Death, desperation, and defending the lives of their players has taken a toll on high school coaches in the Philadelphia area for years. The answers they seek, many coaches say, can’t be found in any teaching or coaching manual they’ve ever consulted.

On Christmas Eve last year, Frankford High School football coach Bill Sytsma took a frantic call from one of his players who saw a teammate get shot and killed on Instagram Live. The murder victim was the fourth player Sytsma had lost in the last five years.

A few months earlier, Simon Gratz High School basketball coach Lynard Stewart stood outside Temple University Hospital with a few of his players as a police car rushed to a halt near the emergency entrance. An officer sprung from the driver’s side, flung open the back door, and pulled out what Stewart says looked like a bloody teenager, as health-care personnel quickly whisked the victim away on a gurney. About 30 minutes later, he says an ambulance brought two more young, bloody victims, leaving Stewart astonished, staring into the darkness of the Philadelphia night.

“I’m just standing there like, ‘Where do we live?’ ” Stewart said in a phone interview.

Stewart and his players had been outside awaiting the fate of Ross Carter, a former teammate and recent graduate who had been shot in a separate incident hours earlier.

Carter, 19, died later that night, one of the nearly 500 people slain in 2020 in Philadelphia and one of more than 2,200 gunshot victims — 40% more in one year than police have ever recorded. This year as of last week, more than 100 people have been killed, including 13 children, while more than 400 people have been shot, 40 of them younger than 18.

For decades, high school coaches and their athletes have faced extraordinarily traumatic experiences nearly every day while navigating the violence, poverty, and death that have caused generations to spiral into despair.

Recently, more coaches are talking openly about what they’ve experienced and the toll it has taken on their lives. Their motivation, coaches say, is to show other coaches and their players that the path forward can be better traveled together.

Redefining wins and losses

Football coaches covet wins. Victories for Sytsma, however, are sometimes a matter of life and death.

Last month, Sytsma called a player who once walked the long way to and from school to avoid people near his home who might have shot and killed members of his family. Sytsma called to tell the player, whom he asked not be identified for the player’s safety, that his national letter of intent, which is needed to accept a college football scholarship, had arrived.

“I just talked to him on FaceTime and his face just lit up,” Sytsma said in a phone interview. “We got a win today. We got a win for Philly, a win for Frankford, a win for our community.”

“He’s really overcome a lot,” Sytsma continued. “He’s a kid that has circumstances that people can’t make it through. People sometimes say you have to redefine what a win is — this is definitely a win.”

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Twice last year, Sytsma consoled his players and the victims’ families after two of his players were shot and killed less than six months apart.

Angelo Walker, 15, and Dyewou Nyshawn Scruggs, 20, were both shot and killed in 2020.

Walker was slain in Overbrook while riding his bike near his home in July, about a year after Sytsma first opened his locker room to give his players a safe place to hang out.

Whenever a teenager was shot in the months that followed Walker’s death, Sytsma said texts and calls from reporters often weren’t far behind, asking if he knew the victim or wanted to make a statement, while simultaneously causing him to relive the trauma of his own players’ deaths.

Scruggs, an aspiring comedian on social media, was killed on Christmas Eve. The crime, police say, was caught on his own Instagram Live feed as Scruggs broadcast to his followers — which included his teammates — while he waited near a bus stop on his way to work.

Sytsma still remembers the panicked call he took from one of his players almost immediately after the shooting. It took him several minutes to calm the player enough to learn what happened.

To this day, Sytsma worries each time his phone rings. Sleep can still be elusive even after his doctor prescribed medication to help. He also needs pills to combat his rising blood pressure. His doctor also told Sytsma, “You can’t keep doing this.”

“It’s a matter of pride at this point, man,” Sytsma said with a laugh. “I can’t quit. Who quits? We’re in the transfer age where if it gets too hard, just jump ship. Nah, I’m not jumping ship.”

‘Anyone, anywhere, anytime’

Unwillingness to quit is a common characteristic of coaches. Sometimes, however, they might also share issues such as disturbances in sleep, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.

Steve Hydon, a clinical professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, says coaches and teachers may often experience secondary-traumatic stress (STS), which, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “is a set of observable reactions to working with people who have been traumatized and mirrors the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD].”

“When we’re attached to someone and really invested in making sure he or she is doing well and is OK, that can, in a way, rub off on us,” Hydon said in a phone interview.

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What happens next varies, but some will withdraw from friends, struggle to concentrate at work, become more irritable at home, or spend less time doing what they once enjoyed. Left untreated, STS can also then lead to high rates of teacher turnover similar to those found in a 2019 Inquirer investigation regarding the Philadelphia School District.

As a concept, STS dates back to the 1990s and is also sometimes referred to as compassion fatigue. Back then, the terms had mostly been applied to helping professions such as therapists, doctors and first responders. Today, Hydon says, anyone could be at risk. He has even provided training to court stenographers who transcribe horrific crimes, members of law enforcement, lawyers, and even librarians.

“STS can impact anyone, anywhere, anytime,” Hydon said.

He also worked with a team of researchers who developed a free online tool that helps teachers explore STS, examines self-care techniques, and gauges risk factors.

The symptoms often resonate during his presentations, Hydon says, but people often report not knowing what to call it or struggle to verbalize how they feel.

“Part of my job today,” he said, “is to let people know that it’s called secondary-traumatic stress and it is a very real condition.”

Can’t just be me

Even as he enjoyed helping another player fulfill a college football dream last month, Sytsma knew his day could change with the chirp of his phone.

Frankford’s football team employs a text-message chain that’s used as an early-warning and check-in system. Players and coaches alert the group if violence is rumored in a given area, warn others to steer clear when it’s already happened, and let each other know when they’ve made it home safely.

“Your mind is always going a mile a minute: ‘Is everybody OK? Is everybody safe?’ Your mind is just always ahead of you.”

Bill Sytsma, on how he's concerned when he's home that his players are away from the safety of the field

As a result, Sytsma often struggles to describe the sometimes difficult nights he spends at home, concerned that his players are away from the relative safety of the field.

“It’s a hard picture to paint,” said Sytsma, who was an assistant coach at Frankford before he was promoted in 2018. “Your mind is always going a mile a minute: ‘Is everybody OK? Is everybody safe?’ Your mind is just always ahead of you.”

Former Mastery Charter North girls’ basketball coach Damien Abrams called coaching women’s college basketball now “almost like a vacation” after his time coaching in high school.

“It’s not just practice and basketball,” Abrams, now an assistant at Alvernia University, said in a phone interview. “You’re not just a coach, you’re also a therapist, you’re a bank, a taxi, almost a lifeline for a lot of kids. Because if they know for a fact that they can’t get [what they need] from their mom, can’t get it from their dads, can’t get it from their grandmas or whoever they’re living with, they know if their coach cares enough about them, they can get it from their coach.”

Abrams once took one of his players into his home with his wife and children.

Gratz basketball coach Lynard Stewart’s portrait of trauma recently required painting a picture for his 9-year-old son, Lynard Jr., who was often a fixture at practices and games. Ross Carter’s 6-foot-5 frame, athleticism, and dunking ability made him one of the youngster’s favorite Gratz players.

So in addition to consoling his players and Carter’s family and then trying to make peace with the tragedy himself, Stewart, 44, also had to explain to his son why he would never again see the young, exuberant basketball player he had admired.

Stewart’s daughter, Laila, 15, understood and retreated to her room, where she was later consoled by her mother, Marquisha.

“It was shocking to them, especially to my son,” Stewart said in a phone interview. “At first, he really didn’t understand.”

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A month later, when Gratz hosted a Stop the Violence rally in Carter’s honor, Stewart said his children chose to wear Gratz jerseys to support the Carter family and the Gratz community.

Stewart’s experience as a behavioral health technician who works with young people diagnosed with behavioral issues, he says, afforded him trauma training that has been extremely useful as a father and as a coach.

Sytsma thinks coaches should receive similar training. He isn’t alone.

“I want to because I know this can’t just be isolated to me,” he said. “As coaches, we go to clinics and conferences all the time to work on our skills and to become better coaches. But this isn’t part of it. This is uncharted territory.”

‘Not in the manual’

Jason Henderson, the girls’ varsity basketball coach at Girard Academic Music Program, has had players who have struggled with food insecurity, gender identity, sexuality, and more.

Henderson helped start the program in 2016 after having a hand in starting the middle school program years earlier.

Last season, the mother of twin seniors Aaliyah and Khaliyah White collapsed on a Sunday night. Khaliyah called Henderson frantically and almost immediately. GAMP had a playoff game the next day.

About 90 minutes later, 38-year-old Rayshonda Roberts, whom her daughters say was always the loudest supporter in the gym, died after years of congestive heart failure and related issues. Early at school the next morning, teary-eyed and exhausted, Aaliyah White and her teammates chose to play the game as scheduled.

“I still get choked up thinking about this story,” Henderson said in a phone interview, his voice quivering with emotion. “And we kinda got together as a team and we actually went and won the game.”

Aaliyah White scored a career-high 15 points that night. Henderson said Khaliyah, the older twin by 4 minutes, injured an ankle the day her mother collapsed and did not play. She is currently a full-scholarship sprinter on the Delaware State University track team.

In a phone interview, Aaliyah White, now a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, said she was “blessed” to have Henderson as a coach.

“He just has the biggest heart,” the 19-year-old said. “No matter what situation you’re in, he’s always there for you. Even if he’s going through stuff himself, he’s always willing to give you the time you need, whether it’s sports, academics, or just everyday life.”

Henderson, 41, says he’s just following an example set by others.

Like Stewart’s son now, Henderson was once a young boy who looked up to Gratz basketball players such as Rasheed Wallace, a 6-foot-11 forward who was one of the nation’s top high school players in the 1990s. Henderson’s mother, Rochelle Henderson, whom Stewart still remembers as instrumental to Stewart’s own development, is a retired teacher who spent more than two decades at Gratz working closely with legendary basketball coach Bill Ellerbee.

“I remember when she would give Rasheed Wallace a ride home from school,” Henderson said, laughing. “I could always tell because the car seat was always all the way back.”

Though Henderson walks a path he watched others pave before him, sometimes when a player comes to him with a problem, he still thinks: “I just hope I’m not making this worse.”

“This is definitely not in the manual,” Henderson said. “No, we don’t get any training like that, and, yes, I think it would be beneficial.”

“Even as teachers, forget just coaches,” he added later. “What do I do when a kid’s not doing homework when they don’t have heat in their house?”

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Trauma narratives

Some coaches have found ways to cope on their own, sometimes even pooling resources to help themselves and their players.

Henderson, a teacher since 2001, checks on, consults with, and gives feedback to a network of colleagues when difficult issues arise. He said they include school counselors and principals whenever necessary, but afterward, “you can’t just brush it away. It sits with you.”

Sytsma found help from a former rival, Nick Lincoln, who had been the football coach at Imhotep Charter. Lincoln has worked for the violence prevention program Open Door Abuse Awareness and Prevention, with which Sytsma has since become a board member.

At the end of February, ODAAP held a “coaches retreat” at a campground in Honey Brook, Pa., just outside Coatesville. Members of the Martin Luther King and Frankford High School football coaching staffs attended, along with coaches from Delaware and the Pittsburgh area.

Lincoln, who now coaches high school football at Delaware Military Academy, said part of the goal was for coaches to communicate openly about what they’ve seen, heard, and been through.

After COVID-19 scuttled sports seasons across Southeastern Pennsylvania last spring, Lincoln and other coaches noticed that more within their ranks realize they can help each other and still be competitors. Last year, Neumann Goretti High School football coach Albie Crosby founded the Philadelphia Black Coaches Association with 13 members.

Sytsma hopes coaches will also share experiences more often.

“A lot of coaches don’t talk about [trauma] and might bottle it up,” Sytsma said. “It’s probably about toughness, or that it could be perceived as weak. But that’s not healthy for them and not healthy for their team.”

As a licensed clinical social worker in Philadelphia, Meagan Corrado has helped young people process, verbalize, and transcend trauma.

Five years ago, Corrado, who also has a Ph.D. in social work, developed an online resource, Storiez. It offers training and instruction so that people who work with young trauma survivors — and trauma survivors themselves — can learn how to master “trauma narratives,” a psychological technique used to help survivors make sense of their experiences.

“If you can’t articulate what you’ve experienced and can’t link your experiences with your thoughts and feelings, it can cause you to feel even more helpless,” Corrado said in a phone interview. “Not only are you feeling helpless when you’re traumatized, you also feel helpless after because you have these thoughts, these feelings, and memories, but they are [unorganized] and you don’t know what to do with them.”

Corrado, who is also a therapist, added that professionals and clinicians in related fields should more often recognize the valuable roles of coaches and teachers who typically have unique relationships with traumatized youth.

“A youth who may never come into a therapy office may come into a practice every afternoon,” she said. “And that coach builds a relationship with that player for years. Coaches are able to capitalize on a relationship that many therapists are never able to attain, specifically the depth of that relationship.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.