Before you saw the Old Town Gators, you heard them coming. "WHO GOT YOUR BACK?" the pint-sized football players would chant as they marched in their electric blue-and-orange uniforms through East Baltimore streets to their home field on game days.
"I GOT YOUR BACK!" the 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds would echo back over the sound of cleats clicking on pavement.
Leading the parade - often chanting and clapping with dreadlocks flying - was their 31-year-old coach, Aaron McCown. A one-time high school quarterback and wrestler, he said it pumped up his players to march through "the projects," where many of them lived. He wanted them to hear shouts of encouragement and to feel that, like a tiny militia in football helmets and shoulder pads, they needed to defend their home turf.
On the field, McCown stoked his players with maxims intended to inspire ("BE PROUD OF WHO YOU ARE") before launching them like toy rockets into games. "I teach my kids intimidation," he would say.
The star receiver happened to be a girl, and McCown enjoyed taunting opposing teams by having her remove her helmet after games. He wanted them to know that "they just got beat by a girl."
In a neighborhood noted for absent fathers, McCown could be counted on. He'd show up in black jeans and a T-shirt before the season started to demonstrate pass coverage in the August humidity. He was as much of a fixture as the withered grass. "To these kids," said Dante Eubanks Sr., a Gators parent, "Coach Aaron was like a brother or father they don't have."
Given the bravado of McCown and the other coaches, it was not surprising that the six Gators teams - the youngest is for 5-to-7-year-olds, the oldest for kids up to 15 - expressed little concern about their coming games against the powerhouse White Oak Warriors in Montgomery County on Sept. 22.
They couldn't have imagined they would lose all six games or, worse, that they would lose Coach Aaron.
But by day's end, that's exactly what had happened, six games lost and McCown accused of threatening a referee with a gun. Federal marshals would soon be banging on his East Baltimore door before dawn to haul him to jail.
But that wasn't all. The team would soon learn, mostly from news media reports, all about McCown's past - how he had been involved in a decade's worth of serious crime, including heroin dealing, robbery and assault. He had served nearly two years in a maximum-security prison.
All of it left Gators coaches, players and parents to contemplate a day in which a football field had become a crime scene and their season suspended for one game. The team would soon be fined $1,000 by the league for failure to control coaches and supporters.
But more than any of that, the Gators wrestled with what to make of a man who had contributed so much and now emerged as more - or less - than what they imagined, a supposed role model who might have been anything but.
The widely reported incident heightened anxiety among parents in the Baltimore area and around the country about the need for better background checks to weed out unfit coaches.
To those who know McCown, the issue was more personal. Some wondered why a man who implored kids to stay out of trouble couldn't manage to negotiate that path himself.
But McCown's story raises more intriguing questions.
Hundreds of Baltimoreans lurch in and out of prison. Very few of them feel impelled to return week after week, year after year to a worn football field to try to better the lives of kids in East Baltimore.
Why did Aaron McCown?
And why was he so welcomed there?
A few good men
On this October night, the Gators make their own light.
The city has no field lights where the Gators practice. Their coach is in jail, but the playoffs are approaching, and the team has to prepare.
So a half-hour after sunset, several cars drive onto the field and park at odd angles with their headlights on. The players re-orient passing drills so they are in the paths of the beams.
More than lights, the Gators need coaches. So do all the teams in the Maryland Football and Cheerleading Association, which includes the Baltimore and Washington areas and is affiliated with Pop Warner. "It's hard to get quality guys that want to put in the time," said Mike Wills, football director of White Oak.
Wills regularly resorts to buying ads looking for coaches. "Seeking Dedicated Volunteers for the 2008 Season!" the current one reads.
The problem is particularly acute in East Baltimore, where there is a shortage of men, period. Thirty-six percent of the homes in the 21213 ZIP code are headed by a woman with no spouse present - a figure five times as high as some other areas in the state, according to the Census Bureau.
On the Gators, "probably more than 80 percent of the kids come from single-parent homes, and it may be higher than that," says Lisa Fitts, the team's program director. "They either don't have a father or mother at home or neither one, and maybe they're living with their grandmother."
In this environment, McCown, a coach of the Gators junior midgets team, was a precious commodity, a male adult the kids relied on. Fitts said she never knew McCown's cell phone number because she didn't need to. "I'd just look around and he was always there on the field."
Lanky at 6 feet tall with a high forehead and baggy clothes, he was something of a kid himself. Kids were drawn to him not only because he knew football but because he was playful and teasing and talked about video games.
On the practice field a few blocks north and west of Johns Hopkins Hospital, he'd run laps with the kids, lead them in calisthenics and demonstrate a linebacker's hunched stance. After practice, he'd often take the kids for pizza or help them with their homework.
One night, he invited a dozen Gators to spend the night in the home he shared with his mother. The kids slept on comforters and blankets on the floor, beneath trophies celebrating the players' achievements.
Sometimes, parents say, McCown and the other coaches helped the kids pay their registration fee, as much as $100.
The players responded to McCown's attention with endless requests for his time away from the field. "Can you take us to the movies?" they'd ask. "Can we play cards?"
McCown wasn't paid for coaching, but he received payback of a different sort.
On Jan. 10, 2003, a gospel chorus sang hymns as five men and three women assembled on the stage of a packed auditorium on Johns Hopkins University's East Baltimore campus. There was a breast cancer support volunteer, a homeless advocate and an anti-smoking crusader. And there was McCown, a clerk in the university's health system, in an olive double-breasted suit bought for the occasion. A Hopkins committee had singled out each of them to receive community service awards at a ceremony marking the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The nearly 1,000 attending included Harry Belafonte, accepting a humanitarian award, and actor Danny Glover, who was one of McCown's favorite stars. In front of all of them, McCown heard himself lauded for "unselfish volunteer work." And as a role model and mentor who stressed the importance of school and overcoming life's tribulations.
Afterward, he posed for photos with Hopkins dignitaries, who never suspected that their newly christened role model had a history guaranteed to unsettle them all.
A drug encounter
On a January night in 2006, a man walked up and down the 1700 block of Ellsworth St. He wore a black knit cap and an army-green jacket over a black T-shirt and army pants. He didn't know he was being watched.
The man stopped when approached by several people. They handed him money, and he disappeared down an alley and into the backyard of a vacant building where a green couch lay on its side.
Then, according to the report of the police detective studying him, Aaron McCown reached inside the cushion, pulled out a plastic bag and removed "several small white objects consistent with the way heroin is packaged."
He had $188 on him when he was arrested. He pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute and received three years' probation.
It was the latest offense committed by a man with a history of veering into trouble.
McCown was born in East Baltimore but his mother, Sheila Word, a former youth supervisor at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School, the youth detention center, moved him and his sister several times in search of a school where she thought they'd be happy and safe. McCown didn't meet his father until he was 21.
Sports was his passion. The Sun listed him as one of the top wrestlers at Carver Vo-Tech High School for 1993-1994. He graduated the next year from Joseph C. Briscoe High School, and his mother hung a picture of him in cap and gown on the wall.
But then he and three others were arrested for roughing up and robbing a man on a Harborplace skywalk in September 1996.
McCown spent nearly two years at a Jessup prison. When he got out in 1999, he would pace his mother's living room in circles approximating the size of his cell.
Later that year, he got a job handing out needles and catheters at a Hopkins warehouse. "He was a good guy, and he liked to look out for kids," said James Shannon, his boss.
McCown was living mostly in the basement of his mother's rowhouse on East Lanvale Street. When the weather was warm, neighborhood kids often asked him to toss a football with them or let them play his video games in his room, under the gaze of a Bob Marley poster.
By 2000, he was a Gators coach.
He says he didn't lie to the Gators about his past. "I filled out a form asking if I had any charges dealing with kids, and I didn't," he said. He did confide in some of the coaches and players, he says, that he had done time for other sorts of crimes.
For some kids, the bonds with McCown clearly went beyond coaching. A few years ago, he began throwing a football with the son of a family friend, Latarsha Johnson. The boy, Jacquan, now 11, kept asking his mother to let him spend time with McCown. Soon, McCown was helping Jacquan with his homework and roughhousing with him.
One day, Jacquan - "out of the blue," his mother said - asked McCown to be his godfather.
"Jacquan's father is around whenever he can be around," Johnson says. "Really, Aaron is more like a father to him than his father."
McCown's own mother, Sheila Word, was pleased by her son's involvement with kids, believing he was getting as much from them as they did from him.
He once told his mother that if he ever got married, he wanted to do it surrounded by his players - in their sweat suits. She hoped and believed the coaching would infuse him with a purpose that would help him avoid the mistakes - and bad influences - that dogged him.
It did not.
Hopkins dismissed him at the end of 2003 after he was jailed for reckless driving and driving with a suspended license in the middle of the night. By then, he had missed a number of days of work, according to Shannon, who had nominated him for the Martin Luther King award. Shannon said he is still puzzled as to why McCown couldn't stay straight.
Then came his heroin bust and probation in 2006.
"I know his record doesn't look good, but it doesn't look as bad as some other folks," his mother says. "My son isn't the type of person to kill anybody."
Through it all, McCown continued coaching the Gators.
Long before their Sept. 22 games, the Gators had developed a reputation for toughness. It was an image the coaches didn't mind. They wanted their kids to play hard and tolerated the occasional penalty resulting from overly aggressive tackles and blocks.
Before last season, the Gators had won so frequently that the league bumped them up to Division I, the most competitive class.
The change meant playing teams they were unfamiliar with, and White Oak - boasting several unbeaten squads - was considered the best. "They were all hyped to play us because we had never played before," said Wills, the White Oak director.
The layout of Aspen Hill Park, a cluster of fields in suburban Washington where White Oak played its home games, invites crowd participation. There are no bleachers, and the field isn't roped off from spectators. Parents press together along the sidelines and lean into the playing field.
Watching Pop Warner football can make for a long day. There were six games strung together that September day, beginning with the 5-to-7-year-olds at 9 a.m. and ending with the 11-to-15s at dusk. Parents and coaches convoy to road games together and sometimes stay all day.
The day started poorly for the Gators and didn't get better. They lost their first game, then the second, and the third and the fourth. Nobody could remember the Gators ever losing all six games in a day.
Then McCown's team lost a rough fifth game during which a White Oak player had to be carried from the field with a severe leg injury. By then, it was late afternoon, and the temperature had climbed above 80 degrees. Many in the Gators contingent grumbled that the referees were favoring the home team. Coaches considered protesting the game. Gators parents interspersed screams of complaint against the referees with loud cheering for their kids.
The Gators coaches and fans didn't back off during the sixth and final game of the day; the White Oak side had also begun questioning the officiating. With several minutes to go and the Gators losing yet again, referee Darren Brown had heard enough and called the game.
And that's when Aaron McCown either committed an unpardonable sin - particularly for a youth coach - or became a victim of mistaken identity.
The details are in dispute. A police report says an enraged McCown told Brown, "I have something for your a - -" before running to a pickup truck to grab a black bag allegedly containing a gun.
Several people, including Brown, called 911, and Brown started to head off the field.
"He was walking away by himself, and I told him to stay," said Wills, the White Oak director. "I said, 'If you're by yourself, they can jump on you.'"
Montgomery County park police arrived and began trying to find the gun.
"Everybody from White Oak said, 'Check the red truck' - my truck - because they said they saw someone go to my truck," said Nate Ellerbe, McCown's co-coach.
Authorities eventually discovered a .45-caliber pistol loaded with four rounds of ammunition, but it was found in the bed of another coach's pickup - not McCown's or Ellerbe's. A police report said McCown was identified as the suspect by the picture on his coaching ID card, but it didn't say who identified him. Authorities have not disclosed whom the gun was registered to.
McCown was initially taken to the Montgomery County jail, charged with assault and other offenses. But the state's attorney's office soon deferred to federal authorities, who charged him with possessing a firearm as a convicted felon. While the offense carries a 10-year maximum prison sentence, McCown's record could earn him a much longer term if he is convicted.
Three weeks later, federal marshals woke McCown at his Baltimore rowhouse and drove him to a detention center in Charles County.
The league suspended the Gators for a week - no Gators team advanced far in the playoffs -- and fined them $1,000.
And everyone was left wondering about the coach who was a felon.
Filling a need
Aaron McCown appears in a prison jumpsuit with orange and white horizontal stripes.
There is something childlike about him in the way he stares at the ground - almost shyly - as he approaches. He pushes his dreadlocks away from his face, sits down behind a thick glass window and picks up a phone to speak to his visitor.
It is early November, and McCown has been at the cinder-block detention center since the marshals showed up at his doorstep. A judge considered McCown too much of a community threat to grant him bail while prosecutors sort through his case.
His attorney, John Chamble, allowed The Sun to interview McCown on condition that he not be asked about his case.
McCown was eager to talk about coaching. The promise of coaching - he speaks of it as "a calling" - had helped sustain him years ago at Jessup. He said he would tell himself that when he got out he would intervene with troubled youths so they "don't go through what I've been through."
McCown knew there was a need for male mentors and considered himself well-suited. In other places, he says, coaching youths might be about football; in East Baltimore, he says, it's about plugging holes in kids' psyches.
Many of the Gators had home lives marred by absent parents and poverty. McCown says he didn't want them to feel defeated by their situations, to define themselves by the things they lacked.
He insists that he filled a space missing for so many of his players. "I'm a parent, an uncle, I'm whatever they need at the time," he says.
As he talks, it becomes clear that despite all that has been revealed about him - despite the fact that he's wearing prisoner stripes - McCown still regards himself as a role model, the man who accepted the Martin Luther King award in 2003.
To him, the McCown who interacted with kids and the McCown who committed crimes are only marginally connected. He considers his past not a liability but an asset. While many youth organizations disqualify coaches for felonies, he believes his turbulent history equipped him to understand and communicate with difficult-to-reach kids because he has been there.
He says he even tried to stop a Gators player from selling drugs. Drug dealing is a never-ending sideshow in the neighborhood surrounding the practice field. "I used to smoke marijuana, so I knew how to come at him," McCown said. "I talked to him in the same way he'd talk to people on the street." His mother and sister say the story is true.
Then, he asserts that the key to any good mentor is to "have control over themselves."
But, he is asked, doesn't his behavior suggest he is not the best example of someone in control of himself?
He objects. "Sometimes I do scream at the referees, and sometimes I scream at the kids, but I've never been thrown out of games in the seven years I've been coaching," he says. And, he says, he taught his players that guns were for "cowards."
But what of his own criminal history? McCown lowers his head, as if he hadn't expected the matter to come up. He rambles for a moment about peer pressure and bad choices.
He says he knows that his latest arrest was upsetting to his players. What he didn't know - and what might surprise some - is that Gators parents and coaches emphatically stand by him.
Despite all the unwanted attention, many say that McCown has been wrongly accused and that his past mistakes shouldn't obscure what he did for the kids.
When it comes to felons, Gators parents say, people see what they want to see or are predisposed to see. "I've never been locked up, but if a man makes a mistake he should have a chance to fix it," Eubanks said. "It wasn't like he was a pedophile. I've seen him dedicate himself to the kids."
Fitts, the team's administrator, says the news media missed the point about McCown. The question wasn't whether he was a role model, she says. It's whether he showed up to coach when few others were willing to.
"People said he got in trouble and all that," she said, "but he was always there for ball season."
Another defender of a sort is Levi Watkins, the Hopkins surgeon who started the MLK awards 25 years ago. "I am disappointed but one of the things about Dr. King is he believed in mercy. He believed in second chances. I think this man must have done some good."
The jailhouse interview turns back to the Gators and the pleasure he took in them. Coaching, he says, has given him an identity. "Everybody [in the neighborhood] knows me as the coach."
And he wants to come back.
"For two more years I'd coach Pop Warner, but eventually move up to middle school, high school. Maybe college."
In reality, the team - under scrutiny by the league and appealing the fine - can't let him return. What he didn't know was that the Gators recently sent a letter to the league pledging that McCown "will no longer be affiliated with Old Town Football."
His absence from the team is "a shame," Anthony Graves, a fellow Gators coach, said recently.
"The kids keep asking how's he doing." He pauses. "There's not really anybody to take his place."