One Thursday evening last month, darkness had overtaken Nicholl Park. The field lights were not yet on. About twenty adolescent boys and one girl, wearing old Raiders jerseys and grass-stained T-shirts stretched tight over football pads, looked up at a scowling figure. In a voice part preacher and part drill sergeant, Richmond Steelers head coach Fred Harris spoke:
“Two of you have something to say to the team.”
David Walker, a slight boy of fifteen with downcast eyes and an overbite, stood up.
“Teacher said I threatened him.”
“You lost your mind,” Harris said, his voice rising. “You’re lucky you’re out here. How come you’re here?”
“Coach Khalid got me out,” Walker said. His gaze remained fixed on Harris’ chest.
“Football just saved your ass,” another coach chimed in.
“He just lost his job,” Harris announced. He turned to Walker, his quarterback. “You’re fired,” Harris thundered. “And you was doing good, too.”
The next player to stand up was Sam Bernstine, a wiry, athletic boy with close-cropped hair who had removed the ornamental gold casing from his front teeth. The trace of a smirk registered on his face.
“I got caught in a stolen car,” Bernstine said.
The coach’s broad face was rigid with disgust.
“How you get out?” he asked.
“It was my first offense,” Bernstine said, shoulders slumped, smirk gone, eyes staring down at the grass. “It ain’t happening no more.”
There was a long silence. Harris, whose glasses framed his narrowed eyes, glared from one player to the next. Some met his gaze, others looked down or past him.
“It’s amazing to me that you still get in trouble,” he said. “I don’t understand that. You guys don’t be listening to us. Go in one ear and out the other. Thirteen and fourteen years old. You get sent to jail.”
After an assistant coach added a few cross words of his own, Harris, an athletic retired electrician in his early sixties, gave them another prolonged, menacing look.
“We can’t save ’em all,” he told his team. “We can only save the ones that want to be saved.”
Harris’ determination to save his players, both on and off the field, has changed little in the 26 years he has overseen the Richmond Steelers midget football team. “The kids are talented, but we have to teach them how to excel,” Harris said in an interview one night before practice. “I do it to the best of my ability.”
Like many adults involved with the Steelers, which fields teams in five divisions between ages six and fifteen, Harris got his start when his own son went out for the team. Back then, more than one hundred players would try out for thirty spots on the midget squad, the final stop in a progression that begins with mighty mites, and continues through junior pee wees, pee wees, and junior midgets. These days, his team consists of every single one of the twenty-odd players who showed up to the midgets’ initial practice and decided to stick out the season. By any measure, though, his tenure has been a success.
The players crouched before Harris were hoping to win a sixth consecutive California State Youth Football League title, with the championship less than three weeks away. But the team has faced obstacles, and the youthful indiscretions that provoked the coach’s ire are not the worst of them. The Steelers, like much of the city, have been caught in a merciless swirl of violent, painful loss.
A switch was flipped and, slowly, the lights came on, shining down on the players as they lined up on either side of a row of orange cones. They were in for two hard hours of push-ups, tackling drills, and encouraging shouts of “more violence!”
It was six years ago that two brothers sat in the bleachers at Oakland Tech, looking on as the Steelers fell behind 28-0 before halftime. Khalid and Waleed Elahi left that league championship game with tears in their eyes, unable to watch any more of the drubbing their former team was enduring at the hands of the Berkeley Cougars. It was then that the reformed drug dealers made a vow: Next year they would return to help their old coach establish a new dynasty.
The following August, just before the second practice of the season, Harris saw his two former players walking across the field at Kennedy High, where the team practices until the lack of lights forces it to migrate to Nicholl Park. He hadn’t seen the Elahis in years but recognized them at once. Hands were shaken, pleasantries exchanged.
But Harris was skeptical when the Elahis told him why they’d come. His own commitment to the Steelers was unwavering. In addition to three practices and one game a week from late July through early December, there were the nights spent going over strategy and the occasional afternoons spent in courtrooms attesting to players’ better sides. Yet his assistant coaches have not traditionally matched this level of dedication. Harris had little reason to think the Elahis would be any different.
Growing up in Richmond in the 1980s, Khalid and Waleed came of age at the height of the city’s cocaine binge, which was soon to be a crack epidemic. By the time Khalid was on Harris’ team, his friends were getting rich selling cocaine, driving to school in Jaguars and Benzes. Unable to resist the temptation, Khalid started dealing himself. Within a few months, he recalls, he went “from being a happy kid to a destructive young man.” In 1992, he was convicted on drug and gun possession charges and sentenced to nearly two years in San Quentin. Waleed later followed in his older brother’s footsteps, serving time in county jail.
In prison, Khalid lived among the type of people who had been his customers back on the streets. It was painful and illuminating for him to confront the malnourishment and disease that he and other drug dealers had wrought. “I’m not that kind of animal,” he says. “I have love in my heart.” Before getting out, Khalid said he decided that his drug-selling days were behind him. Shortly after his release, he and his younger brother started a landscaping business and began talking to kids in their neighborhood about ways to be successful without dealing drugs.
Now here they were trying to convince Harris that he should welcome them as mentors for the next generation of players.
“Look,” Harris recalls telling the brothers. “You can’t just come one day and not come the next.” But after the Elahis assured him they’d stick it out, he agreed to take them on.
At the next practice, Khalid, now 36, spent a few minutes observing the kids, with their earrings, gold teeth, and excess of attitude. “The poison of the streets had filtered into the program,” he recalls. While sizing up the kids at that first practice, Khalid recognized one tough boy he already knew from the neighborhood. Even though he hadn’t yet been introduced to the team as one of its new coaches, Khalid signaled Jojo to come over.
“Who’s the most aggressive kid on the team?” Khalid asked Jojo.
“I am,” Jojo responded firmly.
“Then go tell them coach says run five laps,” Khalid said.
Eager to show Khalid that he could carry out an order, Jojo went back to the others with the command. With the Elahis glaring them down, the players nearly sprinted the laps.
“They were confused,” Khalid recalls, “They were thinking, ‘Who are these dudes?'”
Harris walked on the field a few minutes later. Surveying his players, who were panting and tugging at their jerseys, he grinned broadly.
“There are some real Richmond Steelers in town,” he said.
And so began the Elahis’ tenure under Fred Harris. Khalid said it was well into their third season before the team gave up a single point. To date, since the brothers joined the Steelers, the team has won more than seventy games and lost only five, none in league playoffs.
But despite the team’s overwhelming success on the field, it has been devastated by Richmond’s violence off the field. Richmond recently was named the country’s twelfth most dangerous city, according to Morgan Quitno, which publishes city and state rankings. It also was proclaimed California’s most dangerous city for a second consecutive year.
One particularly jarring act of violence involved former Steelers running back Terrance Kelly. An easygoing eighteen-year-old with a coachable personality and great running skills, Kelly seemed to have avoided his hometown’s pitfalls. He moved on from the Steelers to be a standout on Concord’s dynastic De La Salle high school football team and earned a football scholarship to the University of Oregon. Then, one evening in August 2004, two days before he was to leave for Eugene, he was sitting in his father’s car in the city’s notorious Iron Triangle neighborhood. A fifteen-year-old boy nursing a longstanding grudge against Kelly saw him in the driver’s seat, according to a grand jury indictment. Armed with a rifle he’d just gotten that day, the youth, standing three feet from Kelly, allegedly shot him four times in the face, head, and back.
Kelly’s murder had a profound effect on the players and coaches of his former team. If he of all people couldn’t find a way out of Richmond, who could?
Awful as his killing was, though, it wouldn’t be the last to rattle the Steelers.
Early on the morning of August 21, Waleed Elahi was walking out of the Nation’s hamburger restaurant near the El Cerrito-Richmond border. Although the lack of witnesses makes what happened next unclear, Waleed was in the parking lot when gunfire rang out. It is doubtful he was the target because, by all accounts, he had given up his criminal life years before. Although the parking lot is a common late-night hangout for teenagers, when the police arrived they found it deserted except for Waleed, lying dead on the ground. El Cerrito police have no suspects and no known motive.
“He was caught up in a situation that wasn’t meant for him,” Khalid says.
The 32-year-old was a mentor to many of the Steelers players, a father figure. Waleed’s nickname was “Way Out,” as in a way out of Richmond’s cycle of violence.
The Tuesday after Harris demoted Walker, he assembled the team for another prepractice discussion. Yet again, the lights were off. On an adjacent field, a group of young Latino men wound down their soccer game and headed for the parking lot. Although the city is divided between blacks and Latinos, the Steelers are not: football remains a black sport here, soccer a Latino one.
Fresh off its weekend victory in the second of two exhibition games in which Walker did not play quarterback, the team remained undefeated on the season. But with the playoffs starting on Saturday, Harris had come to practice angry.
“Some of y’all getting real stupid, saying you’re not going to block,” Harris said, nearly snarling. “Sam!“
Bernstine looked up, but said nothing.
Erick McDaniel, the team’s star running back, had rushed for three touchdowns in Saturday’s game. But Bernstine had told teammates he wasn’t going to try to stop the other team from tackling him because he wasn’t getting the ball as much as McDaniel. After the game, word of this got back to Harris.
“How many times you carry the ball?” Harris asked McDaniel.
“Sam, how many times you run the ball?”
Having established this fairly even division of labor, Harris continued: “The next time I even think you ain’t doing your job for a selfish reason, I’m taking your uniform. Whoever scored a touchdown, they didn’t do it by themself. Don’t let us have the conversation again.”
The lights came on and Harris pulled out that day’s West County Times sports section. He started reading from a column on Terrell Owens, the former 49er wide receiver who had just been suspended by the Philadelphia Eagles for, among other things, badmouthing his quarterback, attempting to renege on his year-old contract, and refusing to listen to his coach.
“Owens got what he deserved,” Harris read. “His DISRUPTIVE and SELFISH behavior threatened to destroy the team chemistry that had taken years to build.” Harris looked up from the paper and gave his players a meaningful glare. He read the excerpt again. The players remained still and silent, kneeling before him.
“Now he’s officially on probation,” Harris said. “Some of y’all on probation.”
His point made, Harris instructed the players to split into offense and defense. The players lined up in two rows facing each other. Harris stood behind the offense, deciding which play to run and who to put where.
Bernstine sulked his way through practice. At one point, he sat down on a metal grate at the edge of the field, out of hearing range of Harris while the latter gave his running backs instruction on barreling through the defense.
The young man has played for the Steelers for seven years, coming up through each of the organization’s five age divisions. A freshman at El Cerrito High, Bernstine said he hopes to keep playing football “forever.” His goal is to play professionally and “get my mom and dad out of the ghetto.”
Although he is strong, quick, and coordinated, his attitude has kept him from being the impact player he might be. He carries the additional expectations of family heritage. Like many of the players out here, his father also played for the Steelers. Sam Sr. was a standout running back for Harris’ squad in the mid-’80s.
“Why you sitting down?” Harris demanded of Bernstine, seeing that the player had missed the directions he’d just given the other running backs. “Put your helmet back on.”
Bernstine got up slowly, taking his time pulling his scratched black helmet over his head.
“Superstar,” Harris said acidly.
“I ain’t no superstar,” Bernstine said.
“You acting like one,” Harris said.
Meanwhile, Khalid Elahi surveyed the players from his usual perch, crouched in the middle of the field. A round man with an animated face wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt with a huge white T-shirt sticking out of the bottom, he was on the far side of the players from Harris, focused on defense. His big eyes wide, he looked for players not staying close enough to their assigned opponents, not crashing into the ball carrier with enough force, and not doing whatever else they should have been doing. After one player, a shy kid in his first season of organized football, let the running back slip through his grasp, Khalid sent him sprinting to the fence and back before the next play. It was about a 100-yard dash.
Shortly thereafter, the offense waited as Khalid made the defensive players do a series of ups-and-downs, in which a player starts prone, jumps to his knees and then upright, before flopping back down again. On his whistle they did 25 of them. After the next play, Khalid made them do another 25.
“Don’t cheat yourself!” he admonished them.
Like Harris, Khalid is deeply dedicated to instilling discipline in the kids.
“There are seven guys on this team we could hand-walk to the NFL,” he said at one practice. “We make Terrance Kellys.”
The player Khalid spent the most time grooming this year has been David Walker, the demoted quarterback who, like Bernstine, doubles at cornerback. Already on probation for theft, Walker was accused in late October of threatening to beat up his teacher at Berkeley High. He was kicked out of school and sent to juvenile hall, and his mother couldn’t get him out. His father, like the fathers of most of his teammates, is not active in his life.
When Khalid found out that Walker was locked up, he spoke first with Walker’s lawyer and then went to court to plead his case before the judge. He explained his credentials — “If they taught violence in class, I’d be a Harvard professor on what your options are and what’s going to happen to you” — and talked about the nonprofit after-school tutoring and mentorship program he runs in Richmond, an offshoot of the Omega Boys Club in San Francisco. It’s called Way Out, in memory of Waleed.
The judge, apparently impressed, dropped Walker’s case and imposed mandatory enrollment in the Way Out program.
Walker calls Khalid every day and they get together regularly to go over his schoolwork. Walker’s next court date is May 9. Although the season will be long over, Khalid will be there with him, reporting on his progress.
“He’s my quarterback,” Khalid said of Walker. “But this don’t have nothing to do with football.”
Walker said Khalid is a friend and a mentor.
Khalid said Walker “is on watch.”
But Walker also was back taking directions from Harris, reinstated as the starting quarterback just in time for the playoffs.
Over the years, the Steelers have played in a number of leagues, from the Police Athletic League to Pop Warner. For the past few seasons, they’ve been in the California State Youth Football League, a grouping of eight teams from the East Bay, Sacramento, and points between.
No matter the league, for as long as anyone can remember their archrival has been the Oakland Dynamites, a team not unlike the Steelers in terms of the daily challenges its players face. Since the Elahis joined as coaches in 2000, the Dynamites have beaten the Steelers twice, although never in the playoffs, where the Steelers’ five-year winning streak remains intact.
On a cool Saturday evening at Hercules High’s lush football field, the Steelers were slated to play the Dynamites in the semifinals of the league playoffs. Teams from the younger divisions had been playing since morning, with the Steelers sweeping their games. There were more than a hundred fans on the Steelers’ side of the stands, and a sense of anticipation as the big kids got ready to take the field.
Just before game time, the team huddled together on a dark practice field, looking downright fierce in their black jerseys. The players were fired up. Khalid, his voice hoarse, had each player tell the person across from him what an honor it was to go to war with him.
“We’re the big dogs,” Harris told his team. “It’s time to eat.”
As they jogged out to the field, the players shouted out their well-worn battle cry: “Who want it? I want it! Whose house? Our house! What time is it? Showtime!”
But thanks to poor planning, the league had rented only four portable lights for the field, which has no lights of its own. Large swaths of the grass were left dim. After much frustrated discussion between coaches and league officials, it was decided that the game be postponed until the following morning. The players were upset, with most insisting the lighting was fine. That night, Harris’ adrenaline kept him from sleeping.
The crowd was considerably thinner the next morning. Accustomed to playing at night, the Steelers were slow to get going, but were up by a touchdown midway through the third quarter. That was when the Dynamites tried to sneak a player who was not on their roster onto the field. Suspecting that something like this might happen, the Steelers coaches spotted it immediately. After they informed the officials, the game was promptly and unceremoniously forfeited.
Khalid turned to the fans in the stands and raised his arms in victory. Meanwhile, the confused Steelers’ defensive unit remained on the field. Walker jogged to the sideline where his mother, a pretty woman with long, straight hair who was wearing a large button with a picture of her son in his Steelers uniform, handed him a bottle of Gatorade. They exchanged broad smiles before he rushed back to the team.
This was the second time in three years the Dynamites had tried this on the Steelers. The last time was two years ago in the championship game, and they forfeited that one, too. After the game, a relaxed Harris leaned against his truck in the parking lot, collecting his team’s uniforms for washing. “What kind of message are those coaches sending to their kids?” he wondered aloud.
About fifteen minutes after the game ended, a tall skinny boy with a nervous smile arrived at the field and walked up to Harris. Marshaun Shepherd had been the team’s starting defensive end all season, but he had arrived too late to enjoy the forfeit.
“What are you doing here showing up at 10 a.m.?” Harris asked.
Shepherd shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his eyes fixed on the ground. He mumbled unintelligibly.
Instead of laying into him, Harris let him wander off, then laughed.
“Sometimes, I just got to let it go,” he said. “These kids have a lot of problems.”
His gruffness had returned by the following Friday, the final practice before the championship game. Bernstine hadn’t suited up, complaining of a swollen hand, but he didn’t have a note from either his doctor or his parents.
“Sam’s out Saturday,” Harris told the other coaches. “I’m sick of his ass.”
Bernstine, standing at the sideline, watched a couple of his teammates play catch. He was standing next to Juanita Jackson, the only girl in the Steelers program. Jackson, nicknamed “Big Wawa,” was in her second and final season with the Steelers. A three-sport athlete, she went out for the team with her mother’s blessing to see if she could hack it.
Bernstine struck up a conversation.
“You can’t even throw,” he taunted Jackson, a starting offensive tackle. “You can throw it like a yard.”
“I can throw,” Jackson said.
“Like a girl,” Bernstine said. “Like two inches.”
“You just said I could throw a yard,” she said.
“I gave you too much credit.”
Jackson, a solid 14-year-old with a pretty, expressive face, demanded a ball, gripped it and threw a perfect twenty-yard spiral to her intended receiver, who caught it without having to take a step.
“In your face,” she triumphantly told Bernstine. “Don’t you feel stupid.”
Jackson strode across the grass to participate in a drill, leaving Bernstine alone.
He saw McDaniel, the star tailback, who had suffered a slight fracture to his hand, taking turns at running back.
“Look who’s got a cast on his arm and still running the ball,” Bernstine muttered. “I miss one practice and I’m out.”
As practice wore on, Bernstine grew increasingly agitated. At one point, he wandered the perimeter of the field, singing to himself a line from a song by the rapper Turk: “You can take me out the ghetto. But you can’t take the ghetto out of me.”
A bystander named Lonnie Carter, a high school teacher and former Steeler, came over to Bernstine.
“Go over there with your team.” Carter advised him.
Bernstine looked past him, humming to himself.
“You got TO syndrome,” Carter said, referring to Terrell Owens.
“That’s my favorite player,” Bernstine said.
The coaches ignored Bernstine until Khalid came over to the sideline and wrapped his arms around him.
“They think you got a major attitude problem,” Khalid told him, referring to the other coaches. “I say, no you ain’t.”
Bernstine returned Khalid’s intense glare, the first time he had looked anyone in the eye all practice.
“Go out and hustle and prove me truthful,” Khalid told Bernstine, sending him to the field to try to keep his opponent from catching the ball.
But Bernstine let the slower boy he was defending run by him three straight times. On the fourth play, he watched as another boy caught the ball a couple feet from him, then ran right by him. He remained where he stood, without even pretending to go after the ball carrier. It was clear he wasn’t trying. Finally, even Khalid’s patience wore out.
“If he was my kid,” Khalid told another coach, “I’d beat his ass.”
Practice was not going well, like the others this week. Walker’s passes were missing his receivers, the tackling was half-hearted and everyone seemed a step slower than usual. At the previous practice, Harris had sought to address these problems, while touching on one of his favorite themes: the importance of persistence in a competitive and often unfair world.
“My job is to make you winners,” Harris told the players gathered around him. “I take my job serious.”
“What color are we?” he asked them.
“Black and gold.”
“What color is your race?” he clarified.
“Black,” the players replied.
“When the form asks what ethnic group you in, you got to put down black. You better be three times better than the others. You better not put up any problems. It happened to me before. I was a grown man with a family. Drove home crying because I was laid off. Until I got a reputation as an electrician.”
Harris let his words hang in the air. The players remained silent, looking up at him.
“The challenge is sitting out there on Saturday,” Harris said.
That Saturday evening, the team carpooled from Richmond to Cosumnes River College in Sacramento for the championship game. They were facing the Berkeley Cougars, the same team the Elahis watched overwhelm the Steelers the last time they lost in the playoffs, in 1999.
The players lined up in rows for sit-ups as the coaches, dressed in their black and gold game day sweats, walked a few feet away and stood in a circle, holding hands.
The players, seeing their coaches gathered together, got up and crowded around them. Harris addressed the team, his voice unsteady.
“Six years ago, Khalid and his brother came to me,” Harris said. “They wanted to coach. Waleed ain’t with us no more. Right now the coaching staff feels the pain because we ain’t used to him not being with us. We ain’t used to it.”
Khalid, looking at the ground, began to weep. He and another coach, Jaleel Abdullah, a close friend whom Waleed convinced to join the staff last year, wrapped their arms around each other. Both were sobbing.
“We going to leave it up to you to uphold coach Way,” Harris said, referring to Waleed.
He pulled out a lanyard with three items attached to it: a whistle, a pocket watch, a first-place medal from a tournament in Las Vegas the team plays in each year.
“Coach Khalid gave me this,” he told the team, showing them Waleed’s coaching lanyard. “Every time until the day I die, I don’t care if it’s twenty years from now, if you see me at a Steelers game, this going to be around my neck.
“He was one of my sons,” he added, his voice cracking. “Just like every one of you.”
A few moments later, the team started walking toward the field. Someone within earshot of Bernstine cracked a joke.
“Stop playing,” Bernstine snapped. “This shit ain’t funny.”
As the team took the field to run a few last practice plays, Harris announced that Bernstine would play at cornerback.
The first quarter began well. Erick McDaniel, returning a punt, slipped out of the arms of a tackler at his own ten-yard line, then sauntered ninety yards up the sideline for a touchdown. Helping clear McDaniel’s path for the score was Bernstine, who energetically pushed a Cougar out of his teammate’s way near midfield. The team added a second touchdown in the third quarter and took a 14-0 lead into the fourth.
In the waning moments of the game, the opposing Cougars, who had given the ball to their running backs for most of the night, started letting their quarterback throw the ball. With only a couple of minutes left on the clock, the Cougars offense faced a third-and-long, needing to complete a pass to keep possession of the ball. Harris called over Bernstine, who was defending one of the receivers.
“I’m counting on you, son,” he told him.
Bernstine ran back out to the field. Seconds later, the Cougars’ quarterback threw in his direction. The ball was slightly underthrown and Bernstine, who stayed in front of the receiver, knocked it down, breaking up the play and just missing an interception.
“Come over here, Sam!” Harris roared from the sideline. “Come over here!” Bernstine jogged over apprehensively. Harris, his face lit with intensity, gave him a high-five.
Moments later, the game was over.
A beaming Walker embraced one of the coaches. “Good championship, coach,” he said. “Good season. I love you.”
Harris, with his years of experience, sensed his players creeping up behind him with the water cooler. He ran away, peering over his shoulder.
“You better not dump no water on me,” he said with all the authority he could muster. “Throw that water on me and everyone does one hundred ups-and-down. Y’all better get that water away from me.”
The players relented and instead doused Khalid, who took it smilingly and in stride while holding up five fingers on one hand and one on the other. They represented the six titles the team has won since he joined Harris — five with his brother and one without Waleed there to share it with him.
THE STREAK ENDS
Richmond has another football team that’s notorious for its record.
By Jeremy Rue
It was a bittersweet season for the Richmond High School football team. A notorious losing streak was snapped, but tough times quickly returned.
Last year the Oilers held a depressing record of 39 consecutive losses, at the time the state’s longest high school losing streak. Losing had become such a habit that the concept of winning no longer seemed tangible — games were played only to avoid crushing defeats. Senior linebacker and tight end Orlando Arnold vividly remembers his first three years of football.
“It was horrible,” he said. “It was like here we go again; another game, another loss.”
But this year turned out different.
The change began with the team’s new coach, Lee Fletcher, a 1971 Richmond High graduate and veteran cop. Fletcher sympathized with the doomed team, and with twenty years experience coaching the Richmond Steelers, was brought in to restore the pride that once surrounded Richmond High football. He began a process of reinvigorating the battered team’s morale.
“The first thing I knew I had to do was change their attitude,” Fletcher said. “They had an attitude of always losing. We just got beaten and blown out every game. They expected to lose, they just didn’t want to lose that bad.”
Richmond High football was quite different in Fletcher’s heyday. As an offensive tackle during his junior year, he saw his team take home the division championship. The scene during tryouts last spring was a stark contrast from Fletcher’s time. Only 24 students showed up, about half as many students as most high schools use to field a team. Fletcher signed on every kid who turned out.
As one of his first tasks, Fletcher reopened the weight room, which hadn’t been used in recent years. Lifting weights was foreign to some players, and made a considerable difference in the short run.
He dedicated one-and-a-half hours of each practice to study hall, because the team’s biggest obstacle didn’t come from a lack of playing skills, but maintaining the minimum 2.0 grade-point-average to play sports.
After the summer, it all came together. In the first game of the season, the Oilers played Albany High School. Holding on to a 12-6 lead in the fourth quarter, the clock counted down to a riveting finale where one touchdown could mean the difference between loss No. 40 or the chance for Richmond to finally taste victory. Albany made several long pass attempts, but Fletcher’s defenders emphatically batted down the ball. Then the buzzer rang.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God,'” Arnold recalled. “It was the best thing in the world at that moment.”
It became even more real when the Oilers smashed Kennedy High School 38-8 the following week. For a moment, the team was on top of the world. The players became instant stars, and a newfound respect reverberated through the school’s halls.
Then came the setbacks. When a storage locker housing all of the team’s equipment caught fire from arson, the team gained media attention. A donation by the Oakland Raiders and other local companies brought more attention, and many soon knew the story of the streak-breaking season.
But the fire was a turning point. With only twenty players, the injuries soon began to stack up. Like Arnold, most players played both offense and defense and never left the field. Late in the games, fatigue would set in, increasing the likelihood of injury.
The week after the arson, quarterback Chris Caluya took a bad hit in a loss to Berkeley High. With the help of trainers, he was led to the bench and sat stoic and rigid. It took several minutes for anyone to notice that he was unresponsive, and Caluya was flown to a hospital. A minor concussion kept him out for two games.
By their sixth game against main rival El Cerrito, players were shuffled into positions they had never played. The Oilers went in with eighteen players, but were down to fifteen by half-time. Hardly anyone left the field on turnovers, and the Oilers fell hard, 43-6.
It turned out to be their last game of the season. Report cards came out the following week and the team lost two more players due to academic ineligibility. Like Samuel L. Jackson’s basketball team in Coach Carter, which was based on Richmond High School, the football team fell victim to low grades.
Fletcher forfeited against Pinole Valley High when he decided fifteen players was simply too few. He also withdrew from the final two games, against Alameda and De Anza, leaving the team with a six-game losing streak and a 2-8 record.
Despite what would seem like a tragic ending to a storybook year, Fletcher believes he saw raw potential during the El Cerrito game. Through the beating, he saw perseverance, and more importantly, next year’s star players. Fletcher is optimistic about the coming year, and hopes the two wins will provide the momentum needed for an even better season.
The Oilers only lose six seniors this year, one of the few positives left for a team facing tough odds. Arnold will be one of them. But the six-foot-four tight end with a bashful smile is moving up in the world. He’s got a 3.8 GPA this semester, and at least three major universities — USC, Oregon, and Arizona — have contacted him with signs of interest. He has high hopes for the Oilers next year.
“There’s a lot of big guys at our school, there’s a lot of athletic people around school, they just don’t go out there,” he said. “The problem is grades — but most of them are just not motivated. They’d be like, ‘What’s the point in playing football for Richmond High? We’re going to lose anyway, so we’re just wasting our time.’ But if they went out there, maybe we’d start winning.”
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
The Steelers find funding.
By Jonathan Kaminsky
A Richmond company plans to sponsor the Richmond Steelers with money for equipment, transportation, and space for a new after-school tutoring program. The sponsorship is a first for the program, which has been around for more than thirty years. United Heritage Industries, a construction and development firm, described its new role as a partnership with the Steelers and the city of Richmond. At a press conference on Monday to announce the sponsorship, UHI co-owner Kevin Hampton presented the Steelers with a check for $3,000, which he described as seed money. The sponsorship came about after team supporters expressed frustration over the city’s perceived lack of support, both financial and otherwise, in an article in The Contra Costa Times last week. At the press conference, coach Fred Harris, who was not quoted in the article, expressed anger that people not directly affiliated with the Steelers spoke on the organization’s behalf. He and Richmond Mayor Irma Anderson both said they looked forward to working together to translate the organization’s success on the field into results for students in the classroom and to make the Steelers more financially stable. This year, the Steelers planned to skip an annual postseason trip to a Las Vegas football tournament they’d won each of the last two years due to lack of funds. When an article in The Contra Costa Times prompted donations of more than $30,000 from individuals and local charities, the team was able to make the trip. With the new support, all parties hope that such last-minute cash infusions will no longer be necessary.