By Zachary D. Roberts
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell and Laura Shunk
By Albert Samaha
By Amanda Dingyuan
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Albert Samaha
He accepted a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where Tony Dorsett played, but Pitt was stacked at QB and Legree rode the bench for two years. Frustrated, he transferred to Fordham. He played well but didn't make the NFL. So he came home to Brownsville and joined a semipro team called the Brooklyn Golden Knights. They traveled around the region and played their home games at Betsy Head. Players earned up to $50 a contest, usually less. Legree played for seven years, paying the bills with a Con Edison job his coach, Ben Glascoe, helped him find.
"Everywhere I walked, everybody wanted to know what was going on," Legree says. "I was the guy who was supposed to make it, to really be a star."
He felt like he'd let Brownsville down. He'd been so blessed — with athletic talent, with an active mother, with a team of uncles and brothers loving and supporting him, with coaches and teachers invested in him.
"I felt like I needed to make amends," he says, standing below his old sixth-floor window.
Now he can't go a block withoutsomeone waving or nodding or reaching for a handshake. He makes sure to be a constant presence in the neighborhood. Everyone calls him "Coach."
OGs — "original gangsters" with influence on the streets — tell him when a kid starts staying out late at night. MTA workers notify him when a Mo Better player hops a turnstile. If one of his boys gets jumped, he hears about it. Same when it's one of his boys who did the jumping.
A young man in green shorts runs by, looking back every few steps. Five seconds later, two police officers sprint past in pursuit. Eight more uniform officers approach at a jog. Sirens whoop in the distance.
Suddenly dozens of youngsters, from first graders to college-age, have filled the courtyard, popping out of doors and alleys, hustling toward the commotion.
"Yo, what are you running to?" Legree shouts at one of the packs. "You ain't got no business here! Why y'all run to it? For what?"
Dismayed, the coach shakes his head. These kids haven't learned to run away from trouble.
Wrist-deep in batter, the man arranges shrimp and fish in an aluminum tray and dunks the batch into a deep fryer. For a few seconds, the sizzle overpowers the sounds of whistles and clashing pads from the Fort Hamilton High field beyond.
The Mitey Mites have just finished their game, and Vick Davis is making a beeline for the concession stand.
"'Sup, Pup?" Davis exclaims to the cook. The men hug. Pup is careful not to wipe grease on his former coach's back.
"Pup was one of the kids we worried would be six feet under in a matter of time," Davis says.
Back in his Mo Better days, Pup cut an imposing figure on the streets, so much so that stick-up kids avoided targeting his teammates. "Leaving the park at night with their book bags, that's an easy target," he says. "But the rough guys were my guys."
One Pup story in particular has attained the status of legend. Mo Better was preparing to travel to a regional championship game in Syracuse. As the bus idled outside the rec center, 14-year-old Pup and two teammates made a last-minute trip to the corner store, where they ran into a group of Bloods. Pup lived in Crips territory, and he was out of bounds. The boys traded punches, and as Pup's crew broke for the bus, one of the Bloods reached out with a knife and slashed the back of his suit jacket nearly in half.
Miraculously, Pup emerged unscathed. The next day Mo Better won the regional title.
"It was these back-to-back moments where your life could be like this or your life could be like that," he says in retrospect.
Ultimately, Pup made it out. He went to college. Now 29, he has a wife, kids, and a job. He credits his time with Mo Better.
"Football gave me a way to express myself in a positive way," he says. "That was a good tool to express my anger and not get in trouble."
More than football, though, he remembers the concept of playing for a team — people he didn't want to let down. The coaches who drove him to games, the parents who offered him food, the teammates he'd rally for all-night Madden sessions.
"I wasn't the only one," Pup says. "A lot of kids got saved."
Like the kid who'd walk two miles from Canarsie to Betsy Head until Legree found out and subsidized his MetroCard. (He's now playing football at a four-year college.) Like the 11-year-old whose probation officer brought him to Mo Better as an alternative to juvenile hall. (He's now a starting running back for a top high school.)
And like Terrence Briggs. When he was convicted of armed robbery at age 12, coaches and parents persuaded a judge to sentence the boy to court-mandated football on the condition that he live in a different home. Legree's mother took him in.
Legree calls his mother's place the "refugee house." His brother calls it "the shelter." By their estimate, about 50 Mo Better kids have lived with Lillian Legree.