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
A communal mindset runs through Mo Better. Those with resources look out for those without.
When Parrish Johnson saw that one of his son's teammates wore ratty cleats, he gave the boy a new pair. Whenever Will Cave, a public school maintenance worker, arrived at practice early with his son, he tossed around a football with several other kids. When Sylvia Ash dropped off her son at the park at 7 a.m. for a bus trip, she brought extra sandwiches knowing that some of his teammates would have skipped breakfast.
"That's what Mo Better addresses: not only a collective of the young boys but also the collective of the parents — the fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters supporting the young kids," says Walter Beach, a Cleveland Browns quarterback in the 1960s who has helped mentor children from the program.
Lately, though, that collective has been shrinking. Several youth football teams have sprung up around Brooklyn in the years since Mo Better's birth. And a growing recognition of the scourge of brain injuries in football has driven some parents away from the sport. Mo Better usually fields five teams, but this season there are just three. The 12-to-14-year-old team had to forfeit two of its games because fewer than the required 16 players showed up. None of the three teams won enough games to qualify for the playoffs, a rarity for the program.
It has been a challenging year for Legree. For the first time, he had to cancel last season's banquet: not enough funds. It costs about $40,000 each year to keep Mo Better running — covering equipment, referees, and league fees for the 60 percent of families who can't afford it. Sponsorships, city grants, and private donations have declined since the recession hit.
Legree remains committed to the kids he does work with. Like Joshua, who earned the nickname "Obama" after delivering an impressive speech two years ago. And Giovanni, a muscular 12-year-old who moved from Saint Lucia in May and is already catching the eyes of high school coaches. And T.J., who has begun thinking about what job he wants when he grows up.
"A sanitation worker," he says. "Because when I see them in the morning, I be hyped to be getting up and doing the garbage with them. It seems fun."