coach!" someone behind him says.
He stops, turns to see a familiar face from seasons past: a middle-aged mom in a red pantsuit. They embrace. She tells him how her son still talks about Mo Better and about how much he misses those days. He's still in love with football and watches every Sunday, she says. He has been teaching his nephews the game's nuances, encouraging them to play.
The train arrives.
"Anyway, it was really good to see you!" she says cheerfully, before hustling up the steps.
"Take care!" Legree replies, leaning back against the railing.
When she's out of earshot, he exhales. "That's tough for me," he says.
The woman in the pantsuit is the Boogeyman's mother.
The field doesn't get much use between practices.
Legree looks across the vacant grounds with his hands on his hips. "My grandfather used to play baseball here," he says. "They'd have to wait for the white kids to finish before they could get on."
Fred Evans's parents came to Brownsville in the mid-1930s along with their eight boys. They'd left a farm in Georgia in search of a decent living in the big city. The neighborhood was more than 85 percent white then, mostly Jewish and some Italian. It had always been a working-class community.
Brownsville had been born into poverty. Geography stunted its development: It was landlocked, filled with marshes, vulnerable to flooding, far from Manhattan. Factories and tenements had dotted the skyline since the dawn of the 20th century.
The people were tough and proud. Never ran, never will. Every few years, it seemed, somebody from Brownsville made it big. Though Evans and his brothers had only four or five years of schooling, they found solid jobs with the city or the lumberyards. A few of them bought property.
"My grandfather owned a house right here," says Legree, pointing to a door on Bristol Street. He's standing in the middle of the Marcus Garvey Village housing complex. After World War II, the city demolished many of the neighborhood's private structures. Robert Moses's plan was to turn Brownsville into an enclave of public housing. By 1970, following decades of redlining across New York, the neighborhood was 70 percent black and 25 percent Puerto Rican.
A girl and a boy in school uniforms are standing on the landing in front of the door.
"How you doin'?" Legree asks.
"Hello," the girl says, waving. "Josiah's on your team?"
"Yes. Where's he at?"
"I think he's at the park."
"Tell him I came by to see if he did his homework."
Legree nods, continues down the pathway between the buildings.
"This is where that little boy got shot," he says. He's referring to one-year-old Antiq Hennis, who was killed a few days earlier. The shooter told police he was aiming for the baby's father, a rival gang member, who was pushing the stroller.
Legree points out other landmarks — the apartments where former players lived, the padlocked shed beneath a staircase that contains Mo Better's equipment, and, across the street in the Brownsville Towers, the window of his own childhood room. He reminisces at the spots where he honed his athletics skills. The courtyard where he played stickball, now covered with scaffolding. The yard where he played touch football, now fenced in. P.S. 125 and the blacktop where he played basketball, boarded-up for more than three decades.
In his day, those playgrounds teemed with future greats. Something about the neighborhood bred athletes. "When you were from Brownsville, you were expected to blow up," his brother Jeff says. "You were expected to be great."
Legree played baseball with Willie Randolph, shot hoops with World B. Free. Street-ball legend Fly Williams would stroll by arm-in-arm with his girlfriend, soon to be Mod Squad–famous Pam Grier. A quiet little kid named Mike Tyson sometimes dropped by the Legrees' apartment at dinnertime hoping for a plate of food.
The locals spotted Legree's promise early, as he dominated Little League and racked up Punt, Pass & Kick trophies. During his senior year at South Shore High, he quarterbacked the football team to the city championship game, then took the mound as the starting pitcher in the baseball squad's title game.