PHILADELPHIA -- Helicopters started circling overhead about 4:30 Monday afternoon just as Frankford High School's football practice was wrapping up.
Coach Bill Sytsma knew what it meant -- helicopters have appeared before -- and his fears were confirmed when he got off the field and checked his phone.
"Here a 17-year-old was shot in his car around the corner from where we were practicing today. We're around this stuff all the time," Sytsma said. "This is a person who is our kids' age and I have a feeling tomorrow, my guys are going to know the person, or even worse, it might be a student from our school."
This is where Philadelphia Eagles rookie defensive end Shareef Miller comes from. He grew up around this neighborhood and went to Frankford for three years. And like many of people here, he has been victimized by gun violence. His brother, Mikal, was shot and killed in 2015 right before Miller was set to leave for Penn State. It devastated Miller and nearly derailed him.
The issue continues to tear at the fabric of the Philadelphia community. Three Frankford students have been killed by gun violence since 2017. The school's rival, Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School -- about 12 miles southwest of Frankford -- also has had three students killed during that time.
Looking to "turn pain into purpose," one of the victims' mothers, Maxayn Gooden, co-founded Practice 4 Peace, an annual joint practice between Boys' Latin and Frankford. It's a tribute to Gooden's son, Jashun Patton -- who was a standout student and football player at Boys' Latin -- and the others who lost their lives, as well as a symbol of rivals coexisting in a turf war environment.
In July, Miller stepped onto the Boys' Latin field in West Philadelphia -- a couple of miles from where his brother was killed -- and addressed those young men, who were all on one knee and looking up in search of direction.
"He had to go back and tell them that there's a way out," said Miller's mother, Tekaya Cook. "Because there is a way out. This is not the end of the road for nobody."
Cook calls it "a blessing and a curse" that Miller drafted by the Eagles. A blessing because she gets to be close to her boy while he gets to play professional football for the hometown team. A curse because they have put so much effort into pushing him away from the inner-city trappings and out into a bigger, more promising world, only to have him return uncomfortably close to the point of origin.
"It's easier for one of his old friends to say, 'Hey, Shareef, come down here.' I'm a mother first, and sometimes I feel like maybe he's around some of the wrong friends that he used to be around. It's hard," Cook said. "But I know God and I know my son -- and I know he will persevere beyond. That's why he's Shareef."
A better future
Miller is the second oldest of six kids raised by Cook just outside the projects in North Philadelphia. As the first-born son, Miller's siblings refer to him as Cook's "golden child," while she calls him her "first love." Just beyond their old neighborhood, Miller describes an environment where it was common to see "people fighting, selling drugs, shootouts and stuff like that." But Cook did well to steer him around those troubles -- and Miller never had much interest in that lifestyle, anyway.
Miller showed promise in football as he came up the ranks, but according to Cook, he had a "severe learning disability" similar to dyslexia that made it difficult to keep up in school. With his grades in bad shape, she made the decision to transfer him from Frankford to George Washington High School in the northeast for his senior year -- a move Miller initially resisted but now credits for his success. He got more serious about academics, received the additional help he needed and attended summer school to improve his GPA. He eventually was accepted to Penn State, where he had 14.5 sacks and 31.5 tackles for loss over three seasons en route to becoming a fourth-round draft pick.
Miller finished the preseason with two sacks -- second most on the team -- and eight tackles. He is competing to be a part of Philly's D-line rotation.
His brother, Mikal, was part of the push to get Miller to George Washington, helping guide Miller toward a better future as Mikal often had. But Mikal was on an alternate path. Cook's stepson, Mikal lived separately from them in West Philadelphia and was part of the violent streets.
"My brother never exposed me to any of that. He didn't even want me to know about the things that he was doing. It was always him on me about school and playing football," Miller said. "My brother was like my best friend."
In the spring of 2015, Mikal got into an argument and was shot four times. His death threw Miller into a state of depression, and Miller contemplated not attending Penn State, before deciding Mikal would have wanted him to go.
"When he died, that changed everything, it changed the perspective. I can feel what those kids are going through and what the family is going through when you lose a brother," Miller said. "It can really impact kids a lot, especially males. A lot of kids don't have role models, so if they have someone they look up to, like for me, my brother was my role model. I wanted to be like my brother."
That history, and that danger, remain closer to Miller's doorstep than Cook would like. What's more, she feels Miller "has the weight of the world on him" by playing for the Eagles, as an entire community looks to him to shine. It is not, perhaps, the setup she would have chosen.
"But I'm his mom, and if I know my son, he's going to show up," she said. "He's going to shock the world. He already shocked me. So we're not worried about that. We already know what we're going to bring to the table."
Shots rang out
The mothers of Boys' Latin students shared the stories of how their sons were killed.
Tyhir Barnes, 15, was on his way home from the community basketball court in July 2016 in Southwest Philadelphia with his brother and his friends when they were confronted by members of a team they had played the night before. Barnes' team had won that game and it was Barnes who hit the game winner. He was shot in the head in retaliation, according to his mother, Tanisha Thomas.
"Since then, the violence didn't stop. People have been getting shot every day," she said. "And I have to go on through life knowing that my son was shot and killed over a basketball game, which was so senseless."
William Bethel IV, a scholar athlete who loved football, bikes and boxing, was killed 2½ weeks after his 16th birthday on Easter Sunday. He was walking down South Street, shopping with his childhood friends. They encountered a young man who had an ongoing issue with one of William's friends. Shots rang out. The bullet, which was not intended for William, hit him in the abdomen and pierced a main artery.
"In the beginning, the doctors were actually telling us that he was going to come home," said his mom, Williesha Robinson-Bethel. "It was, 'Go home and get some rest because he's going to be coming home shortly.' We prayed and we prayed and we had high hopes that everything was going to go right, and it made a turn for the worse after two days."
Maxayn Gooden said on the night her son was killed, everything devolved in a matter of 12 minutes.
Jahsun Patton -- a standout student and football player -- was texting with a friend while visiting his sister in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, over Thanksgiving break. At first, everything appeared normal.
"She asked how he was doing and he was like, 'I'm fine, I'm up here relaxing with my family, and I'm hungry,' as he always was," Gooden said. "And she was like, 'Why are you hungry? Why didn't you eat?' And he never responded. She kept trying to call his phone and no answer. She tried to FaceTime him. No answer. And from those texts to the moment my son was pronounced dead was a matter of 12 minutes. I have no idea what could have transpired in those 12 minutes."
Patton had never met the alleged shooter -- a 30-year-old who was related to his sister's boyfriend -- before that night, Gooden said. The shooter's trial is next month. Gooden plans to take the stand as her son's voice.
"I'm going to let him know what he took," she said.
Patton, 18, carried a 3.5 GPA at school and had been accepted into four colleges, including Penn State. He was set to graduate that spring.
The mothers all mobilized trying to make some good out of their own tragedies. Barnes' mom holds a memorial basketball game and march in honor of Tyhir, and she also runs a book bag drive. Bethel's mom started the WillBe foundation dedicated to giving youth a voice while raising gun violence awareness. Patton's mom started Practice 4 Peace along with a mentoring program at Boys' Latin.
The Eagles showed their support for Gooden's project by inviting both the Frankford and Boys' Latin teams to training camp this summer, and they recently donated cleats to the Boys' Latin football program. DeSean Jackson spoke to Boys' Latin students this offseason about his experiences coming up in South Central Los Angeles. And Miller has participated in the Practice 4 Peace and is serving as a mentor in the city.
Miller wasn't the only one who addressed the students at Practice 4 Peace this July. They were equally attentive as Gooden spoke to them about her loss of Jahsun, a beloved figure on the team. She let them know about the pain she feels every day and urged them to take a breath before they act, because the decision to pull a trigger is a permanent one that not only changes the lives of the victim's family but of the shooter, as well.
Sytsma, the coach of the opposing team, was so inspired by her message, he wrote Jahsun's name inside the brim of his hat along with the words "My Why" and "Inspired" to remind him of his purpose when he takes the field.
"It kind of changed my whole approach to coaching," he said. "Your job doesn't just end when you walk out the door. You take it with you. Their problems are your problems. If they're having safety issues, you have to have that problem too. They look to you for guidance and help, so you have to provide it."
Sytsma now turns the Frankford locker room into a game room on Friday nights during the summer to offer a safe haven for the kids so they're not exposed to the street.
And he now has an ally in Miller, who spoke to the kids very little about football but instead about the importance of surrounding yourself with the right people and prioritizing education above all else, calling it the key that gets you out.
"My guys, there ain't a player on our squad who doesn't know who he is. To them, that's what they can become," Sytsma said of Miller. "When he talks, they listen. Shareef grew up in Frankford. He played youth football in Frankford. He played three years of his high school career in Frankford. There is no better person to drive a point home with these guys than him."