At 7:04 a.m. Tuesday, 17-year-old Sterling Jones, bleary-eyed and shirtless, opens the front door of his rowhouse on Wheeler Avenue in West Baltimore. He squints into the sunshine, nods his head, then disappears back inside.
He has lived on this block - a drab, gray stretch of cracked concrete - for most of his life but largely views the neighborhood with indifference. The sidewalks are littered with debris, and, on some houses, plywood takes the place of windows and doors. Some proud homeowners with well-cared-for homes remain, but many other dwellings are tattooed by graffiti and run-down. Sterling's grandfather owns the Grant Two Spot, the bar at the corner.
His mother is a barmaid there.
Young men standing on the street in threes - the ones who scan traffic, looking for customers - know Sterling by name and occasionally say hello. Some are old friends. Some might even show up at the game, when Edmondson plays City College under the lights at Poly.
It's the biggest game of the regular season, and college scouts should be in attendance. For years, Sterling has told people from his neighborhood that he's going to play in the NFL, but first he has to get a college scholarship. This game could be his best chance to get noticed. He's not the biggest kid on the team, about 5 feet 11, 200 pounds, but he is a ferocious hitter. In football parlance, he drops the hammer, his shoulder pads and helmet slamming into opponents with an explosive crack.
Football, he believes, is his passport to a bright future. One far from this neighborhood, where fights break out when the clubs and bars empty, and drug-related robberies and assaults are common. He remembers the time a few years ago when two men were gunned down right in front of his grandfather's bar. Even now, he sometimes hears gunshots as he drifts off to sleep.
Someday, football is going to get him out of here. His family, too. Away from the crime and disappointment to a fresh start somewhere else. Even if the NFL is a long shot for someone his size, he refuses to believe it can't happen if he works hard enough.
Minutes later Sterling gallops downstairs, dressed in dark blue jeans and a heather gray Edmondson football T-shirt. He grabs two granola bars from the kitchen as Edmondson quarterback James "Buddy" Thorne arrives to hitch a ride to school.
The two teenagers amble out the front door and into Sterling's car, a heavily driven white Chevy Cavalier station wagon that his mother, Venida, passed on to him after he made honor roll as a junior. Sterling inserts a CD and, after a few clicks, the rap song "Whip It (Real Hard)," by Rick Ross and the Triple C, blares from the car's speakers. The music is so loud that Buddy and Sterling don't bother speaking.
As the car pulls away, in the opposite direction from the Grant Two Spot, Sterling glances in the rearview mirror, then toes the accelerator, weaving the car through early-morning traffic.
He is supposed to clean the house today but will have to get to it after practice, before his mother gets home, he hopes. By the time she gets off work, she'll be in no mood to hear excuses.
'I can't wait'
In the fleeting moments before the morning bell, Sterling Jones struts through the front doors of Edmondson-Westside High School, and everyone seems to gravitate in his direction. Girls flirt and giggle when he smiles. Teammates throw him playful punches. Friends shout questions from across the hall: You going to whip up on City this weekend, son? Have you heard Jay-Z's latest? Why didn't you call me back last night, yo?
Sterling fires back answers, hollering above the din, bantering with everyone. Even teachers chuckle at his enthusiasm and wish him luck on Saturday.
The reticent teenager from Wheeler Avenue has been replaced by his alter ego. Like a councilman running for office, he works the room, tapping knuckles, locking eyes, embracing girls and flashing his magnetic grin. Football players at Edmondson sit at the top of the school's social pyramid. They are popular with the student body and, because they usually set a positive example, they are popular with teachers, too. But even among the football players, Sterling, with his outsized personality, is in a class by himself. Inside these cracked walls and crowded hallways, he's a bona fide star.
He makes his way to the drab school cafeteria and settles himself next to two of his best friends, linebacker Kyle Jackson and running back Tariq Jones. Other Edmondson players are crammed around the table. Each time someone makes a joke, Kyle laughs without a sound, closing his eyes and dropping his chin to his chest, his body convulsing and bouncing.
Bigger than most of his teammates at 6 feet 3, 235 pounds, Kyle has an enormous wingspan, a wispy mustache and a wide frame that make him look older than 17. On first impression, he comes across as introverted and distant, but over time his complexity emerges. Raised in a middle-class military family, he is polite but independent. He does not begin many conversations, but he absorbs all of them and speaks up when necessary. Unlike many of his teammates, he believes his family would find a way to swing tuition even if he isn't offered an athletic scholarship. But it would be tough.
Kyle and Sterling, close friends for several years, often crash at each other's houses and quiz each other about Edmondson's defense during late-night phone conversations. They regard themselves as brothers.
Despite their bond, they are opposites. Sterling is loud, brash, in-your-face, like a trumpet player in a nightclub. Kyle is smooth, quiet and soulful, a cello in the orchestra's last row.
They're good students, having both made the honor roll in the past year, but football is the driving force behind their attention to schoolwork. Playing football for as long as possible is their shared dream. The Edmondson coaches believe that if Kyle - with his size and instincts - has a strong season, he could play for a large Division I program such as Maryland or Penn State. Kyle, too, imagines himself reaching the NFL, but if that's not possible, he sees himself as a business success, living in a mansion with a swimming pool.
Sterling isn't as big as Kyle, easier for recruiters to overlook, but he plays best when he feels slighted. Still, he will need to really dazzle this year to have any shot at one of the premier football schools. If even then.
For years, big-time college basketball programs have mined Baltimore for players, and the city has developed a reputation for producing gems. Carmelo Anthony. Juan Dixon. Reggie Lewis, Muggsy Bogues. Sam Cassell. Keith Booth. But the city, traditionally, has produced far fewer football stars.
Of those, some have come from Edmondson. Jason Murphy, a Red Storm volunteer coach, played four years at Virginia Tech and earned first team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors as an offensive lineman in 2005. But Murphy's recruitment was not simple. Because of Baltimore schools' poor academic reputation, he says, many college recruiters didn't believe his transcripts were legitimate. He needed to get signed statements from his teachers saying that he had done his assignments on his own and could handle college-level course work. He graduated from Virginia Tech in 3 1/2 years with a degree in property management.
Sterling and Kyle know they might face similar skepticism.
After Sterling sits down, he joins a conversation about the subject on the mind of everyone at the table: Saturday's football game. Both Edmondson and City College are 2-0 and look as if they could be among the best in the state.
City College and Edmondson are separated by just seven miles, but also by key differences. City has a long list of famous alumni and is widely considered one of the 10 best high schools in Maryland.
Edmondson, despite progress on state test scores, has its share of warts and scars. Its athletic facilities are in constant need of repair. Cockroaches scatter when someone flips on the lights in the bathroom next to the varsity locker room. Just this year, football players, with the help of one of Edmondson's shop teachers, built the school's weight room themselves. Before that, most players had never lifted weights.
"Yo, them other schools, they might have better facilities than us," Sterling says with equal parts defiance and defensiveness. "But when it's game time, it not going to help you win, is it?"
"Nope," says Kyle. He reaches out to slap Sterling's hand as the bell rings. "Sure ain't."
"All I know is, big-time players show up in big games," Sterling says. "And they can keep talking all the smack they want, but they gonna have to have to show me something come Saturday. They ain't showing me much yet. I can't wait to play this game, yo. I'm going crazy."
"Sterling," Jerome Baskerville, an offensive lineman, says playfully. "Does your mouth ever stop moving?"
Several players snicker. Sterling's mouth runs like an auctioneer's some days. He barely pauses to breathe. Some players tune him out. He knows that some are annoyed by him, by his bombast, by the attention he gets from the coaches, by the way he carries himself. He doesn't care. He grins slyly, then grabs his backpack.
Class beckons. English for Sterling, carpentry for Kyle. Can't be late.
Football players, on coach's orders, have to sit up front.
'Football is my life'
In Ms. Grant's second-period English class, Sterling sits in a desk at the front of the room and chews on his pen. Other football players are in the class, but today, Sterling sits alone. In his hand is an excerpt from the Old English epic poem Beowulf, and the students now take turns reading its passages aloud.
His heart surged
with gloomy thoughts,
which was not
his usual way.
The flame-dragon had burned
the fortress of the people
The war-king studied revenge.
Last week, Grant had asked her students to digest and discuss Beowulf's triumph over the poem's monster, Grendel, a creature feared by all except, of course, the hero. Today, the discussion revolves around Beowulf's time as king and the dragons he must slay to keep his kingdom safe.
Grant, who talks fast and rarely stops moving, buzzes around the room, calling on students and expressing excitement or good-natured skepticism over their answers.
"So, do you think Beowulf makes a better hero or a better king?" Grant asks, scanning the room. Sterling thrusts his hand up.
"Is that Sterling I see over there?" Grant teases. "Do you have an answer for us, Sterling?"
"I think he a better hero," Sterling says. "He know how to kill people when he has to. But if he the king, he got his family and his people to think about."
"Interesting," Grant says, winning a smile from Sterling.
He doesn't mind this Old English stuff. Last year, his class read Romeo and Juliet, and, though difficult, it ended up one of his favorite school assignments ever. When he first came to Edmondson, he wouldn't raise his hand if he didn't understand something, for fear of embarrassment. Now, he doesn't care what others say. If he wants to play football in college, this is the kind of work he needs to grasp.
"I want you to take out a piece of paper," Grant says. "The assignment for today is, I want you to write about the dragons and the Grendels in your life. How have you overcome them and survived them?
The class, quiet to this point, roils with energy. Girls flirt, boys laugh and mock one another. Some just doodle absentmindedly in notebooks. Sterling, however, lowers his head until it's inches from his paper and begins scribbling.
Half a page is quickly filled.
Soon it's a full page. Then more.
He doesn't stop until Grant stands over him after collecting papers from everyone else.
He hands his paper in. It reads, in part:
Where I live, there are a lot of people who use drugs or are involved in drugs. Some of them used to be my close friends. I say what's up to them when I pass by, but I just keep going. About a year ago, I was going to my friend's house, and we were going to go to a dance. On our way there, the police pulled up and started harassing us. They asked us if we sold drugs. They made us stand up against a wall for forever, then told us we couldn't be outside, even though it was only like 8 o'clock. I was so mad someone would make me feel like that. I couldn't even go to the dance afterward.
This year, for the first time, something clicked for me. I used to wear gold fronts in my teeth. I wanted them for so long, and my mom got them for me as a reward for being on the honor roll. Most people didn't realize that. But this year Coach 'Te told us he didn't want us wearing them in school. Eventually, I just stopped wearing them entirely. They're just sitting with my prom stuff. I look at them sometimes. I knew that people were perceiving me a certain way, and it was time to get right.
When it gets cold, I don't wear big baggy clothes that might give someone the wrong idea of me. I just wear my football stuff, and things I feel comfortable in. I know I'm doing something positive with my life, so I tell people to leave me out of it.
Football is my life. I would spend my last two dollars on football, even if I was hungry. My teammates are like my family, because they'll support me even when my family doesn't. They've got my back no matter what.
The bell rings again. It's time for Spanish.
In the hall, Sterling laughs and teases, bumps knuckles and slaps hands. He grins when he spots on the wall a hand-painted sign that says: Sack Them Sterling.
With practice minutes away, a debate simmers inside the locker room as the players strap on shoulder pads and T-shirts that reek of dried sweat. The subject is food.
"Yo, listen, Alge's grandmother make the best cakes and the best Kool-Aid in the world," says Sterling, who relishes these locker room exchanges every bit as much as leveling a wide receiver.
"I'm getting hungry just thinking 'bout it, he says.
"Yeah, but Boo Boo's grandmother be making some potatoes and some turkey burgers that be for real," says Jerome. Dajuan "Boo Boo" Smith, a fellow lineman, grins with pride.
As usual, when Kyle gets up to leave, the other players follow. It isn't verbosity that makes Kyle a leader on this team, but rather his self-containment, the confidence he projects. The others know he's not going to bend to peer pressure and that he's not likely to make stupid mistakes. Part of that comes from his strict upbringing, a father who is former military and a mother who insists on sit-down, family dinners where she quizzes her kids about their activities. But Kyle has also seen the consequences of poor decisions.
Two summers ago, a childhood friend, Avon Holman, had been killed when the stolen car he was driving smashed into another vehicle during a police chase. In the car, police found stolen merchandise and cash. Avon had been 15.
No one, Kyle promised himself, would ever talk him into doing something like that. He was shaken by it, but he turned it into a lesson. Achieving in success, whether in football or business, required a stubborn commitment, he understood. He had to focus on his grades and put aside distractions.
That explains why he told his girlfriend, Kiara, before the season that they had to put their relationship on hold so that he could concentrate on football. Nothing was going to get in the way of his goals, not even love.
To bolster his academics, Kyle became one of the first kids to sign up with Play It Smart, a program developed by the National Football Foundation to improve the study habits of inner-city football players. Joyce Jenkins, Edmondson's academic coach, remembered his showing up for study hall prepared, homework in hand, and not at all hesitant to ask questions when he couldn't work through assignments on his own. Some of his teammates, Jenkins says, watched Kyle grinding away each afternoon, nose buried in his book, pencil in hand. In time, they talked less and studied more. Though Kyle was unaware of what was taking place, Jenkins was ecstatic. He was leading without even trying.
His coaches told him he had the talent to play at a big-time program such as Maryland's, but he needed single-minded devotion and a stellar senior year. And, they intimated, it would help if he could be a little meaner. He is the kind of linebacker who knocks running backs on their rear ends, then offers them a helping hand up. As good as he is, some of his coaches wonder whether he can be even better if he develops a nasty streak.
He isn't sure it's in him. Composure is his strength, not cockiness. Sterling has enough bravado for the both of them. It's Kyle's job to know every aspect of Edmondson's defense, so that when people have questions, he has answers.
That's what he does on the practice field today, explaining to Sterling and senior linebacker Ben Akalefu how to defend against one of City's favorite running plays, a misdirection with a fake handoff.
"Just don't get sucked in, yo," Kyle says. "The moment you get sucked in on the fake, it's over."
Sterling and Ben listen as though receiving the tablets from Moses.
The Beast smiles
"What the hell is this [EXPLETIVE]? Stop the [EXPLETIVE] play. Get your asses over here."
The Beast is, as usual, livid. Assistant coach Sam Walker has been trying to get Edmondson's defense to line up correctly and to show them a play City College is likely to run Saturday, but some of the kids are having trouble picking it up. It's a double handoff, and it's tough to spot, but Walker is going to drill it into their heads until sunset if he has to. Edmondson's stoic young head coach, Dante Jones, watches nearby in silence, arms folded. Walker is less patient.
"You telling me we can't run two damn defenses?" he shouts. "This is [EXPLETIVE]! You all telling me you want to play college ball, and you can't even line up right? I'll tell you right now, there are some smart-ass [players] out there that will [EXPLETIVE] you up if you can't even line up where we telling you!"
Like most successful Baltimore high school programs, Edmondson's strengths are its running game and its defense. Tariq Jones, the team's senior running back, might be one of the best players in the city. Even in practice, he's exciting. He glides with the ball in his hands, then jabs his foot into the grass, changing directions and plowing through tacklers.
City College's main focus Saturday will be to shut him down and force the game into the hands of either of Edmondson's two inexperienced quarterbacks, Buddy or Carroll Washington. Most of today's practice is devoted to repetition and the recognition of assignments. After nearly two hours, the players are exhausted.
Coach Jones says he'll cut the players a deal. If Edmondson kicker Keon Fisher can make a 48-yard field goal, they can go home. If he misses, the team has to run hills for conditioning.
Keon has a powerful leg, but his technique can be erratic. During practice, he has made seven consecutive kicks from 45 yards out, but that was without any pressure. Jones insists that Edmondson's players surround Keon, that they jump up and down and yell, distracting him as he lines up for the kick.
When Keon's right foot connects with the worn leather ball, it makes a hollow, audible THUNK. For a split-second, every pair of eyes turns to follow its flight. It looks, at first, as if the ball's trajectory is much too low, that it will fall well short. The players will then spend the next half-hour trudging up and down the hill, muscles burning and aching. But the ball keeps carrying, spinning backward, seemingly in slow motion, hanging barely above the Baltimore skyline for that extra fraction of a second necessary. It sneaks over the crossbar, inches to spare, and when it does, a celebration erupts.
The players leap, laughing and whooping. They pound Keon's shoulder pads and scream toward the clouds. For the moment, they look like kids free from worry, free from stress.
Even The Beast manages a smile.
Leaving the dragons behind
Several hours later, Sterling stands on the corner of Wheeler and West Fayette streets. Yellow streetlights paint the sidewalk and cast long shadows. He likes to think about one day being able to buy his mother and stepfather a better house, far from this neighborhood. He'd love to be able to take care of her, pay her back for all she has done. He owes her a lot. He almost didn't end up at Edmondson.
For a time, he thought he might attend his neighborhood school, Southwestern, but Venida Grant forbade it. Bad influences roaming the halls, making learning impossible. Too many drugs there, too much violence, and not a very good football program. If he'd gone there, he knows, he would've been messing around with different girls every night, hanging out with people who dealt drugs or worse. His mother told him often that if he was foolish enough to end up in jail, he could stay there for a night or two and think about his future. She wasn't going to bail him out.
She was tough, and they still fought sometimes, but he loved her. When he told her he needed to quit his job working at a Bob Evans restaurant to focus on football, she gave her blessing, even though it meant money would be tight. Even if he ended up playing at Bowie State, a far cry from his dream of playing for Virginia Tech, he knew it would make her proud. At this weekend's game, she'd surely be one of the loudest fans, taking a rare night off from work to cheer him on from the stands.
He feels confident. City has a great team, with more size, but in his mind, Edmondson has as much talent and probably more speed. If he has a worry, it's that his teammates seem overconfident right now. But he has four days to set them straight. As for him, he loves nothing more than playing under the lights in front of a big crowd, imagining that all those eyes are on him.
It's time to head inside. He's tired, and he still has homework to finish. He might give Kyle a call, too. On his way inside, he walks past the corner boys at the end of the block. They're laughing, cursing, passing around a bottle stuffed inside a paper bag. Sterling climbs the steps and closes his front door, leaving the dark street, and the neighborhood Grendels and dragons, behind.
THE COACH AND HIS CAPTAINS
Coach Dante Jones
Stoic and driven, Edmondsaon's 30-year-old coach uses football to try protect his kids from the dangers of the streets.
A hard-hitting safety froma rough neighborhood, he is the charismatic, vocal leader of the team.
A talented middle linebacker, he leads by example, in the classroom and on the field.
The newphew of the head coach, he's proved that size isn't everything when playing cornerback.
Demure and contemplative, this quiet Muslim running back dreams of one day becoming a social worker.
CHAPTER 3 -- FOR SOME PLAYERS, A NEW SCHOOL BRINGS NEW FRIENDS, NEW MOTIVATIONS, NEW CONFIDENCE.