The last of four parts
The yellow school bus rumbles across the river, Heinz Field looming in the rearview mirror. The Clairton Bears have been WPIAL champions and holders of the state record winning streak for just an hour, and they're already moving on.
First, party planning. The Bears eye their smartphones, checking their Twitter accounts and sending messages to create a buzz about a celebratory bash.
Apparently, after their 58-21 victory over Sto-Rox that gave Clairton its 60th win in a row, they emerged in higher demand.
"I got seven new followers!" senior Vinny Moody says.
"I got 14!" senior Titus Howard says.
"I got 20!" senior Devonte Harvey says.
Girls are sending tweets to them, and, when the bus makes a left turn past two young women, a Bear pushes his window down and yells out his phone number. His friends, snacking on chips and brownies, laugh with delight.
They barrel on toward home on Route 51. Football has removed the players from Clairton for another day, but the bus always has to return.
The only way to become a healthy and functioning Clairton Bear is to know that outside circumstances can't be controlled. And on Friday morning, the players' ability to process that lesson would be tested again.
At 3:30, Clairton assistant coach Remondo Williams heard gunshots fired down the street. Williams, who lives on the 900 block of Waddell Avenue, was up late watching a movie. He ran outside to make sure nobody had been hurt. He didn't see any bodies lying on the street, so he went back inside.
At 5:30, Clairton senior Brian Clifford's phone rang. It was teammate Damond Flowers calling, telling Clifford about the shots he heard ring out on Baker Avenue, near their apartments in the Millvue Acres project. Clifford didn't think much of it because he's used to hearing gunshots.
At 6, Clairton quarterback Armani Ford found out about the shootings while watching the news.
Police had converged on the area, discovering that four houses had been fired upon at least 40 times. Witnesses said the suspects were two gunmen in ski masks. No one was hurt, including in the house on Waddell, where a 10-month-old boy and an 8-year-old girl had made it through unscathed.
The Bears who live near downtown walked past flashing police lights on their way to the stadium, where they caught a bus to Heinz Field.
There, minutes before the game, the players gathered around Wayne Wade. The Bears' defensive coordinator reminded the boys of what awaited them at day's end if they just stayed focused.
"Living legends," he said.
That's how they'd feel, too. With three minutes left in another blowout win, the players were lined up in front of a white box on the sideline, grabbing their custom-made gray "60" T-shirts. The players shed their pads and pulled on the shirts, mugging for the cameras.
In the corner of a joyous locker room, Remondo Williams, 39, a former Bear, thought about Clairton.
"We win our fifth straight WPIALs, break the state record for a winning streak, and now you gotta go home and make sure everybody's OK," Williams said.
The past four years, the Bears have gladly taken on that task, trying to keep the town's mood up the only way they know how. They have come to see it as their civic duty.
As the bus drives up St. Clair Avenue, the boys hang out the windows, waving to mostly empty sidewalks. Car horns honk back at them in salute.
"We did this for y'all!" the Bears yell. "We did this for y'all!"
A police department that began the day investigating an attempted shooting is escorting the Bears up Miller Avenue. At the stadium, parents and friends welcome them with applause. Pizza and hugs await them once they're off the bus, and the players linger as long as possible in the parking lot. Still, they have to go home.
Clifford walks down Mitchell Avenue, pointing to the spot where gunshots pierced a home's facade a half-day earlier. He says he will be in college next year, likely with a full athletic scholarship. He isn't worried about the Bears. He expects them to extend the streak well into the future.
"They're going to keep it going," Clifford says.
The boys have written their town's name into the annals of the state's storied football history. But in Clairton, that won't be enough. There are three more games until they can be crowned state champions, and after that, there will be more games, played by new boys from the same old streets harboring the same old dreams, hoping that they can lift themselves up without letting their city down.
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published November 24, 2012 5:45 AM