By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
T.J. sits in street clothes on the sideline, 15 yards behind his teammates. Lips tight, brow furrowed, the 10-year-old watches as his buddies, clad in the Mo Better Jaguars' signature purple and yellow, take on the Montclair Bulldogs in their Pop Warner league season opener. T.J.'s injured, hurt his thumb in a scrimmage a few weeks back. Doctor says he tore a ligament. It's the first time he's ever sat out a game in his five-year Pop Warner career, and being out here as a spectator doesn't sit well with him.
"Mostly I like the contact," he says. "When you're mad, it's the best part. Like, it gets your anger out and stuff. I hit hard when I'm mad. If I'm not mad, I'ma hit you hard, but I'm not gon' hit you as hard."
He reaches down and picks at the rubber pebbles embedded in the artificial grass, scoops up a pinch, then sprinkles the stuff back down. The field is pristine, like most everything at Poly Prep High School. Banners strung up on a fence boast that three of Mo Better's five age groups — eight-to-11-year-old Junior Peewee, 10-to-13 Junior Midget, and 12-to-15 Midget — won a Pop Warner conference championship in 2011. The 2012 Midgets won a title, too.
T.J. looks up, gazes around. A grassy area adjacent to the football facility, alive with teens playing lacrosse and soccer. The school's main building, a colonial-style red brick building topped with a domed white clock tower. Beyond one end zone, a wall of trees hides a pond filled with ducks. Past the other looms the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, gleaming in the late summer sun. Rows of houses with garages and neat lawns surround Poly Prep's Bay Ridge campus.
"It's pretty nice out here," T.J. deadpans, eyes now on the game.
Brownsville, the central Brooklyn neighborhood where T.J. lives and Mo Better is based, is a half-hour's drive from here, and a world away. The neighborhood's two square miles — bordered by Crown Heights, East Flatbush, and East New York — are home to the largest concentration of public housing of any zip code in the nation; more than a third of the locals live in one of 18 housing projects operated by the New York City Housing Authority.
Mo Better used to play its home games in the heart of Brownsville, in Betsy Head Park. On Sunday afternoons, it seemed the whole community would come out to watch. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, circled the field, filled the adjacent handball and basketball courts, eager to see one of the best youth football teams in the U.S. and cheer stars like Jaiquawn Jarrett, now a safety for the New York Jets, and Kevin Ogletree, now a Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideout. More than one local will tell you that so many folks would turn out for Mo Better games that "the crime rate would go down."
But a few years ago, Pop Warner officials deemed Betsy Head's field unfit for competition. Now Mo Better only practices at the park. Administrators must scramble for a location before each home game, begging high schools throughout Brooklyn to accommodate their boys. Parents never know the time or place until Thursday.
T.J. almost didn't make this trip.
"I tried not to come to the game, 'cause I knew I'm gonna wanna play," he says.
But the coaches made him, told him he had to be here, had to be part of the team. They've known him long enough to see the changes: innocent curiosity morphing into indifferent swagger. The eyerolls. The backtalk. Over Mo Better's 17 years, they've seen it hundreds of times. "One foot on the turf, one foot in the streets, " as Vick Davis, head coach of the seven-to-nine-year-old Mitey Mites, puts it.
"It's a turning-point age," adds Justin Cotton, who coached at Mo Better for 15 years. "The boys have a choice: They can go with the gangs, or they can come out on this field with us."
The field takes up only a few hours of T.J.'s week, so the coaches try to control the influences he faces when they're not around. They enrolled him in a big brother program. They encouraged him to join an African dance group at the local church. They put in a good word to help him get into a top charter school in East New York. He's pulling A's and B's. He can rattle off his top three college choices.
Ask him if he's going to stay off the streets and he says, "yes."
But then after a beat, he adds, "Probably." He pauses. "I'll try." Looks down. Drags his cleat along the ground, making the rubber pebbles pop like fleas.
"I don't know," he says. "Just probably. Because, I just . . . I might, like . . . I'm trying to see a way to put it."
He looks up, eyebrows raised, head tilted, like a guidance counselor about to break some bad news to a child.
"I might, like, one day get in trouble," he says. "I know people that get in trouble. Like I got into a situation when my cousin, he got in trouble, and the people he got in trouble with were looking for me. My cousin told me, 'Watch your back.' I tried to tell him, like, stop being in a gang and stuff. I dunno. He said probably, probably not."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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."