Cleaning up their act


Go on, try to bait Willie Mitchell during a football game. Call him names. Insult his mother. Taunt him before a big play, in hopes that Mitchell and his reform school teammates will lose their tempers and self-destruct.

Teams that try that strategy may be disappointed, says Mitchell, 17, a defensive back at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County.

"[Opponents] say things in games to get us riled up," says Mitchell, who plays beside other thugs, thieves and chronic troublemakers. "They call us juvenile criminals. It doesn't work. We don't get down and dirty.

"We try to take another route than the one that got us here."

Midway through their inaugural season, the Hickey Bears are challenging public perceptions of troubled teens. Hickey's first three games went smoothly. No fights, no flights. Not one Hickey player who scored a touchdown did a Forrest Gump and just kept running.

"I was very impressed," says Douglass High coach David White, whose team lost to Hickey, 18-0. "I had another idea of the Hickey School -- that if things don't go their way, the kids give up. Or when the going gets tough, they resort to tactics other than football.

"That was not in evidence at all."

Forest Park scrimmaged Hickey on the latter's field, a daunting facility partially surrounded by a chain-link fence capped with razor wire.

"We were intimidated at first," Forest Park coach Obie Barnes says. "But after a few hits, we realized they were football players like everyone else."

Result: Forest Park has agreed to a rematch next year, plus a picnic and swim in the Hickey School pool.

Filling its schedule has been difficult, Hickey staff members say. There are gaps on an eight-game card. Two schools that tentatively agreed to play the Bears later canceled. A few teams never returned their calls, say school officials, who add they weren't surprised.

"The Hickey reputation has not been good in the past," concedes Jerry Phipps, athletic director, and part of the Baltimore sports scene for more than 30 years.

Last year, the school fielded teams in basketball, cross country and track, without incident. But football demands more contact.

"A number of schools probably felt we play dirty," says Herb Lynch, Bears head coach. "That this was our first year [for football] only intensified their feelings."

Such fears are proving groundless. Generally, Hickey's conduct on the field has been exemplary, football officials say.

"Absolutely wonderful," referee Ken Seaman says of the Bears' demeanor last week in a 40-8 rout of Western Tech. "A couple of kids got too excited, but there were no serious late hits -- no worse than any other city or county team.

"All their players need to do is refine their skills."

Most of the Bears never played organized football before. At first, some donned their gear upside down.

The good news?

"They didn't have bad habits that had to be broken," says Lynch, a Morgan State graduate and former player with the Canadian Football League and the World Football League.

The coach rounded up 36 of Hickey's best-behaved youths, drilled them in the basics, dressed them in blue and gold uniforms and hoped for the best.

"Many of them were losers with an attitude of 'me, me, me,' " and rap sheets longer than play charts, the coach says. "People didn't give us two games to win."

Hickey (3-0) plays host to Owings Mills (4-1) at 1 p.m. tomorrow.

"People have this image of the Hickey School, and we're out to prove them wrong," says Mitchell, the defensive star with five interceptions.

"Our motto is: 'No Excuses,' " he says. "If you do something wrong on the field, first you own up to it, and then you make up for it."

In sports, as in life, he says.

Mitchell, of Randallstown, is serving one year at Hickey for assault. He says football makes his incarceration "easier to deal with. It lets you get off your frustrations in a positive way, and it lets you interact with society."

He pauses, spins a football in his hands.

"I can do something with this, if I keep it up," Mitchell says softly. "College, maybe. I'd like to play in college."

He's on track: Only those youths deep into rehabilitation are allowed to play at Hickey, regardless of their crimes -- which can range from auto theft to murder, says Jim Hindman, chairman of Youth Services International, which runs the Hickey School for the state.

Under Maryland law, criminal records of juveniles are not open to public inspection.

"We tell kids, 'We don't care what you've done -- your life begins at Hickey,' " Hindman says.

Of the school's 300 students, less than one-fourth are eligible for interscholastic sports and the trips that spring them from Hickey, if only for an afternoon.

Hickey's venture into high school athletics is "totally appropriate" for incarcerated students, says a longtime Baltimore judge who has referred hundreds of teens to the Cub Hill facility.

"The stereotype of these kids is that they are wild, uncontrollable and violent at all times," Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell says. "They need to have contact with society in positive ways, for their own self-esteem -- and football is a way to do that."

Last week's game at Western Tech in Baltimore County, the Bears' first on the road, was little different from the rest. Hickey handled its third straight opponent. No one went AWOL. The winners shook hands with the losers. And the Bears doused their coach with a cooler filled with ice water, without fear of retribution.

Then the players boarded their peeling, steel-gray bus and rattled back to Hickey, pointing out personal landmarks along the way.

"You'd have thought they were tour guides, the way they were acting," the coach says. "These kids don't get off the grounds too often. To them, football is more a privilege than an extracurricular activity."

For quarterback Pete Ekani, the game marked his first outing in ** eight months.

"I hadn't seen the streets in a long while," he says. "Yeah, I was a little nervous."

Not for long: Ekani threw an 80-yard touchdown pass on Hickey's first play. Just obeying orders, the 17-year-old from Rockville says.

6* "Coach said he wanted to score early."

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