- Wright Thompson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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The hood is calling. No, this isn't a figure of speech. Darnell Jenkins' cell phone is ringing, like, every 15 seconds. A half hour ago, Jenkins decided to stop by his old stomping grounds, and now everyone on his Liberty City block is asking Miami's starting wideout to visit them too. There it goes again.
"Where y'all at?" he answers. "All right. All right."
He hangs up, letting out a wheezy, high-pitched laugh. "I told you," says Jenkins. "See how everybody calls me? A lot of people got respect for me in the neighborhood because I was wild, but then I straightened up quick. They look out for me now."
Liberty City is just 15 miles from the Coral Gables campus where Jenkins has lived for the past four years. But driving home into inner-city Miami feels like crossing an ocean. The average income falls and the murder rate rises with each mile marker on U.S. 1. For many players at the U, as well as at nearby Florida International, these streets are home. College sports offers them a chance. But it also marks them.
Coaches live in fear of the call, like the one the Hurricanes staff got last year after Bryan Pata, a teammate of Jenkins at Miami, and Central High before that, was gunned down. He'd left the neighborhood but not the life. All the kids from Miami-Dade County know the same could happen to them, especially the ones who haven't realized that the people who seem to be looking out for them often aren't. "It's a bunch of crabs," says former Hurricane running back Melvin Bratton, one of the first Liberty City kids to star at the U back in the mid-'80s. "There's a lot of animosity. A lot of jealousy."
Palm trees sag. Walls crumble. Plywood covers storefronts. To the east lies Overtown, another war zone. A wrong turn now could be trouble. "If I'm not with people I know," Jenkins says, "I wouldn't get seen here." He points the car toward NW 27th Avenue, near the western boundary of Liberty City, where half of Miami's black population resides. He's a long way from the glistening Coral Gables mall. This is home, a place he both loathes and loves. Jenkins looks around, his senses on alert. "It's the beginning of the neighborhood right here," he says. "Drug houses all up in there. And they got a preschool right there, right by the drug house. See?"
THE INSULAR world of Miami football is changing. The Hurricanes, after a few down seasons marred by last year's on-the-field fight with FIU and two offthe-field shootings, have turned the program over to a streetwise disciplinarian: Liberty City's own Randy Shannon. Shannon, who was coached in high school by Anthony Saunders, the same man who coached Jenkins and Pata, knows that to win, he needs Miami kids—and he needs to keep those kids safe. One of the first things Shannon did was enact a couple of rules: 1) Any Cane caught with a firearm is off the team; and 2) no off-campus housing without a 2.5 GPA.
Jenkins had come to the Canes with a blue-chip rep: tough, fast and sure-handed. But three seasons later, he needs a final year filled with highlights to have a shot at getting drafted. It can only help that Shannon cracked down on Jenkins this offseason, making sure the player chose the right friends. As a show of good faith, Jenkins cut his dreads. Yes, things are different in Coral Cables.
Meanwhile, across town at FIU, a former Cane star and coach, the charismatic Mario Cristobal, has been hired to lift the program. The school aims to be the next Miami. "There are so many players in 20 square miles," Cristobal says. "It's a hungry city."
The hungriest live in the swath of crime-ridden real estate known as Liberty City. If you've driven from Miami International Airport to the velvet ropes of South Beach, you've gone right by it, close enough to smell the desperation. Four of its high schools—Central, Northwestern, Jackson and Edison—routinely crank out NFL stars. But on most days, cop cars park in front of the squat, square concrete buildings, adding to the cell-block feel. The surrounding neighborhoods are untamed frontier, and trouble seems to hover on the campuses. Across from Central is a sub shop where a student is murdered at least once a year. This summer, Northwestern's superintendent nearly canceled the football season after the team allowed its star running back to play in the 2006 state title game despite battery charges against him stemming from consensual sex with a 14-year-old girl.
Coaches at these schools sometimes let practice out early so that their kids don't have to cross a particularly nasty intersection after dark. On this quiet day, Jenkins nods at one of the nastiest: a small ribbon of concrete in front of a housing project. It's the dividing line, he explains. On one side, families cling to a subsistence existence. On the other: Fallujah. The freeway bounds above, loosing a hum of cars driven by people going places. Down here, no one's going anywhere. The narrow streets disappear into a jungle of drab apartments, places taxis refuse to drive to. Jenkins knows that to cross this street is to roll the dice. Gunplay is as expected as the sunrise. Once at Jackson High, Cristobal says, he had to hide in the coach's office while a gunman roamed the school grounds. The drama didn't make the national news. No talking heads opined about it. They're just living and dying in Liberty City, the way they've been doing for years.
Shannon and Jenkins will tell you that Saunders taught more than tackling. He made sure his kids knew to duck when they heard shots during practice. Every year he lost a student. Near Liberty City, at North Miami Beach High, head coach Jeff Bertani saw a gang waiting outside practice for one of his players this spring. He drove the kid home and checked on him three times that weekend. "You can't think about just what you run and what the other team is going to run," he says. "You want every kid to come back the next day."
Any Dade County kid with talent is faced with a choice: Stay or go? For players with involved parents or strong support systems, Miami and FIU offer amazing chances to get a degree and play near home. For others, it's a high-wire act. "At times I say, 'You need to get out of here,'" admits Saunders, who recently retired from coaching. "'I don't care if Miami is recruiting you. Go to Michigan. Go to Ohio State. Go to North Carolina. There's nothing here for you.'"
Athletic success stories are beacons of light. Willis McGahee, Chad Johnson, Antonio Bryant. There are dozens of reminders for those surviving day-to-day in Liberty City. But even when a kid escapes, the gravitational pull is strong. A few years back, Saunders had a player sign with an SEC power. He was going to be a superstar, a first-round pick. This past February, Saunders was driving through Liberty City when he saw the young man on a corner, dealing drugs. He slammed the brakes, rolled down the window and said bluntly, "What the f— are you doing?!"
Sadness filled the ex-player's voice. "Coach," he said, "I couldn't handle it."
JENKINS STEPS from a car at his mom Valerie's house. As soon as the door slams, folk pour from inside homes and off front-porch chairs. "Everybody wants to know him," says Marvin "Marvelous" Henderson, a local producer and rapper who knows Jenkins from the neighborhood and college.
Jenkins has known these people his whole life. Some are trying to get out like he did. Others, like the one with the black bandanna in his back pocket, have made a different decision. Around here, gangs organize mostly by block instead of traditional affiliations. At the center of Liberty City is the Liberty Square Housing project, which locals call the Pork 'n Beans. "If you fight somebody from the Pork 'n Beans," says local legend and rapper Luther Campbell, "you fight the whole Pork 'n Beans. Fight someone on 58th, you fight the whole block."
The trick to getting players out of that environment, say both Shannon and Cristobal, is to get them to see the locker room as their block. The U has a media campaign that urges kids to join a
team, not a gang, selling football as an antidote to the street. "When you're here at Miami," Shannon says, "you've got to develop your homeboys on the team." Given that, Miami's brawl with FIU last season isn't surprising. Players did what they've done their entire lives—"Repping their area," Campbell says. The shock is that no one got killed afterward.
Standing up for his neighborhood can make an athlete a target. So can success and fame. People want that life so badly. When Jenkins' house was robbed a few years back, the thief nabbed his football trophies. And there are those who suspect jealousy got Pata killed. With his senior season winding down, the big defensive tackle had the NFL waiting. He had a spotless record and a loving family, but neither could shield him from a single shot to the back of the head. Eight months later, no one can say for sure why he was killed. But a still-pluggedin Campbell, for one, doesn't buy the jealousy angle. "The streets got dead quiet," he says. "That means it was nothing from around here. Otherwise you'd know who the hell it is. Somebody'd be talking."
Publicly the coaches say the right thing. "He had turned the corner," one says. But his friends knew Pata couldn't completely cut ties with the street. Henderson said Pata usually carried a gun. Kids around here grow up with firearms the way others grow up with Halo. As Jenkins watched Lethal Weapon III a few months ago on a lazy Saturday, he called out every piece of steel on the screen: "Glock … M16 … Wilson suppressor … "
Whatever the reason, Pata's promising future was cut short. "He had three games left," his sister Ronette says, sitting on a couch in her Miami home. She begins to weep. She stares at his jersey on the wall, then slowly leaves the room. When she returns, she is holding a garbage bag. Inside is the contents of her brother's locker: notebooks from class, review sheets for a football game, a bent photo of Jenkins. She pulls out a giant orangeand-white cleat; there is still dirt on the bottom. "Nov. 7," she says softly.
Jenkins has seen that empty locker. He doesn't want to become another Miami player sucked back into the black hole of Liberty City. He can't forget it forever, either. "If you forget where you come from," Henderson says, "people ain't gonna like you no matter how big you get." Jenkins can't leave it behind. It's where he's from. It's his grandmother's food and his mother's smile and his daughter's voice as she runs to the door and yells, "Daddy!"
Taking her hand, he walks down the street. He looks both ways before crossing over to the park he played in as a little boy. Several hoops games are going on. The air by the bleachers smells like weed. One guy leaning against a fence nods, calling Jenkins by his nickname: Nuke. He's home.
A siren blares in the background. Horns honk. Shoes squeak on concrete; a ball clangs against weathered iron; the court fills with the give-andtake of fans and dealers and nexts. After the games finish, Darnell and Darnitria, 6, walk back home. Mama asks what he's doing later. "We might go bowling," he says. She smiles. "Stay home and bowl," Mama says. "Bowl, bowl, bowl." "Staying out of trouble," he says. She leans in close to pat his head gently. "There's nothing out there in the streets, no way but trouble," she says. "So it's best to stay home. I'm proud of him for that. Very proud." Then again, Jenkins' staying out of trouble is a recent thing. The juvenile detention center down the way? He did time there for aggravated assault. Even a year ago, after escaping to Coral Gables, he continued to be wrapped up in the streets, still wearing a black bandanna. Every time he went to the clubs, it seemed, a fight would lead to a shooting. "Someone close to you gets shot, stabbed, then you wonder, Who's next?" he says. "A guy I was with, his house got shot up 150 times. AK, 150 shells."
Pata's death did it. After the shooting, Jenkins heard whispers. "People would come up to me and be like, 'Pata did this, Pata did that,'" he says. At the funeral, Jenkins found Saunders, his old high school coach, and wept on the man's shoulder, tough edges worn down by grief. The coach knew full well that Jenkins still had a foot in both worlds.
"You have to make it," Saunders said.
"Coach," Jenkins promised, "I'm gonna make it."
He has. So far. Despite some trouble with team rules, Jenkins has a clean adult rap sheet. He chooses bowling over clubs, and the black bandannas are history, which seems simple but isn't. "Anybody who has the will and courage to put it down, big ups," Henderson says. "Hats off to you. It ain't easy."
The boys from the neighborhood notice the change. Henderson went to Central with Pata and Jenkins and lived with them in the dorms at the U. They rapped together; one of the tracks is still on Marvelous' MySpace page. Not long ago, Henderson and Jenkins ran into each other in a Niketown store. "I've known Nuke since he was little," Henderson says. "When I saw him in the store, he looked like a different person."
Jenkins is working on a sociology degree. He already has one in liberal arts; his mother cried when he walked across the stage. He doesn't come to the hood much anymore, and when he does, he tries to make the right decisions. "Two days ago," he says, "I went home. My friends were gambling so I drove by, but something told me not to get out of the car. Then the craps game got robbed."
The sun sinks into the Miami skyline; time for another decision. Jenkins climbs into a car. As he moves slowly down the street, people wave from porches. He waves back. Soon the car sits at an intersection. To the right, the hood sprawls before him—clubs and dice games and trouble. To the left is the road to campus. It's such a small decision, one players like him make every day. But each time, it's the most important decision they'll ever make.
Once again, Darnell Jenkins must choose: Stay or go? Right or left?
Left. A few moments later, the car hits second gear and merges onto U.S. 1. Coral Gables is coming up fast, and Jenkins laughs, singing along to a Latin rap on the radio, blabbering about a recent geology class and tectonic plates. Trendy shops and upscale chains begin to dot the road. He's left the neighborhood behind, at least for another day.
But it's still there, always, just over the horizon.