Second of four parts
The clock strikes 5 on a Monday afternoon. The middle-school-age boys walk up Halcomb Street, headed for the red brick house with the white door. Inside, the film from Saturday's game is loaded in the DVD player and paused on the flat screen.
If a boy wants to be a Clairton Bear, he'd better be sitting here with the town's midget league team. Twelve teenagers of varying size, development and attention span sit around the TV, packed onto small sofas. They snack on brownies and Starbursts as Corey Wright, a Bear from 1997 to 2000, pounces on their every error.
Taymier Jamison, bean-pole thin with the fitting nickname of "Feather," is up first.
"FEATHER!" Wright yells. "This is why I call you FEATHER! Watch yourself! You're way better than that, man! This is FOOTBALL! Patty cake, patty cake! Patty cake, patty cake!"
The team's quarterback, Noah Hamlin, piles on.
"Come on, Feather!" he says. "The film don't lie. The play's still going, and you just quit!"
This house is where the Clairton Bears learn how to win. The midget league presents the last step toward living their dream of dressing with the varsity. Some players have been on this journey since they were 5 years old, graduating from "twerps" to "termites" to "mighty mites" to midgets. Every day, the boys think about what it will be like when they're Bears.
"You look out, and you just think, one day you'll be one of them," says Hamlin, 13.
While the varsity has obliterated its competition in Class A, the youth teams have taken their fair share of beatings in the city league, playing against more populous neighborhoods like Garfield, Braddock and the Hill District. To hear them tell it, Clairton gets no respect, even with the varsity's streak.
Wright and his four assistant coaches volunteer their time to change that, but, mostly, their goal is to make sure the kids have enough pigskin flowing through their blood that they choose to make the sacrifice to play in high school.
"It never fails," Wright says. "You try your best to keep them around. After the season is over, they're lost in the streets. That age group is so tough to deal with. You've got puberty, guys getting girlfriends, cellphones and Facebook. It's tough, man. I always preach football because it's all I've got to give them."
Every day, the battle for Clairton's future goes on, fought between the coaches and other community leaders and the drug dealers who are on the lookout for fresh-faced foot soldiers. This is where Coach Dennis comes in.
Dennis Dreher has seen the war from both sides. He knows this is the right one now, but it took him years to get here after his career as a Bear ended in 1994. Dreher, whose father was not present in his life, had a scholarship offer to play at California, Pa., but decided instead to stay in Clairton and sell drugs.
One night in 1995, Dreher was manning his corner near Millvue Acres project when there was a misunderstanding between him and a man named Charlie Jamison. Enraged, Dreher left and got a gun. He went to the home where Jamison was staying. Dreher remembers seeing Charlie fumbling through a drawer. Dreher assumed he was looking for a gun. He shot Charlie in the head.
"The only thing I look at is how stupid I was," Dreher says.
He served five years for involuntary manslaughter and came out with a desire to change. He started coaching, but he couldn't stay away from the other side. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to a charge of intending to distribute and received probation. Dreher says he hasn't sold any drugs since then.
"If you've got kids around you, looking up to you, you have to stop a lot of stuff that you're doing," Dreher says. "You've got to dig in yourself, man."
Dreher is the most intense of the coaches, by far, often grabbing the players and getting in their faces, as if each one of them represents the redemption he seeks. The boys often laugh to themselves at his antics, but he has told them enough about his past for them to know he doesn't take any of this lightly.
As the film from the midgets' win against North Shore continues, Taymier Jamison takes his criticism in stride. He's a quiet boy, and he has had to get past an awkward part of playing on this team: If Coach Dennis hadn't shot Charlie Jamison, Taymier would have been able to meet another cousin.
Dreher says it hasn't been an issue, that they've bonded through football. Dreher can't go back and unpull that trigger, but he can make amends to the Jamison family through Taymier.
Outside the red house on Halcomb Street, the winds are blowing. Feather can go where the random gusts take him, or he can stay strong, rooted in the idea that a game's principles can provide the blueprint for handling life's realities.
The only noises coming from underneath the bleachers of Neil C. Brown Stadium on this night emanate from the small weight room. Deep exhalations and the clang of the iron bar echo down the hallway.
Wayne Wade is alone, doing repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press.
This is one of those days. They come and go. During breaks from lifting, Wade complains ... or is it venting? The bursts of raw feeling and where they take him can be random. He brings up the 2010 state championship game. The Bears fell behind 24-0 to Taylor Riverside and came back to win 36-30, probably the most exhilarating win in school history.
"Nobody said, 'That's a great Clairton program,' " Wade says. "But they're quick to point out anything negative that happens. But the blessing we get out of it is it makes our kids stronger. There will never be another team that can get under our skin."
Wade looks around this spartan room that houses the Bears' weight sessions twice a week. He knows the advantages that other programs have. As a player, he couldn't help but notice that he and his teammates didn't have the hottest gear. They took what they were given and made it work.
He wants these kids to have more. They've earned it. The school provides only the necessities. Each year, Wade makes the rounds in town and along Highway 51, asking for donations. This year, the kids got pink Nike gloves to wear in October, breast cancer awareness month. He has got big plans for Heinz Field, the game when Clairton would win another WPIAL championship and break Central Bucks West's state record of 59 wins in a row. He only has to find the money.
Wade can visualize it. The game is over, and the Bears run to the sideline to open the boxes. They slip on T-shirts that declare them champions on the front. On the back, there'll be just one number, printed big and bold so the world can't miss it:
The clocks have fallen backward, and darkness now envelops the hill an hour earlier. While the varsity has finished practice, the Clairton midget team pushes on. Toward what only their coaches know.
Together, they've made it to championship week. They will face the boys from the North Shore once again, with everything on the line. More than a trophy hangs in the balance.
"You will remember it for the rest of your life," Corey Wright says. "I promise you."
The biggest game of their lives is here, and yet there is a slow trickle of kids into practice. Urgency is needed, but with the sun dropping fast into the river valley, the kids still aren't ready. Well, might as well run 'em.
"How badly do you want to win a championship?" Wright yells.
He's relentless, demanding sprint after sprint.
"Bears practice in the dark! Bears like the dark!"
The boys are huffing and puffing, with Hamlin, one of the better athletes on the team, lagging in the rear. Wright says he won't call practice until Hamlin runs full speed.
"I can't see," says running back LaMont Wade, a cousin of Wayne Wade.
Corey Wright can see just fine. After playing at Clairton, he went to Lackawanna Junior College in Scranton, Pa., to continue his career and hopefully move on to a Division I-A program from there. But, after things didn't go well at Lackawanna, Wright ran back to Clairton. He's 31 now, and he lives with his decision every day.
In 2008, he pleaded guilty to possession of a drug and received six months probation. He also has completed two years' probation for conspiracy to commit robbery.
"That's why I tell my kids now, you can't hang with certain people," Wright says. "I was with a person. I had nothing to do with it, and I got the same charge. I told my kids, it's the company you keep."
Wright says he has learned from his past, but it's hard to get hired with a criminal record. He tries to find work as a roofer.
"I'm still paying the price," he says.
Hamlin finishes last again, but he's still out of breath. He bends his wiry frame over, resting his arms on his quad muscles.
"Nobody knows what you're going to do!" Wright tells him. "I'm going to put you in the situation to be the hero!"
Mercifully, Wright has seen enough. He hopes the kids understand why he's done this. Some of them will be Bears next year, and, with his help, they will have learned the power of endurance.
Pool balls crack in the back of Hot Towels And Sharp Razors barber shop on St. Clair Avenue. The Clairton Bears are relaxed, easing themselves into game day. In the front of the shop, players are getting touched up, the buzz of clippers and chatter of their adoring adult fans filling the room. Five more wins until 60.
Clairton star running back Tyler Boyd is by the pool table, flipping through his iPhone's Twitter app. He finds what he's looking for, a series of tweets from tonight's opponent, the Imani Christian Saints, who don't seem to think the Bears are all they're hyped up to be. Four Clairton players got together Thursday night and responded to Imani's salvos by writing lyrics and putting them to beats.
Boyd, who is being courted by some of the best college programs in the nation, plays the recording from his phone, nodding his head. Robert Boatright's verse is up first.
Clairton Bears, we so hard, them Saints better stay home.
They better have them stretchers for the Saints whole team.
By the second quarter, y'all better just wrap it up.
All that Twitter talk, I hope ya'll can back it up.
Boyd predicted a 52-0 victory on Twitter. The Bears will have to back up their star. He doesn't understand why anybody would give them a reason to care more than they already do.
For Imani Christian, like most teams, the Clairton game is their Super Bowl. Imani Christian coach Harvey Smith has brought up the Giants upsetting the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. He wants to believe his team has a chance against Clairton because of a junior wide receiver and defensive back named Troy Simon. He has told Simon that he will shadow Boyd all over the field.
Simon is confident.
"I've been playing against them my whole life," Simon says, "and I've never lost to Clairton. And I'm planning not to this week."
So, yes, the Clairton Bears are fired up more than usual. When they take the field for pregame warm-ups, they blast their rap track over the loudspeaker so the Saints can hear it. Later, Senior Night emotions will add more fuel to the fire.
On Clairton's first offensive series, head coach Tom Nola calls for a double screen, one of the Bears' go-to plays. The design uses Boyd as a decoy and frees up Boatright with a bevy of blockers ahead. Boatright, desperate to make a play to show college scouts what he can do, nearly falls, but he uses his hand to keep his balance. In front of him, Titus Howard has Troy Simon in his sights. Howard levels him, freeing Boatright for a 61-yard touchdown run down the sideline. The Clairton crowd erupts.
Simon remains on the turf. He has a neck injury and is helped off the field. He tries to play again, but Imani Christian has no choice but to have Simon wheeled from the sideline on a stretcher. He is lifted into the back of a red ambulance, which drives him away, out of the stadium and down the hill.
As Tyler Boyd predicted, Clairton wins 52-0.
Simon will be fine.
Coming Friday: The streak begins in the midst of tragedy.
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published November 22, 2012 5:00 AM