It's twilight—an hour that mingles longing and regret, promise and speculation—and Tony DaRocha is brooding raptly. The city of Boston's high school cross-country coach is this close to kicking Abdirizak Mohamud out of his program. Five weeks into the season Abdirizak, the Somalian �migr� who last December won the Foot Locker National High School Championship in San Diego, has been missing practices because of an after-school job. When he shows up late for this afternoon's session at George White Schoolboy Stadium, DaRocha takes him aside. "If you don't train with the team," DaRocha says, "you're no longer part of it."
Abdirizak stares at DaRocha with big, liquid eyes. "O.K.," says the senior from Boston English High School. "I understand."
As Abdirizak lopes off on his long pipe-stem legs, DaRocha says, "People think I'm crazy. I have the Number 1 distance runner in the nation, and I'm not going to let him run. But a coach sets rules, and his athletes are expected to follow them."
Athletes have been following DaRocha like no cross-country coach in Beantown history. In Boston, unlike most public school systems, students who wanted to run had to join a single citywide program, racing as nonscorers in suburban dual meets and individually in invitationals. The team floundered so badly that by the time DaRocha took over, in 1992, enrollment was down to one. DaRocha persevered, building success upon success. His current citywide team roster includes two of the country's top eight prep runners, Ben Wessenyeleh, a junior from Ethiopia, and Abdirizak. "I treat all my kids the same," DaRocha says. "No matter who they are or where they're from."
Tony's Kids come from all over Boston and the world: Nigeria, Ethiopia, Cuba, Haiti, Vietnam, Gambia, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic. Abdirizak arrived from war-ravaged Somalia in 1993 by way of Kenya, where he spent two years in squalid refugee camps. "We're a little United Nations," says Secretary General DaRocha. "Nearly all the 33 runners who signed up this fall are immigrants."
DaRocha, 36, knows how it feels to be displaced. A native of the Cape Verde Islands, off the coast of West Africa, he didn't run until his family moved to Boston in 1967. Then he had no choice. "We were the first blacks in an all-Irish neighborhood," he says. "I used to get chased home by boys swinging belts. Thank god nobody ever caught me."
A 10-kilometer specialist with a personal best of 29:11 who earned All-East honors at Boston University, DaRocha became the gym teacher at Boston's Lewenberg Middle School six years ago. "Twelve and 13 are the ages when kids either lose focus or develop a life goal," DaRocha says. "Unfortunately, phys ed can often be a humiliating or confidence-destroying experience. So I figured I'd have the biggest impact at that age."
He brought a similar focus to Boston Latin High School, where he has coached track since '92. Under his guidance, the perennial doormats have won the last two league titles. "He's more than my coach, he's my conscience," says Dominique Vilmont, a prot�g� of DaRocha's who was born in Haiti. "He runs beside me in training, telling me what I'm doing wrong and doing right."
He used the same approach with Abdirizak in September 1996. Though the teen had run the 1,000 yards indoors in a spectacular 2:16.06, he told DaRocha he considered himself a sprinter. "No," DaRocha insisted. "You're a distance runner with speed." He talked Abdirizak into running a couple of miles with him, slowly. Abdirizak was so bushed that he didn't show up at practice for two weeks. He only relented after DaRocha said, "Come back. You're going to like cross-country."
Two months later, Abdirizak won the national championship. "Coach was right," he says. "I liked it."