Choosing between death and football

Say you drive by an old softball field next to an old schoolhouse like the one on the 6200 block of San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, Calif. There are a bunch of little kids out there in blue-and-gold football uniforms, 11 of them moving together like mercury under the dim lights. You glance over, maybe take a look until the traffic light turns green. Then you're gone.

But let's take a closer look. Park next to the playground, walk across the asphalt, through the infield dirt -- careful to tiptoe through the goose poop -- and onto the grass. See that guy in the blue-and-gold windbreaker and the blue-and-gold baseball cap and the huge smile? That's 47-year-old Todd Walker, the assistant coach of the Berkeley Junior Bears Pop Warner football team. You want to know what sports can do? Spend a few minutes listening to Coach Walker.

He'll start with the story of Jaee Logan, who played for Walker's Berkeley Cougars in 2006 as a 14-year-old. On July 1 of that year, a Saturday, Jaee worked Walker's football camp. The next day, he was walking to a family barbecue near his home in Oakland when he was shot and killed. No motive, no reason and 3½ years later, still no resolution.

Jaee was a "house kid," a term used to describe children whose parents or guardians keep them indoors for fear of what's outside. For Walker, Jaee's death was the tipping point. He couldn't take anymore. He was losing two or three current or former players a year, and he wasn't losing them to basketball or traveling baseball or even to poor grades. He was losing them to death.

Walker knows death. He works at two of the busiest funeral homes in Oakland. Part of his job is to pick up the bodies from the coroner's office after homicides. He unzips the bags to double-check identities, making sure the toe tags match the paperwork, and sees the faces of young men frozen in their final look. "It's as if they just saw a ghost," Walker says. "Their eyes are all big and open -- it's the strangest thing. It's like you can see how they took their last breath."

He told Jaee Logan's family he was going to make a difference. He was going to use football as a teaching tool to save these kids. He started the Junior Bears program along with head coach Herbert Miller, and they set out to teach football and life.

And so, for the past several years, with the permission of the parents, Walker has taken his players on a field trip to the funeral home. He teaches the reality and finality of death to kids who are desensitized by television and video games and the streets outside their homes.

There's no sugar-coating this: He brings 12- and 13-year-olds into the funeral home and takes them through the embalming process. He puts each of his players inside a casket and closes the lid. "When that lid closes," he tells them. "That's how your book ends. There's no more writing to be done." Next time, he's thinking about clearing out the cooling drawers where they keep the bodies. Put the boys in there, one at a time, to let them know how cold death really is.

Asked what he learned on his field trip, Calvin Zachery, the Bears' star running back, says, "I learned that hanging out, playing around and doing bad things isn't worth it. You can end up dead."

Walker is battling a mentality that glorifies death. He's battling a culture that has produced one of the saddest visions possible: Young men being laid to rest in their grandparents' burial plots. He sees poor families spending $500 on airbrushed "RIP" T-shirts for dead teenagers, little kids running around a funeral like it's Disneyland. The bedroom walls of little brothers have shrines to murdered older brothers instead of posters of their favorite players.

"I see people standing over the coffin of a 17-year-old saying, 'Oh, he looks so good,'" Walker says. "I want to say, 'Oh, no he doesn't, not if you saw the back of his head the way I saw it.' They're ignoring reality."

Walker and Miller are not in this for themselves. Neither has a son or relative on the team, and Miller is a grandfather who "came out of retirement" to give something back. They've coached a long time, and they've coached a lot of NFL players -- Amani Toomer, Quinton Ganther, Hannibal Navies, Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Johnson. They can't count the number of hours they spend on the field, getting kids to the games, checking on kids at school, giving kids rides home from practice if they need one. It's a job away from their jobs.

They hug them when they need a hug, pick them up when they get knocked down, and sometimes knock them down when they get too high. They hope they can find balance somewhere in the middle, on a path that leads straight.

"We've got to get these kids young," Walker says. "There are 12- and 13-year-olds on these streets carrying guns. There are 15-year-olds with AK-47s. It's crazy. Some of these kids who are killing each other grew up spending the night at each other's houses. Some of them have spent the night at my house. Then the turf thing comes along and they can't stand the sight of each other."

Two of the Bears, Cameron Carr and Antoine Custer Jr., have a collage of photographs of their cousin Terrance Kelly on the back flap of their shoulder pads. There's Kelly in his De La Salle High uniform, in his high school graduation suit, wearing an Oregon cap. Kelly's funeral was held the day he was supposed to start football practice at Oregon. More than 3,500 people attended his funeral in September of 2004; he was shot and killed in Richmond with a bolt-action rifle as he sat in his car waiting to pick up a friend. The killer was a 15-year-old named Darren Pratcher whose motives remain unclear. He may have had a beef with Kelly stemming from a pickup basketball game.

Grand-jury testimony in the case provides a window into a desensitized world. The man who gave Pratcher the gun used to kill Kelly made sure to wipe his fingerprints off it before handing it over. "I am going to wipe my fingerprints off it, so (if) you take it out and go kill a person ... my fingerprints ain't on it. I ain't got nothing to do with it. That's just how I was raised."

An 18-year-old girl who came out of her house to see what happened after Kelly was shot testified: "You hear the gunshots, you come outside, you see who is on the ground, see if you know them, and if you don't, you just go back on about your normal life."

This is the world in which many of the Junior Bears live, a world with a distressingly casual attitude toward violence and death. It's a world Walker and Miller, relics of an older generation, refuse to accept.

Can a couple of old-school men with old-fashioned ideas about discipline and teamwork change lives? "We have," Miller says. "Oh yes we have." Is there still room in the canon for the quaint notion that kids can find purpose from the joy of belonging to something bigger than themselves? "Since we started this, and since I've been taking the kids to the funeral home, we haven't lost a single kid," Walker says. "I haven't even heard anything bad about them."

On the field, there's only one word for the Junior Bears: ridiculous. They've won 26 straight games. They're 11-0 this year and haven't allowed a single point. They're one win away from a trip to the Pop Warner National Championship at Disney World. You start out teaching about life and end up giving kids who haven't been more than 50 miles from home a chance to go clear across the country to play football? How sweet is that?

Their success is no mystery: The Junior Bears are a disciplined football team. At a practice last week a player who spoke in the huddle while Miller was giving instruction was told, in no uncertain terms, that it better not happen again. Officials and opposing parents have made a habit of finding Miller and Walker after games to tell them how impressed they are with the behavior of their players. The coaches love to hear it, of course, but they also know the compliments come because they see a group of Oakland kids and make assumptions.

"We know what they expect," Walker says. "That's why it's so satisfying to see the looks on their faces when they realize what we're all about."

They use what they have, and so the play equipment near the field becomes the perfect place for pullups and calisthenics (see video at right). The big sandbox is prime real estate to run sprints that strengthen legs and improve speed.

"When we grew up, our parents gave
back," Walker says. "We're just trying to keep it going."

To Florida, they hope. One more win in the regionals will create a whole lot of joy and a whole new challenge. To make it back there for the championship, they'll have to come up with $30,000 for travel costs for the 24 Junior Bears and their families. Asked about his prospects, Walker looks out toward the scene on San Pablo Avenue, laughs and says, "It's going to be tough. We're brainstorming on some fundraisers right now."

They could use a generous corporate benefactor or an anonymous angel. They aren't picky. Trust me: It's a worthwhile cause. Last Wednesday, practice was interrupted briefly when the sound of five gunshots crackled across the softball field. A teenager was shot several times outside a liquor store two blocks away. This was two weeks after the funeral-home visit, and as he looked at his players -- most of them unfazed -- Walker had one thought: At least I know they're thinking about the consequences that come with those terrible sounds.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.