Lacrosse clears path to greener -- and shorter -- pastures for two Strawberry Mansion teens
Here, the grass on the lacrosse field rises to midcalf. Each step is like dropping into quicksand, so it's a good thing these two girls can fly. One jukes imaginary defenders. The other tiptoes at freeway speeds before whooshing the ball inside an orange-lined goal.
Nadirah McRae, who goes by "Slim" -- "I got chicken thighs!" -- is wearing black and silver Nikes with tattered laces. Nadirah El-Amin Gateward, "Na," has on worn navy New Balances. The 18-year-olds can't afford cleats, not for this private April workout session at 33rd and Diamond in Strawberry Mansion, one of North Philly's most dangerous neighborhoods. And not for their games.
But they will go through you or around you or behind you to score. Like they did the night before, when each blasted in four goals against West Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker. Smacked in the neck, El-Amin Gateward fell backward to the ground, blood rushing to her head, but played the rest of the game, another Strawberry Mansion loss, this one a close call at 11-10.
The Nadirahs, who call each other "twin," who both play midfielder, who both have asthma, who both are versed in tragedy, who will both graduate from high school on Tuesday, break into sprints. Going one-on-one, McRae slips, her legs nearly scissoring into splits, but recovers to score. She dances in front of the net while El-Amin Gateward snaps each pose with an imaginary camera. "Give 'em face, Sis!" El-Amin Gateward screams in delight. "Give 'em face!"
That two black girls are celebrating their lacrosse skills -- honed enough to take them to college -- is something of a rarity. Lacrosse is played in predominantly white, affluent areas. At the NCAA level, 86.4 percent of Division I women's lacrosse players in 2015-16 were white, while just 2.8 percent were black. US Lacrosse doesn't even track participation rates for girls of color at the youth and high school levels.
"Every time you walk on that field, I want you to understand that people are always going to show you what you can't do. You have to prove them wrong. Don't let people get in your way," coach Jazmine A. Smith reminds them. "Only you can stop you."
Later, attached to a resistance parachute, the 5-foot-8 McRae sprints in the spacious Fairmount Park, while the 5-foot-6 El-Amin Gateward bounces in and out of an agility ladder. El-Amin Gateward, the quickest on the team, jokingly pleads, as she does at least twice a day: "I got epilepsy and heart disease." (That's never gotten her out of a drill). Smith rolls her eyes: "Get ya life." The girls hunch over. Smith tells them to stand up. Never show fatigue.
"This is a workout," El-Amin Gateward says. "I don't do this for a living."
Smith smiles. "You will."
That's what Smith, who founded Eyekonz Sports League in 2013 to bring field hockey and lacrosse to inner-city kids, said when she first met them, bursting through Strawberry Mansion High's three red doors to start a team in 2015. "Lacrosse can afford you and your family a better life. This stick can get you out of here. It can get you to college."
After watching the school included when ABC's Diane Sawyer did a news segment in 2013 on the most dangerous schools in America, and shaken by the 94 security cameras, metal detectors, locker brawls, brutal budget cuts, gangs and a no-boots policy (they are considered a weapon), Smith felt compelled to act.
"Lives are at stake," says Smith, whose mother, Vera Williams, graduated from Strawberry Mansion Junior High in 1970. The neighborhood, named for the mid-19th-century mansion whose restaurant famously served strawberries and cream, now faces high crime and poverty.
El-Amin Gateward and McRae, also on the basketball, volleyball and track teams, rebelled the first few months of Smith's practices. Who did this woman, forcing them to say "I am" affirmations in front of a $6 Walmart mirror, think she was? She hadn't earned their trust. She seemed like just one more track on the same record of disappointments they've heard all their lives: people who promise and don't deliver, people who come and then leave.
"You just start believing it," McRae says. "Like, oh, we ain't going to never get nowhere in life because all people going to do is keep lying to us, keep buttering us up, thinking we gon' do something."
El-Amin Gateward regularly cursed and disrupted drills, if she showed up at all. She received suspension after suspension for fighting. She didn't know where she'd stay the next day or the next week or the next month, bouncing from home to home as early as freshman year. "When my mom died," she says.
Bone cancer, a battle beginning in El-Amin Gateward's fourth-grade year. A counselor tried to help her cope that year, handing her a Barbie without hair, but that didn't explain how or why her mother, Wala El-Amin, her best friend, the one who'd let her sleep in her bed, who'd take her to dinner, to the mall, to the aquarium, was deteriorating.
Death stole her, then a car accident seized El-Amin Gateward's older sister and bone cancer killed her stepmother. Her father wasn't always around. El-Amin Gateward didn't have time to grieve, scrapping for food, usually her favorite, a spicy chicken sandwich sans lettuce at Checkers. She couldn't cash checks, too young for a state I.D. A stiff upper lip overtook her smile, her fists became a means to survival. Smith kicked her off the Strawberry Mansion team for poor behavior. El-Amin Gateward kept coming back to practice, as a spectator and was let back on the team a month later after apologizing.
Most thought El-Amin Gateward was a bad kid. A lost cause. Too hard. They didn't understand that she was, at her core, soft, like a rose. The velvet petals that grounded her -- the people who mattered most to her, the people who made her radiant, funny, athletic, smart -- withered away, one by one, until all she had left was herself. A stem. And all anyone could see was thorns.
El-Amin Gateward pauses, sitting on the field after the workout session between Smith and McRae on a frayed purple yoga mat with four holes down the middle. McRae turns to her twin, offering a smile.
"Why you smiling?"
"Because I know you 'bout to cry."
El-Amin Gateward, who now lives with McRae, let her tears fall, tears that were never safe because someone could have exploited them. Her twin reaches over, holding El-Amin Gateward in her arms. And Smith, draping a black Adidas track jacket over El-Amin Gateward, joins the embrace. The three fold into each other, arms and legs tangled, bound by something thicker than blood: Pain.
"It's all right. You're making everybody proud, Na," Smith says. "That's what I always tell you, right? You're making everybody proud."
Later that night, at McRae's house, the girls play a Snapchat of their "JuJu On That Beat" dance, admiring each move. "We was lit," El-Amin Gateward says. "Litty bop." McRae admits: "I ain't got no rhythm but I'll bust a move."
McRae reveals a tattoo near her right shoulder: November 19, 1975, her mother's birthday. She rubs it before every game. "I felt like the day she was born was the day she started struggling."
McRae's mother, Adrinee Reed, has severe lupus. With a father not always present, McRae morphed into a child-adult, sometimes leaving school to take care of her mother, a trip to the hospital as customary as one to CVS. Her grades suffered.
Feeling powerless to ease her mother's pain, she hardly said a word, becoming easy prey for bullies. Ugly. Monkey. The words wounded her, but she'd fight back by excelling in sports, a natural athlete in whatever ball she tossed.
Once, McRae fainted during a field hockey game, having not eaten anything all day. The next day, Smith followed her home, only finding a sandwich and water in the refrigerator, next to empty shelves. Once, McRae crossed over girl after girl in a basketball game, but vomited on the floor after the final buzzer sounded. All she had consumed that day was water.
"You can't fail," McRae tells herself every morning. "You gotta keep going."
El-Amin Gateward said she and her friends were ordering food at Chinese restaurant after school a few months ago when a pack of girls charged toward them, delivering blow after blow. Punched in the head and wrist, El-Amin Gateward tried to escape but couldn't. She said one of her friends was stabbed in the arm, the other stabbed in the head.
El-Amin Gateward, who said the pack of girls were allegedly seeking vengeance for a friend who had gotten jumped, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her head hurt for about a week, her wrist nearly sprained. Her voice trails off, but she quickly stiffens her shoulders. "They didn't faze me," she says.
When El-Amin Gateward and McRae blaze down the lacrosse field, scoring goal after goal, it's almost like they run to somewhere else; another place, another time. One where McRae eventually becomes a sports broadcaster, El-Amin Gateward a teacher.
Since picking up a stick, their grades have improved. Their names have graced the Philadelphia Inquirer's sports section. Their confidence has grown, especially since retired principal Linda Cliatt-Wayman would shout out key players from the team's games on the loudspeaker during class, making them feel valued and powerful in all the ways teenage girls wish to be.
El-Amin Gateward, who will play for Lock Haven University, and McRae, who will play for the University of Hartford, fantasize about dominating college ball in the fall. Smith, who is bringing lacrosse and field hockey as club sports to Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, reminds them they'll be freshmen. Rookies. Scrubs.
McRae shuts that down. "When I walk in the room, they know they're messing with a goon!"
"Boom!" El-Amin Gateward says, leaning backward.
The next day they'll face formidable Delaware Valley Charter High School, but Smith reminds them they'll be playing for more. "You are the catalyst for young black girls to say, 'I want to pick up a stick because of Nadirah times two,' " Smith says. "I need you to understand that every time you step on that field, you are making history ... I need you to never forget that. This is your responsibility."
Delaware Valley has 12 players (compared to Strawberry Mansion's eight), but they still cannot contain El-Amin Gateward and McRae. Bobbing and weaving, El-Amin Gateward has three goals and McRae has two -- including a dazzling 60-yard-run -- and it's not even halftime. The two tap sticks after each score, puffing their chests, clenching their teeth.
Strawberry Mansion continues to dominate, though most are sprinting in worn sneakers and half are in black mesh basketball shorts and half are in black leggings. Smith said she provides players with socks, fruit, shin and mouth guards, lacrosse sticks and sports bras, recently dropping $300 of her own money to purchase six pairs of shiny orange cleats.
It is cause for celebration that they're there at all. Smith said buses and games are often canceled -- three times this season and five last season. Smith claims the frequent cancellations would be unlikely at a white, more affluent school. She said she is thwarted by the School District of Philadelphia when scheduling games against those types of schools, and as a result, Strawberry Mansion mostly plays teams of color.
School District of Philadelphia spokesman Lee Whack declined to comment on these allegations in a phone call. In a written statement, Whack said the team had to "forfeit" certain games because "not enough players were available and/or their coach was not present."
Smith said she never missed a game in her tenure at the school. She claims there was only one forfeit due to heavy rain, and as a result, not enough players.
El-Amin Gateward explained why she thinks a game last September against Lincoln High School that had the team waiting 90 minutes in pouring rain, at Germantown Super Site, was allegedly canned: "Because we Mansion," she says, "and we got a bad reputation." McRae goes further: "Not only that, but because the school district is not used to kids with different skin tones playing the sport they are used to Caucasians actually playing, and they think that it's a white sport and only whites should play it."
"It seems like we have to prove ourselves so much that we deserve to play," McRae says. "Like, why are we so different from other people playing?"
Vanessa King, athletic director at Strawberry Mansion, isn't sure why the alleged cancellations continue but cites being a relatively new program as a possible explanation. One thing King is certain of? The disappointment flooding players' faces as she watches them wait on the sidewalk for a bus that doesn't come, as she has to shuffle them, in full uniform, back to school. Another opportunity gone. "It's not fair," King says.
Strawberry Mansion relieved Smith of her duties as coach of both the lacrosse and field hockey teams at the conclusion of the season in May. Strawberry Mansion principal Tony Oyola declined to speak over the phone -- referring all calls to the district -- only providing a written statement indicating the school was moving in a "different direction." Whack declined to comment on the decision. The school plans to continue both programs next school year.
Smith says she was fired because she has pressed for more opportunities for her players. "Every brown and black girl, no matter where they are from, should have the same right to play girls on their level," Smith says. She will continue to coach at Eyekonz.
Back on the field in April, Strawberry Mansion does not let up in the second half against a full Delaware Valley squad, despite being short four players.
Goalie Kiara Brooks blocks everything in sight, racking up 25 saves. A limping Iyana Hannibal bangs in a goal, having tweaked her ankle a few plays prior. El-Amin Gateward knocks in another goal and McRae embraces her, jumping so high you'd think she was trying to dunk. "The twins too hype!" screams attacking wing Nada Dickey.
Three minutes remain. Strawberry Mansion defends tighter, sprints harder. Two minutes. So close. One minute. Thirty seconds. It's over: Strawberry Mansion wins its first game ever 9-4.
El-Amin Gateward cartwheels across the field before tackling McRae. The other girls jump on top, hugging and screaming: "We took that Dubbbb-uuuu!" The once shy McRae emerges from the pack and "Milly Rocks," twisting her arms and hips back and forth, uninhibited, unafraid, and finally, embraced. "Whose twin is that?" El-Amin Gateward hollers between claps. "Whose twin is that?!"
A boy in a green and white football jersey, sitting atop the stands awaiting his practice, calls out to the girls below: "Ay, where y'all from?"
El-Amin Gateward turns her entire body to face him, the sun glimmering down her back. Her answer is loud and clear.