Amid the turmoil tearing through this small Missouri town, a high school team prepares for its season opener, and a coach helps his players make sense of the madness around them. The first game is scheduled for Friday
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO
FERGUSON, Mo. — High school football coaches have a keen eye for a certain moment in practice. They often let their team leaders self-correct confusion or laziness or frustration, but not all three at once. That’s when the whistle blows and the team takes a knee at the feet of the big man for a few words. Monday afternoon in St. Louis County, the big man for McCluer High was coach Mario MacDonald.
“Get focused,” he said. “Forget about everything happening out there. You’ve got your head in the clouds. I should not have to stop practice for this.
The boys had bused to a park near their school because the district was shut down for what would have been the first day of class. Many of their classmates rallied on West Florissant Ave. in the heart of Ferguson to protest the death of an unarmed teenager who was shot and killed by a police officer on Aug. 9. All day long, children and adults screamed for justice for Michael Brown. At nightfall, gunshots rang out.
A few days earlier, MacDonald had asked his players if they knew who the Black Panthers were and saw mostly blank faces. Instead of practicing one day, he showed them the civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize and discussed the different factions of the movement. Meanwhile, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon mulled imposing a curfew in Ferguson and calling in the National Guard.
“Michael Brown,” the coach told the team, “could have been one of you guys.”
Now, on Monday in a public park five miles from the spot where Michael Brown was shot to death, coach MacDonald is asking them to fix the center-quarterback exchange.
By rule the McCluer High School football team, like all others in Missouri, must have 14 days of practices before it can play its first game, which is scheduled for Friday. The location is still to be determined, because the Ferguson-Florissant School District has cancelled school for the rest of the week. Through the eyes one of the most unique football teams at this moment in America, we hope to understand a city’s conflicted past, its tumultuous present and its uncertain future, and what it all means for the people of Ferguson.
* * *
“Let's not fit those stereotypes.”
“I came home smelling like weed, and I said, Momma, I didn’t smoke.”
Raequan Stallings was 15, in ninth grade, the first time he was offered pot. Later on he saw his first pistol, a friend’s illegal gun. That day when somebody passed him a blunt, he says he declined. Somehow, mom believed him.
“That’s just something I can’t get with, because I run track,” says Raequan, now 18.
On Aug. 9 he was at home when his mother texted him frantically: Turn on channel 2 they shot a boy for no reason.
He kept watching. The boy lay dead in the street two miles from Raequan's home for hours, much of the time uncovered, before they took his body away, and the next night his neighbors set fire to the QuikTrip to which Brown would later be linked by a robbery report. They spray-painted on the outer wall in white paint “Snitches Get Stitches”. All Raequan could do was watch—his mom forbid him from visiting West Florissant Ave.
“The looting was uncalled for,” he says. “We’re supposed to protest and get justice for Mike Brown, but that was just pointless. We can get justice for him if we stay real smooth.”
He boiled inside. He wanted to join the protests during the day, to be one more voice for peace and resolution. On Saturday a distraction arrived. The St. Louis Rams offered the football teams at McCluer, McCluer North and McCluer South free tickets to their Saturday preseason game. Raequan obsesses over Rams slot receiver Tavon Austin; he’s got Austin’s YouTube highlights burned into his retinas. This would be Raequan’s first NFL game.
Michael Brown,” the McCluer coach tells his players, “could have been one of you guys.
“I really wanted to meet Tavon Austin. It didn’t happen, but it is what it is,” he says. “After we saw that game, I just wanted to ball out this season. We’re a family here. If I eat, he gon’ eat, and he gon’ eat. We all get to eat.
“We want to get paid for 16 weeks.”
Those are actually Coach Mac’s words, echoing through his pupil. Heavyset and dark-skinned with a light beard, MacDonald came here as an assistant three years ago and took over the program last season, ushering in a new era of discipline.
No more hanging outside the school doors after school; practice begins promptly at 3. Late? You carry a 50-pound log for the entire practice, or until Coach tells you to stop. Coach has enough logs for eight late arrivals.
McCluer High, like the communities it serves, is predominantly black. Most students come from Ferguson and many come from nearby Florissant, where the campus sits. There are about 30 boys, all black, on the varsity team, which won two games a season ago. Coach MacDonald estimates three-quarters of them come from single-parent homes.
“I tell these kids every day that because we are a black school and we are who we are, people expect us to act a certain way,” MacDonald says. “Let’s not fit those stereotypes.”
The kids speak a linguistic smoothie of local, regional and West Coast slang. They’re often “fin’ to” do something (fixing to). The adjective “hella,” born in the Bay Area, is commonly used to express an extreme degree (“I’m hella bored.”). To be thoroughly dominated in an athletic competition is to be “dog-walked.” The man doing the dog-walking is typically “killin’ that boy.” They trade casual insults, but they never call each other “gay”— it’s just not in their vocabulary. Much of the bus ride from the locker room at McCluer to the Monday practice is spent arguing over what songs to play on a wireless speaker the size of a baseball. The consensus: Sledgehammer-voiced Chicago rapper Lil Herb is the “hottest youngin’ in the game.”
Some of the diehard fans on the team identify particularly with a YouTube freestyle featuring a 16-year-old Herb in 2012, filmed under a South Side Chicago streetlight at 3:33 am. Herb raps through the incessant ring of a hanger-on’s smartphone and the eventual arrival of a police SUV. As the truck pulls to a stop in front of his friends, Herb concludes:
“Hit the river, dump him/ Just another n----, f--- him/ I was aged by the apes; show no fear of nothing”
* * *
“This week is all that matters.”
Interrupting the music debate, someone asks who Ferguson’s Week 2 opponent is. Senior quarterback Randall Ceaser, sitting in the second-to-last row, cuts off anybody who was fin’ to answer: “We don’t play anybody but Miller Career Academy.”
“Yea but who do we play after that?”
Randall responds in a voice deeper than even Lil Herb’s.
“We don’t play anybody but Miller Career Academy. This week is all that matters.”
The starting quarterback doesn’t take practice lightly, and Monday is no different. When he connects on two deep passes in a row with wide receiver Asa McFadden, he goes out of his way to dap the narrow senior. But if you screw up, it’s another story…
Randall wants to know why you just dropped that perfect ball. Randall wants to know why you’re at practice, but not practicing. Randall wants to know why your helmet isn’t on. Randall wants to know why you missed the backside blitz.
At the beginning of practice one senior announces plans to forgo his shoulder pads during warmups because of the humidity.
Randall shoots him a look: “Put your pads on like everybody else.”
You go online and you have people saying Ferguson is a ghetto,” says Randall. “This is not a ghetto.
Raequan joins in Randall’s glare: “You’re not special, bro.”
Randall, though, has something else on his mind. When the bus turned onto West Florissant on the way to the Rams game and players caught a brief glimpse of daytime protesters, Randall started the team chanting, “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!”
Like a lot of McCluer boys he first learned of Michael Brown on Instagram, when images of Brown’s dead body laying on the pavement with an officer standing over it replicated over and over on his feed.
“It’s all football when I get to practice, but you can’t not think about it,” Randall says. “You go online, and you have people saying Ferguson is a ghetto, that we fit a stereotype. CNN shows the fighting and shooting. This is not a ghetto. The extreme people in this situation—people not even from here—are making a name for us that we don’t want.”
Most players, though, do empathize with one of the more vulgar displays coming out of Ferguson. It is impossible to walk the length of the contested portion of West Florissant without hearing a chorus of “F--- the police.” Many teens here get their first taste of what they consider harassment at the Delmar Loop, a six-block shopping district in University City, near Ferguson. According to Chicago Bears defensive end and University City native David Bass, and numerous McCluer athletes, The Loop is policed heavily by authorities who aggressively single out black teens.
For one McCluer athlete the contempt started much earlier.
Trevon Spann, 17, recalls being in sixth grade when Hazelwood Police approached him while he was playing tag with friends in a park. He says police “threw me up against a car because they said I fit the description of a person who was breaking into homes.” They asked him his name and address. He stammered an answer, and they let him walk.
So at 12 years old, for Trevon, the notion of the police’s role to serve and protect was gone. Then in 2011 his single mother decided to marry—his new stepdad was a police officer in St. Louis’ rough-and-tumble Sixth District.
Trevon’s mother says her boyfriend sat down with Trevon and had a talk about responsibility and understanding. He explained the officers’ side of the coin. Trevon had grown up listening to “F--- the police” lyrics, agreeing with them and reciting them. Now, somehow, he was converted.
“In all walks of life you are going to have good and bad,” Trevon says now. “You can’t label a whole group bad. Growing up you hear all the time people say ‘F the police,’ listening to music. It’s something I used to say.”
But now when peers say the words, he stays quiet. He heard it on West Florissant last Sunday, as he took a walk with his birth father, who owns a Florissant barber shop, through the protests in the early evening. Around 7 p.m. they started to hear the chant more often. He began recognizing burnout former McCluer graduates and shadowy faces from around the neighborhood. These are the guys, he thought, who are starting the fighting and shooting.
“You could sense the tension building up,” Trevon says. “You can hear the anger build in their voices.”
They left Florissant at 8 p.m. When they turned on the TV at home 10 minutes later all hell had broken loose. A crowd marched past the south police barricade toward the command center and were repelled by five armored vehicles and a massive barrage of tear gas. The crackdown happened four hours before curfew, and he was nearly caught in the center of it.
One day he might be on the other side of those gas canisters; Trevon has a 4.1 GPA and scored 23 on the ACT. He’s completed a selective patrol academy course with the Jefferson City Highway Patrol and would like to attend Alabama and pursue a criminal justice career.
But first: Miller Career Academy.
“Coming to practice gives you a sense of relief, and hopefully we get to play this game,” he says. “It’s crazy going through all of this right now.”
* * *
“Nothing has changed here.”
As the McCluer Comets milled around the parking lot behind the school on Monday, waiting for a bus that showed up 30 minutes late, President Barack Obama addressed the nation live, speaking to the regional crisis and national powder keg that little Ferguson had become.
“In too many communities,” the President said, “too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear."
The words resonated with many in Ferguson, especially the father of senior wide receiver Kevin Spraggins III. The elder Spraggins, a compact man with a passionate stare, attended McCluer and moved to Michigan when he was 17 in 1991. He recalls being a victim of racial profiling as a teen in Ferguson—it was so bad that he and friends kept their pay stubs in their vehicle glove boxes so they could justify a wad of cash should a cop choose to search them.
“What happens here now with these children is the same thing that happened when I was a kid,” he says. “Nothing has changed here.”
Yet he moved back when Kevin III was a year old, with a noble purpose: “I felt like there was unfinished business. I wanted to give back, and to show people what it is to raise a family here.”
I saw a tweet that says St. Louis isn’t safe,” Kevin III says. “If you think about it, when has it been safe for all of us?
The Spraggins children—Kevin and his younger sister and brother—have come to expect daily lectures from their parents on topics ranging from religion to career goals, sometimes at 7 a.m. on Sunday mornings or on weekdays, an hour before they would typically wake up for school. This week, with the events of Ferguson happening two miles away and flashing across the television screen, they sat around the kitchen table of their single-story home and discussed the origin of the term “lynching.” A version of events disputed by many historians states that an 18th-century Virginia slave owner named Willie Lynch spread word he’d discovered that the secret to keeping order among slaves was to create inequality in their ranks.
Were there people who mattered less, because of what they’d done before death?
Or was this a time for solidarity, and eventually, change?
Kevin III had already been warned about the majority-white police force. He’d been shooed from the Delmar Loop before. These days of unrest have firmed his conviction.
“I saw a tweet that said, St. Louis isn’t safe,” Kevin III says. “If you think about it, when has it been safe? When has it been for all of us? It’s different here, I think.”
Says his father: “It’s time. The normal course of business hasn’t been working.”
* * *
“They’re gonna take all their aggression out on Friday.”
Little of this is on the minds of the boys as they disembark the yellow school bus on the practice field with no lines, in the park that’s not theirs. Coach Mac and his assistants worry about the players every day, but they have faith that none will be out past dark, when the projectiles and the cuffs come out.
Gravelly voiced assistant coach Greg Anderson watches the players warm up with a slight grimace. “These are good kids,” he says, “They’re going through a lot. They’re going to take out all of their aggression on Friday.”
That’s if the game is played. Coach Mac is doing everything he can to make that happen, as if a football game is going to rescue Ferguson’s children from the brink. His world these days revolves around his smartphone—conversations with the principal, the athletic director, with parents and other coaches. He’s a whirlwind of words and action at all times. Except during practice, when he stands calmly in the middle of the field, just behind the linebackers, and monitors his team from the best vantage point in the house.
Coach Mac is watching for the moment when things begin to unravel.