The way Chris Legree remembers it, Sean “Diddy” Combs’s people called him almost every day for a week in the fall of 2002. The Mo Better Jaguars — the Pop Warner program Legree founded and the subject of this week’s cover story had an upcoming match-up against the Mount Vernon Razor Backs. Combs’s son was on the 12-to-15-year-old Midget team and he planned to come down to Brownsville’s Betsy Head Park to watch the game.
But there was the matter of logistics and security, of course, so the hip-hop mogul’s team had many questions for Legree. Eventually he passed them the phone number to his sister, an NYPD officer whom he assigned to handle security for the big game.
Although Mo Better had only been around for six years, the program had developed a fierce rivalry with Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon was a Pop Warner powerhouse and the programs had had a string of cold, competitive regional playoff battles.
So there was already a buzz at the park when the black SUV pulled up five or ten minutes before kick-off. It didn’t draw much attention.
“It’s a big game, everybody anticipating,” Legree recalls. “Everybody’s looking at them field.”
Read our cover story: One Foot on the Turf, One Foot in the Streets
The park was as packed as it had ever been. When they anticipated a big crowd, Legree and his coaching staff set up a rope line around the field so that the fans didn’t spill onto the sidelines.
At Betsy Head there was no seating area around the grass; other than a few folks with lawn chairs, most of the spectators stood, forming sections multiple rows deep.
As game time approached and the players took the field, Legree noticed that the SUV’s doors still hadn’t opened. It just sat there.
Then, moments before kick-off, out popped Combs. He strolled into the park, onto the field.
“And nobody looks!” says Legree. “He came into the crowd. He came by, says ‘excuse me’ so he could get to the front. They still weren’t looking at him!”
The game lived up to the billing. It was a highly contested, physical, smash mouth affair. Mo Better’s star running back Dajuan Mitchell put on one of the top performances in program history, Legree remembers.
With Mo Better was down late in the game, Mitchell ran for the game-winning touchdown. Legree remembers a 14-12 final score.
Combs caught more eyes on his way out, but the majority of locals were busy celebrating. The big shot they wanted to meet was Mitchell.
“Dajuan Mitchell, we thought he was gonna be a star,” says Legree. “He was out top dog. A grown man on the field.”
The next year he attended Sheepshead Bay High School. He played football for a couple of years, but “we just couldn’t get him on track.”
A few years later, he was killed. The locals who didn’t hear through word of mouth might have seen the blurb in the September 11, 2006, issue of the New York Times:
Two men were fatally shot about 2 p.m. yesterday in an East New York apartment building in what one witness said “looked like an ambush.” One of the victims, Dajuan Mitchell, 19, was found on the sixth-floor landing of a building at 428 Sheffield Avenue, shot twice in the torso and once in the groin, the police and witnesses said.
After that, Legree created the Dajuan Mitchell Award.
“We give that to the kid who’s a good player and got potential, upside,” he says. “The idea is, don’t spoil it. Dajuan reminds you of what could happen if you don’t use it right.”