First of four parts.
The doors to the Clairton Bears' locker room are closed. A space usually pumped full of booming bass from hip-hop music is silent, except for the young man in the corner wearing a black No. 9 jersey. Sitting on a bench, he bows his head and cries.
His name is Robert Boatright. He's a senior running back and defensive end. Senior Night festivities are complete, and Boatright still doesn't know if he'll play college football. Now he's gulping back tears.
Terrish Webb is Boatright's best friend. He moves to Boatright and consoles him. Webb knows where he'll play next year, at Kent State. Even with his clarity on a night full of questions, Webb begins to cry, too. His father was murdered when Terrish was 11, and it hurt hearing his dad's name announced on Senior Night.
The rest of the seniors join Webb in forming a circle around Boatright, wrapping their arms around each other. Nobody else can enter. They're the protectors of a historic winning streak that weighs on them daily. It's at 55 now, will be 56 in a few hours, one more box checked until Heinz Field on Nov. 23, when they'll likely set a state record of 60. If they lose before then -- or any other time, really -- they believe they'll be seen as failures.
The seniors softly break the silence.
"I love y'all."
"Every snap, dog."
"No plays off, dog."
"Go to the whistle, dog."
"This is our last year in orange and black, man."
A door opens at the back of the room. It's Stuart Price, a former Bear and a Clairton barber shop owner. He sees the players sharing this moment and becomes angry.
"Break up that circle!" he yells.
The man is serious, and they know it. The town is always watching, its expectations never far from their minds. The boys love Clairton, proudly play for its reputation, but a resentment hangs in the room. Why did football have to mean so much?
Price's presence has changed the mood. He has poked the Bears. A player flips over a bench, trying to build up the rage required to play this game.
"This is our life!" yells Titus Howard, a senior wide receiver and cornerback, who has committed to play at Pitt. "This is our ticket out!"
Their defensive coordinator walks the field, headphones on, listening to gospel music. There's a song he likes that brings up his spirits. It's about not complaining, a message that resonates, because gosh would Wayne Wade like to complain.
Many of the 18 seniors have grand plans, their paths heading to college. Some won't make it there. The announcer describes them as being "undecided about his future plans" when they're introduced to the crowd before the game. Undecided makes Wade uncomfortable. He shakes parents' hands. It's his job to get their kids out of here, but then again, not everyone can do the things he's done, see the things he's seen.
He remembers his Senior Night, in 1989. He was them, which is why this arrangement has worked. The players think he's cool. He's 40, yet he seems young. He stays that way because of them. They challenge him most days. Skip a class, he'll hear about it. Spend a night on the corner? He'll hear about it. The man must have spies.
He can see their pitfalls because he once hurdled them. They've come so far. How many of them will succeed? Before he knows it, Wayne Wade is crying, too.
A hot pink sun falls below the hill on a Friday night. Down the street from the stadium with the bright lights, teenagers linger in front of the Soft Serve & Dee-Lites, licking ice cream from their cones and waiting. Is the marching band coming up Miller Avenue tonight? No sign of them yet.
For decades, game night in Clairton has been signaled by the blare of brass and rumble of percussion turning from St. Clair Avenue onto Miller. Finally, there they are, coming in clear, warming against the wind on a cool evening. A police car leads, with blue lights alternating. The few cars on the street pull to the side.
The band marches in the back of the procession, serenading the cheerleaders and baton twirlers as they dance and shout past boarded-up store fronts that once were part of a bustling downtown. A school's music program is usually the first thing to go when money is tight, but in Clairton, a town of about 7,000 people, 11 band members keep on playing, mustering as much noise as they can, belting out the classics until they're red in the face.
Clairton wants to be heard. Too often, only the dark side of the story makes it 13 miles up the Monongahela River to Pittsburgh. There is light here, too, seen most easily in those young men carrying what is believed to be the country's longest current high school football winning streak. Even with the increased local publicity the Bears' streak and three Class A state championships have brought the town, Clairton feels forgotten.
On the drive from Pittsburgh to Clairton on Route 51 South, there are malls, restaurants, fast-food joints, bars, grocery stores, gas stations and businesses lining the four-lane road. Once in Clairton, the world changes. Visitors are greeted with a Dollar General, a Family Dollar and a Rite Aid. In the main business district, a pizzeria and Chinese restaurant are the only eateries other than the soft-serve. To go to a grocery store, return to the highway. A closed gas station sits a football field away from the stadium.
Clairton's story is not unique to the Mon Valley. The town was born in 1903 because U.S. Steel wanted to build a coke works plant at this particular turn of the river. Unlike most of its neighbors, Clairton's mill still billows smoke into the air at the bottom of the hill, but the thousands of jobs that were slashed as the world went elsewhere for steel were enough to strip the community's men of their tangible worth.
Desperation set in, and drugs followed. Clairton residents who could afford to move to a community like Jefferson Hills or Elizabeth mostly did so. The town, which calls itself the "City of Prayer," would need every genuine plea to a higher power.
Today, Clairton presents some demographics that don't add up. The town is 59 percent white. The school district is 21 percent white. Out of about 40 kids, the football team dresses two white players. When Wayne Wade played for the Bears, the breakdown was about 50-50.
Clairton assistant coach Eric Fusco is white and played for Clairton from 1992 to '95. He has a theory about why the number of white kids playing on the school's team has dwindled so drastically over the past two decades.
"They think that place is like a penitentiary," Fusco says.
Fusco, who works for the city, believes most white families are sending their children to private schools or using relatives' addresses to get them into other school districts. School officials, however, explain that a large percentage of the white population in town is older and is therefore no longer contributing new lives to Clairton.
No matter the reason for the white flight from the district, here are the facts: The town is nothing without the school, and the school is nothing without the Bears. Terrish Webb and Robert Boatright are the senior class president and vice president. Clairton principal Tom McCloskey notices that the Bears walk with a purpose around the halls, like they know exactly where they're going.
It's refreshing to see, because Clairton's school district can't project too far. They have to win now, bringing those test scores up so that they can avoid the designation they've been handed time after time of a "failing school." That's what Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett labeled it when his administration stripped $800,000 from Clairton's budget in 2011. In response, the school district had to lay off 32 staff members.
"It takes a special type of person to work at Clairton," McCloskey says. "They're certainly not motivated by the money. It's more of a calling."
Rich Livingston has felt that pull. He is a Clairton graduate, class of 1970, and he is now the school board president. When the state kept that money from the district, the governor also encouraged Clairton to merge with a neighboring district, essentially admitting defeat. Livingston, who attends most football games, knew what that would mean: no more Clairton Bears.
The idea of it pained him. He'd seen it happen to Clairton's biggest rival, Duquesne, in 2007. The state forced Duquesne High to shut down, funneling the kids into West Mifflin and East Allegheny and ending the tradition of Dukes football. Livingston understood the stakes.
"No community can survive without a school," Livingston says.
Still, Livingston had his directive from the top. He sat down and wrote a letter to the school districts of West Jefferson Hills, Elizabeth Forward, South Allegheny and West Mifflin, asking to consider a merger with Clairton. He wrote the letter without a guilty conscience because he knew what the answers would be:
The white Lexus sedan rolls through town, retracing a boy's steps. Here's the spot in the Millvue Acres project, where Wayne Wade and his friends would race each other. He was not the fastest kid, but he'd prove to have better vision. Here's where the Blue Bird Restaurant used to be. The blue awning still stands, reminding all of how the smell of burgers and steaks on the grill reached St. Clair Avenue after games.
Wade slows down often to tap the horn as he drives by someone he knows. The locals recognize the round, friendly face and wave back. He is just old enough that he shares the knowledge of what this place used to be.
His players can't imagine the hair salon, the bakery, the fruit stand, the grocery store, the bar, the flower shop, the coffee shop, the numerous clothing and jewelry stores, the line streaming from the bank on Friday pay days, but Wade can. Maybe it's better that the kids never saw. Wade thinks the football team's accomplishments have kept the school from going the way of Duquesne.
"Duquesne, if you've been over there, without the school district, it's not even really a city," Wade says. "For Clairton to close, it would be more devastating for us than it is for Duquesne."
The streak and the constant pursuit of the record have infused the town with a new lifeblood. But as Wade drives up Miller Avenue toward the stadium, he can't shake the feeling that there's more ground to be won.
He tells a story. Earlier this fall, he was at a store buying gloves for the players.
"I was out in Robinson Township," he says. "We're talking 40 minutes away. I went in the store and said, 'I'm buying these for my high school, Clairton High School.' He said, 'Where's that? In Ohio?' I said, 'No, it's here in Pennsylvania. We have the longest winning streak in the country.' He was like, 'No way.' Right here in Pennsylvania ... I thought that was pretty odd."
Wade parks the car next to the stadium and gets out. It's time for another practice.
Coming Thursday: The Bears learn how to win through midget league football.
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published November 21, 2012 5:00 AM