Urban Gladiators

Members of the Abyssinian Crusaders walk to meet the bus to an early game.
Members of the Abyssinian Crusaders walk to meet the bus to an early game.

New York City had never really been a football town.

Brownstones and tenements densely packed make it hard to spare the hundred yards a football field requires. In Harlem where space has always been at more of a premium, basketball reigns supreme. Basketball is a city kid’s sport; whether played on the asphalt court of a city park, a school gym, or even under the monkey bars on a playground, in desperation even a half-court will suffice. Football requires space and growing up Harlem, space was not something we had a lot of.

In the ’80’s, springtime in Harlem meant losing our boyfriends to basketball. As soon as ice and snow melted from the courts in Marcus Garvey Park, the boys from my block migrated south of 125th Street to congregate. The girls perched on benches or swing sets surrounding the courts, fashion-flaunting and side-eye watching. If the cutie with the jump shot smiled at you as he retrieved a loose ball, your day was made. If you already had a basketball boyfriend real court skills could made him a celebrity of sorts, in turn giving you a kind of red-carpet status.

When we rode the subway to hang out in the Bronx, Queens or Brooklyn (Staten Island may as well have been New Jersey to us and we NEVER went there), the boys had the added panache of football. They played for high schools like Truman, Kennedy, Evander Childs, DeWitt Clinton, Lehman or Alfred E. Smith. The boys from Cardinal Hayes or Spelman were especially interesting; if he played football you had yourself a fine catch, for it not only meant he was smart, his family was a “good” family with enough money to send him to Catholic School. But the “OuterBorough” girls never really let us near their men without a fight though, so while we giggled and waved we mostly stuck with basketball.

Eventually I grew up and had a Sun.

At the time of his birth I lived on City Island, which is also short on space. Affectionately known as “The Rock”, a mile-and-a-half long and a half-mile wide at it’s widest part, it chose to dedicate the space it does have to a baseball diamond. For awhile the Sun played Little League but about age nine he decided he didn’t like it. He begged to play football. His father, who is a whole lot more protective than me, put in him in a Flag Football league in Woodlawn where he played two years all the while begging to play tackle.

A twist of fate landed Sun and I in Harlem again, and of all things the Sun found football. That summer he started working out with the kids on the Abyssinian Crusaders, a local team that had originally been sponsored by Abyssinian Baptist Church. Come autumn I found myself signing green forms, paying money, and providing medical records. Furthermore, I found myself standing out in the cold and the wet watching football.

I found that in my almost twenty-year absence, Harlem had become a football town. Whenever the Sun and his teammates jogged across 145th street in their practice or game gear people cheered them on, the way ancient cultures must have cheered their gladiators.

“Did y’all win today?”
“Keep ya head up, you’ll win next time.”
“Stay in school! You gonna play ball in high school?”
“Keep it up! You’ll get to college that way!”

BrothersWhenever the Sun stepped out on his way to a game, the younger kids on the block swarmed him: “You gotta game today? Who you playin’? I play, too! Throw me the ball!”

There was something about the blue, white and gold and the plumed knight Crusader logo that made Harlemites cheer. And if people were not Crusader families but belonged to the rival Harlem Jets, they would rib the Sun good-naturedly: “Come play for US! You know we got the better team!”

First practice with pads.I started taking pictures at the Sun’s first practice in pads, and continued through his two seasons with the Crusaders. Only an observer at first, I didn’t even really understand the rules of the game. But I was struck by the seriousness with which these young men played, how hard they tried, how they played on in rain or snow, the dedication of the coaches. Winning brought joyous whoops of “WHO ARE WE!? CRUSADERS!” Defeat brought tears.

Neither Rain Nor Snow

When it came time to research and pick a high school, the Sun made it clear he was only going to a school that had a football team. This put a serious cramp in my high-school plan for him since I’d been priming him for my alma mater, LaGuardia High School. Turning to the coaches for some insight, I learned that there were many private boarding schools who would float scholarships to young men from inner cities who had good grades and  football ability. But I wasn’t comfortable giving my Sun up to strangers just yet (and plus his grades sucked), so I looked at more local options. A friend, a coach in New Rochelle, didn’t have too much insight on city schools but when I told him about the Sun and his football dreams he asked me “Does he want to play high school ball so he can play college ball?”

“Yes” I answered.

“Well then the next question is… do you want to go the scholarship route? or just play? Because they are two very different things, and the scholarship requires dedication.”

Coach Mike Gives DirectionSay what?

I had no idea that not only had football taken hold in New York, but the business of tracking, courting and recruiting young men for football had become BIG business. Since I highly doubt I can afford my Sun a “D1” football school on the chance he make their team, I answered “scholarship.” And thus I entered the world of New York City football.

Members of the Crusaders are introduced to Xavier High School's varsity team.
Members of the Crusaders are introduced to Xavier High School’s varsity team.

Young Gladiators at the 2013 Nike SPARQ Combine

The first thing I was instructed to do was sign the Sun up for a football combine. Combines are non-instructional opportunities for high school players across the country to “strut their stuff”, to get measurable statistics on their skills and abilities. It shows them where they need improvement. Participants walk away with verified results of these tests, which can be useful to college athletic recruiters and coaches. There are several combines, but the best one to start with, said Coach Smith, was Nike’s. While all of the combines rank high school football athletes across the county, Nike ranks ALL of its participants, not just the highest 500. So in April, we rode out to Brooklyn’s Sid Luckman Athletic field, the home field of Erasmus Hall High School.

About eight hundred young men from all over the tri-state area showed up. Each kid was given a jersey, measured for height and weight, and put through a number of drills designed to test speed, agility, vertical leap and power. They were all shapes, sizes and ethnicities. At the end of the tests, each young man walked out with a printout of how he did. The truly talented got coveted invites to Nike’s Football Training Camp later in the summer.

In mid-may, the New York City department of Education sent each 8th-grader home with the highly-anticipated letter that informs them of the high school they will be attending the following fall. After careful research on my part, several tours and fairs, and a Specialized High School Test, the Sun’s choices had come down to two: Brooklyn Tech (if he did well on the test) or Fort Hamilton High School in Bay Ridge. Brooklyn Tech was a long shot, since the Sun never cracked a book or studied for the test (though he did about average on it). We were both hoping for Fort Hamilton; they had a decent team, decent college admission rates and a pretty good music program. That last part was what had excited me since the kid has been playing violin for some years. But he only cared about football. We were both happy when the letter informed us that Fort Hamilton would be his “home” for the next four years.

Alabama coach Nick Saban addresses participants at the conclusion of the 2013 Roll Tide Camp.
Alabama coach Nick Saban addresses participants at the conclusion of the 2013 Roll Tide Camp.

Another important part of paving the road to football scholarships is attending university football camps in the summer. While much of the country sets their kids free in May, New York city kids get out in June so our choices for camps were limited. Of the camps within “road-trip” distance and whose sessions were held after June, Alabama’s Crimson Tide was the most interesting option. The Sun managed not to have to go to summer school so in July we piled into the car for an epic road trip down to Alabama. This time the 800 or so boys there were from all over the US, although most of them hailed from places like Georgia, the Carolinas and of course Alabama. The Sun said later that the Alabama heat was unbearable, but he survived the training and was ready for high school. It must have done him some good because in the fall, he made the junior varsity team.

It’s interesting to see how the game changes through the different age groups. Junior varsity ball is tougher than Crusader ball. And varsity is tougher still. But in comparison to other states where football is THE pastime, New York is not quite “there” yet. New York is still a basketball town. So while parents camp out on the field to watch their junior peewees bob around the rocky fields like little weeble-wobbles, and the coaches scream at the older boys, the game is still fun. The coaches on the Crusader teams were tough, but no where near the level of intensity displayed on Esquire’s “Friday Night Tykes“. And in High School, parents are not allowed anywhere near football fields.

The PSAL regulates and coordinates every game, meet or event for the twenty-two different varsity sports that happens in New York City’s 400-something public high schools. I approached the PSAL for an opportunity to shoot a few games, and after a trial run of sorts, I was granted a temporary press pass by its administration. In coming posts, I will go into more detail about the PSAL and it’s amazing staff, and tell a little bit more about the stories of these urban gladiators as they try to succeed in football.

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