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TODD WALKER, THE coach of the Berkeley Cougars youth football program, believes that if his athletes aren't fully divested from the street life by age 11 or 12, they are lost. "That is when the hard head sets in," he says. "By then they've been to, like, 30 funerals. All that death, all that violence, and no one helps them deal with it."
Walker, who lives in Richmond, loses a few kids every year. In 2006 Jaee Logan, 14, was shot three times and killed a day after he led the cheer that ends every Cougars practice. Jaee was a "house kid," a term for children rarely let outside by their guardians, which in his case was his father and grandparents. "When Jaee joined the program at 11, he was the rare kid who I had to make tougher," says Walker.
Jaee was shot in Oakland while walking to a friend's barbecue, his only crime being that his dreadlocks looked similar to those of a boy the shooter sought. During the gunfire, two boys with Jaee ran sideways from the source of the shots, seeking the cover of buildings. Jaee raced up the street. "That made him an easier target," Walker says. "He wasn't a street kid. He didn't know."
After Jaee's murder, which remains unsolved, relatives and friends founded S.A.V.O.Y (Stop All Violence on Youth), which promotes awareness of violence against kids. The Terrance TK Kelly Youth Foundation, which his father runs, sponsors education programs for kids in Richmond and neighboring towns. Before that came the Khadafy Foundation for Non-Violence, formed by the mother of Khadafy Washington, a football player at McClymonds High in Oakland, who was shot and killed in 2000. That nonprofit helps families handle the aftermath of an untimely death, such as burial costs and grief counseling.
Young athletes die, foundations are formed, but nothing changes.
"We know we can't stop the murders," says Marilyn Washington Harris, Khadafy's mother. "But we still have to try to help."
WALKER TRIES BY scaring kids. He takes them on tours of the funeral home where he works as a mortuary specialist. He shows them the meat wagon and the embalming room. Funerals are often showy affairs, and Walker, who also volunteers as a grief counselor for the Khadafy Foundation, wants kids to see the hard truths about death.
Pugh tries by grinding every day. He has cleared practice fields of syringes and condoms (using latex gloves provided by the city); negotiated with an Oakland gang so it wouldn't deal drugs during his team's practice; stopped fights in bleachers and parking lots between fathers from rival cliques; and instituted a dress code for adults who wore such revealing clothing that it led to scuffles when one boy commented on the body of another's mom. "We even had an issue with nipple rings" among parents, Pugh says. "I put out a bulletin about not wearing tight clothing and showing off your piercings."
If parents continue to violate a team policy, their kids are suspended for a week, same as if the players had broken a rule. "Kids want discipline, structure, and their parents or grandparents want help, so you'd be surprised how they follow the rules," Pugh says. "They won't [adhere] to a restraining order from the police, but they follow our rules because playing means so much to their kids."
Pugh has a brother in prison for murder who grew up just as he did in city housing in West Oakland. He doesn't presume to know why some kids make it out and others don't, but he knows playing football makes children feel better about their lives. But as youth violence becomes more pervasive—Pugh estimates that 20 to 30 of the players he's coached have been murdered, mostly in the last few years—kids are harder to help. Even Lynch, the East Bay Warriors' most famous alumnus, got shot at in 2006, a year before being drafted in the first round. He was in Oakland for his sister's high school graduation, and his car mistakenly was targeted at noon by an assailant who was never caught. (Someone called Lynch's mother 20 minutes later, apologizing for the mixup.)