The sign appeared in Late April. For three months a year, every year for the past 11, the sign has stood on a scruffy patch of grass across from Hadley Park, in one of Miami's roughest neighborhoods. It's a sandwich board painted yellow, with the words stenciled in black spray paint, the letters different heights and fonts: FOOTBALL printed as tall as a toaster; REGISTRATION in letters smaller than house keys; LIBERTY CITY OPTIMIST CLUB; a phone number. However crude the sign, its message is clear: It's football season again. As if everyone doesn't already know. As if everyone isn't already waiting.
As the shimmering summer heat rises off the parking lot of the public housing complex where he lives, Diamond Pless frantically fans his face with his tiny hand. When his younger sister laughs, he throws her a quizzical look. He's not trying to be funny. He's just hot.
Diamond's Uncle Durell is leading him through a preseason football practice. When Durell points a beat-up plastic football to the left, 10-year-old Diamond runs that way; when he points the ball right, Diamond runs that way. He points it at his chest, and Diamond sprints toward him. When he points the nose of the ball down, Diamond backpedals as fast as he can, his sneakers skidding on the pebbly blacktop. "O.K. Six seconds. Good," says Durell, looking at the clock on his cellphone, which he uses as a stopwatch. "Do it again now, faster."
When Diamond runs, his pink tongue tickles his chin. His face is impassive, unsmiling as he goes through Durell's drills. This will be his fourth year of Pop Warner football; this season he will play for the 95-pound Liberty City Warriors. He is a good athlete, yet he has been a disappointment to his coaches. "Diamond, he be like a girl," one coach says. "He be more into clothes and stuff than anything else."
Diamond gets some of his fashion sense from his uncle, the father figure in his life now. Today, Durell is wearing a Technicolor tropical shirt, baggy blue jeans and sky-blue Nike running shoes, which are perched on the footrests of the wheelchair he has been confined to for seven years, ever since he was shot by a rival drug dealer. "Every day before practice starts, we'll be out here an hour or two," Durell says. "We work on the basics. I want him to play. I don't want him to rot on the bench. This is serious. It wasn't like this with our parents back when I was growing up. Back then you'd maybe see parents at a game but not out at practice, like I am every day. When you see people from your community actually make the NFL, it gives you hope. You push 'em a little more."
Durell looks at Diamond, who is cooling off in the shade of a nylon canopy hung over a bank of mailboxes. "How many kids at four and five years old really want to play football? It's parents. It's pressure."
Brian Johnson, the new head coach of the 95-pound Liberty City Warriors, stands in the middle of his practice field, which is composed largely of dirt as fine and dry as cocoa powder. Sweat trickles down his face, soaks his T-shirt. It's the first day of practice, and he's trying to look imposing, like a leader, but as he watches his players run laps, he smiles. He's been waiting for this day for nine months.
The first boys finish their laps, breathing heavily, sweat rolling down their smooth, serious faces. "Run all the way in," one of Johnson's assistants shouts. "Everywhere we go, we run. Got to get in shape to play football! Ninety-five-pound football!"
After an hour of conditioning, the Warriors break into groups. Chico, another assistant coach, schools the linebackers on the proper three-point stance. He then asks his players to wrap their arms around his waist as if he were a ballcarrier. Chico is 6'1", 205 pounds, and most of the boys can wrap themselves around only one of his thighs. The thought of tackling him reduces them to giggles.
Ten feet away the coach in charge of the offense is introducing the players to the complicated new system. Nearby another coach is drilling the linebackers. "Get mean!" he barks. "Wipe that smile off your face! Get ready to hurt somebody! Get mean! Come on, get mean!"