When Phoebus High football coach Bill Dee learned that Maury High running back Charles Humphrey was shot and killed last week in Norfolk, the memories came pouring back.
Fourteen and a half years ago, Dee and the Phoebus community dealt with the shooting death of football and basketball player Joemel Dennis.
"A terrible thing," Dee said. "I wouldn't wish that on anybody." Dennis was shot in a robbery attempt in his neighborhood one night in early July 1994, shortly after returning from a summer-league basketball game.
Dee vividly remembers so much from that time: Dennis' brother sitting on Dee's living room couch and telling him that the family was going to take Joemel off the hospital respirator; the viewing; the funeral; the raw, emotional talks with Dennis' teammates.
"It was hard for me to function in social settings for a couple weeks afterward because I was angry," Dee said. "I was angry because it seemed so senseless. You're going through the whole grieving process, and it's just hard."
A STRING OF VIOLENCE
Dee has been reminded of Dennis more often than he would like in recent months. Humphrey was the latest in a string of Hampton Roads prep athletes injured or killed by gunfire.
The Peninsula has been spared of late, but the shootings resonate throughout the region's tightly knit coaching and athletic fraternity.
"It's a tragedy when an athlete is shot," Dee said, "but really, it's a tragedy when any young person is shot."
Humphrey was the sixth football player from South Hampton Roads to be shot in the past 10 months.
Norcom's Rashawn Finney, the younger brother of Old Dominion basketball player Ben Finney, was shot and killed at a party in Chesapeake in September. In July, two former high school stars - Oscar Smith's Lonnie Andrews and Deep Creek's Donte Newsome - were shot and killed in separate incidents.
Derrius Walton from Lake Taylor was shot outside an Arizona nightclub in March and later died from his injuries. Former Salem star Kevin Whaley was shot outside a Virginia Beach nightclub and is recovering while on scholarship at Minnesota.
Smithfield High football player Tyrone Seaborne was accidentally shot and killed in July in the passenger seat of a car during an altercation between two other young men.
"What you're seeing over there, it's just a matter of time before you see it over here," Heritage High basketball coach Dennis Koutoufas said - "here" being the Peninsula. "I think we've been blessed that it hasn't happened here. That's a good way of saying it. It's happened here, it just hasn't happened to athletes."
Indeed, two teenagers were shot and killed late last month in Newport News' East End: 16-year-old Barry Richardson of Newport News and 15-year-old Keon Flemming of Smithfield.
One Heritage athlete who asked not to be named knew Richardson. He said guns and gun violence were all too common in and around his Walker Village neighborhood.
The young man described it this way: "It starts off, 'I don't like him. Why's he looking at me like that?' Then it goes from there. It's foolishness, for real. There don't be no proper cause for it."
The young man knew several people killed by gunfire. He has had a gun pointed at him twice, he said - most recently last fall, when a man mistakenly thought the young man had robbed his house. The gunman's buddy talked him off the Heritage student, saying the young man wasn't the person the man was looking for.
"I thought he was going to shoot me," the young man said flatly. "But I've been through a lot of things in my life. Nothing scares me much anymore."
Local coaches and athletes wonder whether the urban setting and the more densely populated South Hampton Roads areas have contributed to the recent shootings.
Or, as Hampton High football player Tron Martinez said, "I think Norfolk is a crazy environment. Lots of stuff goes on over there. I think some parts of Norfolk are hostile."
But the shootings haven't been confined to Norfolk, and no one thinks that Peninsula athletes are immune to gun violence.
Koutoufas tells a story about an exchange that he had with one of his former players during a game several years ago:
"Coach, take me out."
"I need to bandage up my bullet wound. It's bleeding."
After telling the story, Koutoufas smiled wryly and said, "How many coaches hear that?"
It turned out that the player had attended a party in a vacant house a couple of nights earlier, Koutoufas learned, and a rival group came along and sprayed the place with bullets. One bullet grazed the player's chest.
The Heritage trainer bandaged the player, and he went back in the game. He finished the game and the season.
"Nobody ever knew about it," Koutoufas said. "But a few inches one way or the other and you'd have been reading about him. He'd have been a tragedy."
Warwick football coach Stan Sexton, like all his peers, warns his players of the dangers of the streets, of avoiding trouble and of making good decisions. He has learned, however, that some decisions are made for you.
"I had a 14-year-old player come up to me last summer," Sexton said, "and said, 'Coach, a guy came up to me and pointed a gun at my head and told me, 'You join us or you don't go home.' What do I do?'
"You're supposed to say, 'I'm not going to join you because what you're doing is wrong' - and then I go to your funeral? You can't tell a kid that. I told him, 'Tell him you'll join him and then just do your best to avoid it.'
" 'Just say no' doesn't work anymore."
Coaches and athletes talk about an environment that's more dangerous than 10 - or even five - years ago.
"More guns, more gangs, more drunk drivers," Hampton High football player Monte Haney said. "More people out there doing stupid stuff.
"I don't even like to go to parties because you never know what could happen. You dance with the wrong girl, and somebody could go off."
Crabbers teammate Andy Allison said, "Some kids will fight, but you can't even fight anymore because you never know who's got a gun."
Warwick basketball coach Ben Moore grew up in New York City and is no stranger to gun violence. Three of his former players were shot and killed after they graduated from Warwick.
"When I was young," Moore said, "you never heard about athletes getting shot because the neighborhood took care of you. Now society is different. It seems like nobody is protected. Athletes are just like everybody else. It's sad because athletics used to be a safe ground."
Charlie Peoples works for Newport News Parks and Recreation and as a security officer at An Achievable Dream Middle and High School on Marshall Avenue, next to Heritage High. He grew up in Newsome Park and has lived and worked in downtown Newport News nearly all his 49 years.
"Most kids in this building," Peoples said one afternoon in the hallway at An Achievable Dream, "can take you out of here and get you a gun. They know where to go, what street corner, who to see. That's the reality of it.
"It's the culture. Young people are fascinated with the gun culture."
One Warwick High athlete who asked not to be identified used to run with a gang. He has carried a gun and admitted that he was on a dangerous path before he applied himself to athletics and schoolwork.
"The guys I was running with," he said, "never knew I could play ball. When they found out, they encouraged me to (play). They'd say, 'You don't need all this street stuff. Get on with your life.' "
He's turned around his life, but he still fears for himself and for others.
He said guns were finding their way into younger and younger hands that had no understanding of the power they wielded.
"Kids like 12, 13 years old are carrying guns," he said. "It's like, 'Aren't you supposed to be in school? What are you doing with a gun?'
"Today, everybody wants to shoot somebody over little stuff. It might be a girl. You said something about my mom. You did something to me in third grade. It could be a look. You give somebody the wrong look, and you could get shot."
SOULTIONS ARE ELUSIVE
Solutions are elusive. More active parenting. Greater community vigilance. More school-sponsored programs, athletics and otherwise - particularly in middle schools, when kids are often most vulnerable to outside influences.
Coaches will continue to stress the importance of making good decisions and of recognizing and avoiding potential trouble.
Even with all that, the spectre of the next Joemel Dennis or Charles Humphrey exists.
"I think we've been real lucky," Sexton said.
"I would love to say that athletes here are smart enough to avoid those situations all the time, but we know that's not always the case.
"Some of them are, but I have to say we've been incredibly lucky.
"It's just a matter of time until we're reading about one of our stars.
"I hope it never happens, but I think we're going to."
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