Bad Newz: Where violence, Vick and football meet

This is life's cadence one week in Bad Newz:

Two officers with "DEA" on their vests guard a handcuffed young black man sitting on the concrete curb at the Speedy Mart where Newport News eases into Hampton at 76th Street. Two other officers, wearing vests with "Police" on them, stand nearby.

No big sting, one of the officers tells a passerby, "just a routine patrol."

Farther along, sirens rip the mid-day swelter as three police cruisers, blue lights twirling, chase a man on foot near Wickham Avenue.

Deeper toward downtown, police cruisers make regular patrols near the low-slung apartment complexes named Dickerson Court, Harbor Homes and Ridley Place. At moments like these, tranquility and the summer's heat seem to blanket an area known for strong community spirit. But the people living here know how quickly lawlessness punctures their moments of calm. This is how southeast Newport News earned the handle "Bad Newz" in the world of hip-hop.

Hard crimes have been erupting all around the people in these apartments in recent months. Of the 20 homicides recorded in Newport News this year, 13 have happened in the city's southeast area. You learn to live with the bursts of chaos, residents sitting outside the apartments explain. The rest of the time, you look for beacons of hope for you and the children.

One afternoon recently at Ridley Place, a commotion breaks out. The curious, wearing white T-shirts to keep cool, gawk at the racket. One of the community's beacons of hope is just getting under way.

There's a fenced-in ball yard nearby.

Taking the field are the Hampton Roads Boys & Girls Club Spartans, a youth football association that through the years has nurtured the likes of Aaron Brooks, Allen Iverson, Michael Vick and Marcus Vick.

Best known for their exploits in college and professional sports, each of them lived in this area for at least parts of their childhood.

Each of them found in the football Spartans the direction they needed to pursue sports stardom.

Now it's the time of the summer for a new crew to seek that direction.

From about 5 to 7:30 p.m. each day, the playing field, which stretches a few blocks along Ivy Avenue, is the refuge to build football players - but also to keep kids ages 6 to 15 from harm's way.

The Spartans program has been doing this for years, first feeding kids to the former Huntington and Ferguson high schools and now into Warwick, Heritage, Menchville or to whichever zones their parents might wind up calling home.

It's not always easy to keep the bad influences away from the young athletes.

Sometimes, coaches and players have arrived at their practice field to find the fences knocked down by gangbangers - just because.

It would be easy for some of these kids to let the destruction and the odds of encountering violence overwhelm.

But there's long been the success of Iverson, Brooks and the Vicks to serve as a model - especially Michael Vick, star quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons.

Then came investigations into Vick's alleged cruel treatment of fighting dogs and, ultimately, a federal conspiracy indictment.

In this community, there's strong sentiment toward Vick and an insistence that people shouldn't rush to deem him guilty of the dogfighting charges.

All that said, this year's Spartans begin looking for their beacons of hope with youth violence rising all around and a tainted cloud hovering over a local hero.

GUIDING PRINCIPLES

"Break down!" a young coach yells.

A group of four youngsters responds: "Hoah!"

"Hit it!" comes the next command.

The players, including one who wears a No. 7 Atlanta Falcons "VICK" jersey, drop parallel to the ground on their toes and hands, push-up style.

"Get it going!'

The players take off running full speed. The coaches applaud.

The next group doesn't fare as well.

Their yell to the "break down" call isn't loud enough, and they're sent off to do a lap around the playing field.

"You don't know how to make noise, you'll be running!" the coach yells.

A few minutes later, two of the boys are made to do another lap for failing to run the entire way.

Just a few feet away, a kid named Mario rifles one spiral pass after another to young, speedy receivers who practice running pass patterns.

Coach Gary "Chop" Robertson, who has worked in the program for 24 years, notices a slump-shouldered participant ready to take his turn.

"Let me see a receiver, son!" Chop yells.

"Look like a wide receiver! ... You want to play?

"Yes, sir," the kid responds, straightens himself, then dutifully runs his pattern and snares a pass.

These eager pupils seem to understand the magic of these grounds.

Not just the big names, but the thousands of others who have earned academic and athletic scholarships and who land all types of jobs in sports, business and industry - such as Dominique Green, who earned an engineering degree at Virginia Tech and now works on jets for the federal government.

So they grunt and sweat and run each day.

For many of them, these coaches - who teach them incrementally about football and about life - represent the most structured and disciplined environment that they'll face.

Still, the coaches and the kids can't help but wonder who will be the next big thing.

Coach Bernard Johnson, a Norfolk State University alum, came to the program 28 years ago and changed the name to Spartans, just like his alma mater.

He says the program's guiding principles include working hard in the classroom and advancing to the next level in football from one age group to the next, right up to junior varsity football, where the kids go after rec ball.

"And we stress doing the right thing," Johnson says. "A lot of people don't realize that just because you are 21 or 22 years old, that doesn't make you mature."

'IT'S JUST UNREAL'

In the courtyard at Dickerson Court, two men and a woman sit in the late afternoon shade of the buildings, drinking soft drinks and talking about the main topics of the day - including Michael Vick.

The area's reputation for violence seems out of character with its lack of daytime hustle and bustle. But beware nightfall, when activity picks up. "You hear a lot of bad stories about the East End, the crime and shooting, but not a whole lot happens here," says Barrington Compere, who played linebacker at Warwick during the Michael Vick era.

Compere is now involved in community service and performs with a local hip-hop organization, Hood Platinum Media Group.

"There's nothing wrong with coming back here, but if you've got the ability and opportunity to get out, that's a good thing," Compere says.

He's talking indirectly about his first cousin, Cody Brodus, who hung out less than a block away recently with a group of young men, some on foot and some on bicycles, who idled their time away.

Brodus - heralded a couple of years ago at Warwick as the next Michael Vick - spent a season at Norfolk State, sat out last season and now hopes to start in the fall at Division II St. Paul's College in Lawrenceville.

While Compere is talking, another man walks up and joins the discussion: "You know that thing in the paper, that Talk Back, I wrote in that ..."

Yes, these days, the idle talk, the calm has been broken as the nation each day and night debates the Michael Vick saga.

"It's just crazy, man," Compere says. "It's just unreal."

The area is also the former home of Tony Taylor, a Vick co-defendant who has pleaded guilty and likely to testify against Vick.

In fact, Taylor; another co-defendant, Quanis Phillips; and a young woman lived just across the grassy walk from where Compere sits.

"Out here, a lot of people are talking about Michael Vick," Compere says.

"And a lot of people are wearing jerseys saying, 'Michael Vick is innocent.' "

'WE'LL BE ALL RIGHT'

Bernard Johnson remembers a far different Michael Vick from the one banned from an NFL training camp as he awaits the outcome of federal charges related to financing a dogfighting enterprise.

Not the $100 million athlete with all the God-given talent in the world, as the cliche goes.

Johnson remembers a young aspiring quarterback who, at 12, began making decisions to make himself great.

Vick and a friend would call Johnson every morning so they could go to Harbor Homes and from 9 a.m. to noon throw a football through a tire hanging from a soccer goal.

Johnson would also open up the Boys & Girls Club after business hours to allow Vick and a few playmates to come in and shoot basketball and lift weights.

When Johnson takes in a player, he's committed to him for life.

In that sense, he thinks that Vick was let down by his earliest football family.

"In a sense, I feel like we dropped the ball," Johnson says.

"Down here, when my kids mess up, I find out about it.

"If something wrong was going on with Mike, some kind of way, it should have getting back to the right people ..."

Johnson knows all too well that every child can't be saved, but he also knows that the Vick case doesn't compare to the case of Antonio Wilkins.

With his team two games from completing an 8-0 record last year, Wilkins, 14, was gunned down near Ridley Place while walking home.

The crime remains unsolved but is thought to be gang-related.

The team made the A-league Super Bowl, "but after the funeral, it seemed to take a lot out of the kids," Johnson says.

"And it took a lot out of the coaches.

"I've been doing this 28 years, and I've never had to bury one of my players."

Kenneth Hundley, area representative for the Boys & Girls Club program, says gangs have been a continuing challenge.

Once, they assaulted an assistant coach after coaches defended players whose bicycles were grabbed by gang members, he says.

"They are always lurking around," Hundley says.

"But I tell my kids that as long as we stick together, we'll be all right."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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