Football coaches in Baltimore City know they play critical roles in the lives of their players. As the volatile atmosphere persists following the death of Freddie Gray and the rioting that erupted Monday, they've taken different approaches — but all to keep young men safe.
Douglass coach Elwood Townsend and Edmondson coach Corey Johnson have been in frequent contact with their players, talking to them about the situation, while former Edmondson football coach Dante Jones, who now coaches at Dover High School in Delaware, came home to the city to rally high school and youth coaches to get out and march peacefully, setting an example for all young men.
"There's many ways to do that, but I approach it like a game of football. You can be in the classroom, but at some point, you've got to be in the game. This is our way of getting in the game. We want the youth to see us out in the community, so they can say, 'I see you there. I see you do care,'" Jones said Tuesday afternoon from the corner of North and Pennsylvania avenues, a hot spot in Monday's rioting.
Jones rallied high school football and basketball coaches and youth coaches to protest peacefully and lead the city youngsters who were off from school Tuesday. Among those on hand: Ben Franklin football coach Cedric Berry, Edmondson basketball coach Darnell Dantzler, Northwestern basketball coach Rick Epps and Gilman football assistant coach Josh Austin.
"These kids are not bad; they're lost. They don't have leadership," said Jones, a Dunbar graduate who said he was tired of seeing national news reports that made it appear as if the entire city was burning down. "My goal is to get the coaches together, because the coaches in this community have a strong voice and if we use our voice, we can make change. We see that they follow us on the football field and the basketball court and they'll follow us if we're here. That's why we're here."
Dantzler said he can see the issue from all sides.
"It's a tough situation all the way around. From an African-American man's perspective, I understand the protests. But the violence is 100 percent wrong," he said. "We have to come together as a community. Some of my friends are policemen and they have a hard job to do. We have to know that there are some real good policemen and there are a couple bad ones, but that's life in general.
"So what we're trying to do now is get together and be there for the kids and try to show them a different way. Myself, I'm a product of Baltimore City public schools, and I grew up in Baltimore City and it's hurtful to see my city crying out like this. We want to sit down and educate them. They're crying out and they need somebody to listen to them."
Townsend and Johnson agree that they can set an example and guide the players toward better ways to work toward the changes they want. Both said Tuesday that all of their players are safe and that none were involved in the rioting that began Monday afternoon near Mondawmin Mall, which is across the street from Douglass High School.
"I've just been in constant contact with my guys," said Townsend, "and just trying to reassure them that we're here for them and if they want to talk — or anything else that we can help with."
Townsend said he's direct with players. He doesn't make excuses.
"As adults, we always tend to make excuses about why this is a certain way and why that is a certain way instead of actually getting to the root of the problems and just sitting down and talking with the kids," he said. "Some of them don't have the parents in the homes or they don't have the instruction and discipline that most kids do. Being a coach, you try to be these in both aspects as a coach and as a parent. As a mentor, you try to just guide them in the right direction. Some fall and some actually stay with you and make it through."
Johnson agreed that talking with the players and listening to them could help channel the anger and frustration they feel into more positive forms of protest.
"I think when we do get back to school, it's more about how, I thought, [the rioting] was misplaced anger, acting out and it really had nothing to do with Freddie Gray," said Johnson, referring to the man whose death from injuries suffered in police custody sparked the protests and rioting.
"I thought the protest that happened last week and even down at City Hall [Saturday afternoon] did have to do with Freddie Gray. I've talked with the kids and they feel that a lot of things that led up to that young man's death is what happens on a daily basis. They're continually harassed on the street. They feel like the cops can say and do anything to them and get away with it, so they're frustrated on that level, but I thought yesterday had nothing to do with that."
Johnson said frustrations bubble up because of incidents such as one that happened to his quarterback last year. The player was on his way to off-season football practice with a backpack and cleats when he was stopped by police and forced to sit on the curb because someone nearby had been assaulted and robbed. He forgot his school ID, so it took a while for the police to let him go.
"He felt violated and he said the police were not very nice about it," Johnson said. "You tell them to trust and respect the police and they tell you, 'Coach, you wouldn't believe what goes on.'"
Nonetheless, both coaches stressed to their players that violence was not the answer and their players listened.
Johnson noted that, as Baltimore City Police reported Tuesday, of 235 people arrested only 34 were juveniles. He said there were no problems at Edmondson yesterday. Youngsters didn't leave school early in response to the social media call for a "purge" to start at Mondawmin Mall and make its way downtown to the Inner Harbor. He said a lot of games were played after school.
To Townsend, who led the Ducks to the Class 1A state final the past two seasons, high school sports gives young men something to focus on and a sense of belonging they might not otherwise have.
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"The kids are involved in something," he said. "That can offset not having recreation opportunities and having a lack of guidance. Sometimes we don't have a plan in place, as a city as a whole, to [keep] these kids from being in the streets, so having that opportunity to play football, or — I coach track — having the guys out there in track and field or baseball, it gives them the opportunity to be away from their everyday lives. A lot of them take pride in being part of those sports and being on a team, because that, to them, is the only family that they have."
Townsend said a few of his players who live close to the school had planned to go to Mondawmin Tuesday and help clean up after Monday's destruction. He said others were kept home by their parents, who feared further unrest Tuesday.
He also said several coaches from around the area — Milford Mill's Reggie White, Arundel's Chuck Markiewicz, Archbishop Curley's Sean Murphy and St. Paul's assistant coach Scott Ripley — had reached out to see if they could do anything to support Townsend or the Ducks players.
Baltimore Sun reporter Glenn Graham contributed to this article.