The Marianna Bracetti Academy football team tasted victory for the first time last Saturday. It was the school’s fourth game ever played, their first this season. There were no cheerleaders, there was no stadium, but people cheered. They cheered like they had just won the Superbowl.
Mariana Bracetti Academy, or MBA, has more kids below the poverty line than any other school in Philadelphia. In a place like Philadelphia that is quite the accomplishment. It is a charter school so it claims no geography of its own. As the name would imply, it caters to children for whom English is their second language, most parents speak Spanish, I speak coach.
I am surprised at how placing a whistle around my neck makes my mouth magically spew nothing but cliché’ and athletic rhetoric. I am even more surprised that the kids listen. They eat that stuff up.
We held our first day of tryouts on the blacktop next to the school. It’s about half the size of a football field, surrounded by barbed wire, and the elevated train (the same one featured in the original Rocky Movie) passes overhead. We had over 100 kids show up. We only had equipment for 30.
MBA has no locker rooms. It has no field. Once we started wearing pads the kids would all ride the train up to an old YMCA field that is half dirt, half rock. That first day I asked how many kids had played football before; they all raised their hands. I asked how many had played wearing a helmet, only four held up their arms. If I would have asked how many of them had more than one tattoo, these sophomores and juniors would have all reached for the sky.
The school focuses on academics and has an online, real time, grade reporting system. This means that the same day a test is given, or the same day a homework assignment is missed, the grade is adjusted. If any player at any time has a D or lower, they cannot practice. If your math class has only given one test and you do not do well on it; you may recover your grade, but you won’t play till that has been accomplished.
You have never seen such a group of guys as this. Loud, flashy, full of bravado with mouths like sailors. Every time I see them they all walk up individually and shake my hand. When I show up at the school doors are opened for me and kids wearing the school tie ask teachers to excuse them so they can again, come shake my hand.
We started that first year with 100 kids. We ended the year with an average practice attendance of seven. Football requires 11 on the field from each team. Our first obstacle was having no facility, the second was grades. Then there was injury, and then there was our first loss. It was only by a point. Next came a public transit strike. More than two thirds of the kids at school take public transit to get there. I was proud of the seven kids that somehow still made it through those two weeks.
One week our Captain just didn’t show. He had been staying at a relative’s home but that relative got evicted. His pads were locked in the former apartment and he was bouncing from couch to couch. I didn’t make him run extra laps when he reappeared. I didn’t ask him how he got his pads back.
Another player, a sophomore with the type of body that gets free college, disappeared as well. No one knew why so I went all Magnum P.I. after practice. When I finally found him, the address the school had on record was wrong, I found him feeding his ten year old brother macaroni & cheese for dinner. I asked him where his mom was and he replied they hadn’t seen her in three days. No one knew where she was and no one acted like this was a new thing. I would have played him when he reappeared but he hadn’t been around enough to learn the plays.
It never stops being funny when one of these kids, who is almost as big as my six year old, tells me he won’t forget me when he goes pro. This is the same kid who asked me why I was wearing Dominican shoes when I showed up to practice in a suit. I have no idea what he meant.
These are good kids in a bad place.
This Saturday they won by two touchdowns and I felt like king of the world.
We beat the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. It was that school’s first ever football game. They only had 12 players at the game.