It’s Sunday morning at Kennard Field in the Hill District and hundreds of people have shown up for a day’s worth of youth football games between the Hill District Rebels and the Swissvale-Braddock Wolverines. This crowd’s a lot bigger than some high school teams draw and for the spect surrounding the field, it’s the most important game they’ll watch this season.
In a region where there are thousands of football tales to tell, no story is more complex than how important peewee football is in Black communities. Most likely everyone here is a Steelers fan, but this game is so much more important to them. This isn’t just a football game, it’s a source of community pride that has been around for decades. It’s not a league, it’s a legacy.
Like most legacies, there have been good times and bad. On any given Sunday, for example, if you wanted to get into this game, you had to pass through a thorough security checkpoint. It’s like that at fields throughout this league. Over the years there have been acts of violence at fields across this league. In 2012, for example, a woman who came to watch her grandson play a game in East Liberty was killed after being shot in the stomach and the shoulder. In 2010, then Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper threatened to shut down league games following a spate of violence.
But the league survived that period and the games are just as important as they ever were. But why? Why does a game played by children mean so much to a community, a neighborhood. That’s part of the answer.
Pittsburgh is a city of neighborhoods. With 90 different communities, each neighborhood has its own distinct characteristics, personalities, and institutions. Those institutions range from churches to rec centers or even bars. But in Black communities like Garfield, the Hill District, Homewood, East Liberty and the North Side there are deeply rooted traditions that playing sports is a s rite of passage for young Black boys growing into men. It’s also about forming bonds in your neighborhood.
That’s why 31-year-old Tarrelle Maxshure joined the Garfield Gators so many years ago.
“My friends played and I was the youngest of my friends at the the time,” he recalls. “They were a year older than me and I remember seeing them come home from practice with all this equipment”, Maxshure says. “You know you’re a boy, you wanna hang out with your friends, you wanna just wanna fit in and do what your friends are doing.
“One of my proudest moments was when I was named Championship Game MVP against Kingsley in 1997.”
Most of Maxshure’s memories recall big games and big rivalries. And while these are football rivalries, the undertones of the streets are hard to ignore sometimes. There are a lot of positives that come out of programs like these. Young men learn discipline, confidence and a desire to do great things. Instead of falling into some the traps and vices that exist in these neighborhoods, they learned how to be community leaders and mentors in the future.
But, it is also difficult to disregard the realities of Black neighborhoods. Some young Black men become attracted to the street life — drug dealing, gang banging, and robbery. Eugene Spence, 28, of Northview Heights had dreams of taking his career to a higher level. Spence stopped playing football in high school when he realized his grades were so bad that he was never going to get to play college ball. He turned to the streets and spent three years in prison for selling heroin after a 2014 conviction. He’s out now, recently converted to Islam, and is trying to be a good father to his three boys, all of whom play peewee football.
“I’m just being a good father to them and a role model to them,” Spence says. “Money can’t do that, so I just make sure I put myself in a great position so I never leave them again.”
The stereotype that Black fathers are absent is a constant reminder that there needs to be more Black men in our community who are willing to give back. Men like cousins, Anthony “Tone” Walls Jr and Derrick “DC” Clancy, are graduates of Slippery Rock University and both give back to their respective communities of the Hill
District and Garfield through coaching and mentorship.
Clancy, a coach for the Hill District Rebels, says the team is a source of pride for the neighborhood, competing in a wide range of sports year round. Walking into the game, late Hill District rapper Jimmy Wopo’s songs such as “Walkin Bomb,” “Elm Street” and “Ayo” boomed over the sound system. Despite the recent negative press surrounding Wopo, Clancy is adament about his positive influence, “That wasn’t who he was up here…He poured life into our kids” Clancy says. There were vendors, families cooking barbecue, and people enjoying the warmth of the summer while wearing their Sunday best and then some. Rainbow Guiseppe sneakers, gold chains, diamond earrings, stylish hairdos, and designer outfits were just some of the standout accessories at this game.
“You know we try to bring that cookout vibe to our games that’s why we have a DJ,” Clancy says. “We don’t have to, but it’s for the people. We like to entertain.”
A few days later, at Garfield Gators practice, Walls is getting his team ready for their next game. Despite being from the Hill, Walls decided to play for the Gators when he was young because his father coached there. Now he’s coaching and mentoring young boys in the same way.
Walls is here because he worries about today’s youth.
“They can’t take constructive criticism, there are some kids who I don’t even want to say anything to them because of their attitudes,” Walls says. “I try to talk to them and got kids like, ‘Oh my God why is he on my dick’ and Im like, “I’m trying to make you a better football player. I’m trying to make you a better young man. They don’t see it that way.”
Walls blames absentee fathers for the decline of young Black boys interested in playing pee wee football and sports in general. “No disrespect, but the boys nowadays are way too emotional … and it’s frustrating.”
Watching the Gators practice, it’s easy to see why they’ve won multiple championships. These coaches are teaching discipline and toughness. Walls shows me the steep hill the team runs up and down, stopping for jumping jacks at the top and bottom. The littlest kids were doing pushups and bigger kids were suiting up for drills.
“People are too selfish nowadays. They’re not coming back, not giving back like they’re supposed to,” Walls says. “There ain’t enough people my age doing that, coming back, and giving back.”
Walls may be right, but the ones who are coming back are making a difference.
Corey Carrrington is a Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer.