He is not alone. All around him, shoulder-to-shoulder, sit 50 other nervous boys. They crack their knuckles and wring their hands. They crane their necks and say their prayers. They stare out the windows, passing a row of dangerous apartments where some of them live.
This is Jeremiah's team, the Susan Miller Dorsey High School football team.
It is a Friday in mid-November, and this is their night, a night Jeremiah has dreamed of since grade school, when he first heard about the raw-nerved battles between Dorsey and Crenshaw High.
Dorsey-Crenshaw is the rivalry game in black Los Angeles; tense and talent-kissed, pitting two of the last predominantly African American high schools in an increasingly Latino city against each other. It splits friends and neighbors and sometimes city blocks, red against blue, Blood against Crip.
Fifteen, handsome and whip-smart, Jeremiah hears his coach's voice. "Quiet," says Paul Knox, disturbed by a din coming from the back of the bus. "Keep your focus, please."
He does not shout. There is no bite to his voice. But as they've done at Dorsey for almost three decades, his players do as told.
Knox, 56, who doubles as a U.S. history teacher, is the dean of high school football coaches in Los Angeles. He's been coaching at Dorsey since 1982, at the helm since 1985. He's a legend in South L.A. for his winning, and for his steady calm.
Poor and shopworn Dorsey, stuck in the path of crack wars that reached an apex in the 1990s, has imbued Knox with painful perspective. He's spent a career wading through woe: players jailed, shattered by despair, swallowed by gangs . . . or worse. It has not been uncommon for him to attend three funerals in a year.
Yet he's also overseen the creation of a football haven. In Dorsey's 72-year history, the school has won five city titles. Knox was an assistant for the first, the head coach for the others. Many schools would crow at sending a handful of players every decade to play college ball. At least 100 of his Dorsey Dons have earned athletic scholarships. Twenty-six are veterans of the NFL.
But for years, something more important than wins, losses and glory has been at work here. With little fanfare, on a team where most players are raised by single mothers, sisters, grandparents or in group homes, Knox and his assistants have created a family for boys who need extra care, support and guidance -- particularly from men.
You can see it on the dusty practice field before the Crenshaw game. There is Knox -- "Pops," as he is sometimes called -- lips pursed, hands clasped behind his back, eyes trained on his team like a hopeful father. Spread before him are not just his players but his assistant coaches -- 16 of them, 16 stand-in uncles.
Like Knox, they seem to need the team as much as the boys. They work for next to nothing, a volunteer second job that keeps them busy almost all year. Unlike Knox, they bark, push, cuss, tear down and prop up. Among them is a probation officer who starts work before dawn, gets off at noon, then drives straight to Dorsey for hours of putting kids through their paces. An assembly-line worker. A teacher. A contractor. A former L.A. city councilman. An ex-NFL receiver.
After practice, they sit with Knox in his cobwebbed office, and former players stream in. They remain his kids, always. There are men who struggle along with well-situated men. There are men like onetime NFL star Keyshawn Johnson. They watch their words and stand flag-pole straight, still seeking his approval.
But in all those years and with all those players, Knox has never coached a game like this. He doesn't know what to expect. His team has lost just one game, but is young, inexperienced and inconsistent. Meantime, Crenshaw, a larger school less than three miles away, is undefeated, ranked first in the city and second in the state. Some say they are the best inner-city L.A. team in history.
The bus presses close to Crenshaw. Police have cordoned off the surrounding streets for safety. Tension weaves through the cabin like a strangling weed. Everyone on board knows this will be a chance to defy all odds, like the lives Jeremiah and many of his teammates are living.
It's just as the coaches promised, Jeremiah tells himself, walking from the bus, his eyes roaming the Crenshaw field as he remembers their words and warnings: "It's gonna be a snake pit. . . . You're gonna want to brag on this game, that you won it, when you're an old man at the barbershop getting a cut from some dude who went to Crenshaw."
It's just as he'd dreamed. As he'd imagined when he woke that morning, draping a black shirt over his shoulders, reaching into a cabinet and pulling out two obituaries -- one for an uncle killed last year, another for a friend killed last March. Neatly, lovingly, he had tucked the obituaries into a binder he carried all day.
"Dorsey! Dorsey!" he bellowed again and again. A sophomore lineman, this is his first rivalry game. "Dorsey! Dorsey!"