Shareef Miller saw himself. Bill Sytsma saw the future. Robert Gay recognized a past he risks his life to keep from continuing into the present.
Three men, whose lives have been touched by Philadelphia’s gun violence, used their shared love of football recently to spread messages of peace and positivity.
Miller, a Philadelphia Public League product who played for Penn State and was drafted by the Eagles in April, joined Sytsma, Frankford High School’s football coach, at the Practice 4 Peace at Boys’ Latin Charter in West Philadelphia on July 18.
On July 15 in Southwest Philadelphia, Gay, Overbrook High’s new football coach — also a police officer in the city’s 12th District — organized a seven-on-seven flag football game that featured police officers against members of Bartram High’s football team.
The two are among several recent youth-sports events in the Philadelphia area that promote violence prevention and awareness.
My players "hate it,” Sytsma said of the violence. “It’s all around them. … They live it. They all know people who were killed, multiple people.”
“A big part of this is you want the kids to see that if you stay focused, if you have a plan, you can get out,” Sytsma said later. “You can have a successful life.”
Miller, 22, was a standout at Frankford as a sophomore and junior before transferring to Washington, where he graduated in 2015.
A month before that graduation, his older brother, Mikal, was shot and killed.
The second annual Practice 4 Peace on July 18 was a joint practice with Frankford and Boys’ Latin that began last year after Frankford’s Messiah Chiverton, 16, and Boys’ Latin’s Jahsun Patton, 18, were killed in separate incidences of gun violence.
In May, Miller said he wanted to give hope to kids who grew up in the city.
At Boys’ Latin, the Frankford native did just that, telling players from both schools what it takes to make their dreams come true.
When he was in high school, Miller said, he never had the chance to hear from an NFL player.
He talked to the players, watched drills, and gave tips.
“I saw myself,” Miller said. “I saw myself being like them. Young, want to play in the NFL, want to go to college, and really not understanding that it takes a lot of hard work and a lot of discipline to really make it to the next level.”
Later, he added: “It don’t even have to be football. It can be whatever you want it to be.”
Frankford’s locker room
Sytsma wants his players to live long enough to see a next level, whatever that level may be.
In recent years, several Frankford students, some of whom were athletes, were killed by gun violence.
In June, the 40-year-old coach opened his locker room on Friday nights so his players had a safe place to hang out.
Since then, he said, about 20 people have donated a total of about $1,300 to his effort. Some even donated board games, food, and more.
Others donated their time.
The day after Frankford’s locker room story was published, Sytsma said he was contacted by an agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration in response to the story.
On July 19, Sytsma said two DEA agents visited the team’s locker room, shared personal stories, talked about drug prevention, and perhaps created a new group of leaders.
That same evening, Rashon Howard, an author and entrepreneur, also spoke to the Frankford players. Howard played freshmen football at North Catholic and graduated in 2006, when Sytsma was an assistant coach.
“I want them to see positive younger people who are successful," Sytsma said. "It doesn’t have to just be football.”
Overbrook’s new sheriff
Gay, 29, was always passionate about football and said he dreamed about being a police officer since he was a child. There wasn’t a particular interaction with an officer that fostered the fantasy. Rather, a few family members, he said, had run afoul of the law.
“I just always wanted to change that mold,” said Gay, who said he joined the department in 2016. “Ever since I was younger, people kind of gravitated toward me, and I tried to use that in a positive way.”
Even as a child his job was to protect and serve. His twin brothers, Derrick and Dietrick, 31, were born with cerebral palsy.
“I always had a knack for helping others,” Gay said.
When he’s not fighting crime, Gay is trying to reach young people through football. On July 15, Gay and his fellow officers were on the losing end of that flag football game at Bartram’s new turf field at 58th and Elmwood Streets. The long game, however, is the win that Gay seeks.
The officers were "just letting the children know that we’re in the community not just to make arrests but to also bridge that gap between law enforcement and the community,” Gay said. “And in order to do that, we have to touch the youth because they are the ones we see, and there are these preconceived notions. And if we can change all that by doing a little football game or having a conversation, it goes a long way.”
Gay said the game was part of the 12th District’s Southwest Against Guns and Gangs program (SWAGG). He plays running back for the flag football team. But Gay, a 2009 graduate, played mostly linebacker at Overbrook.
The running back chores at ‘Brook were handled Gay’s late friend, Darius Johnson, who set the school’s single-season rushing record of 1,051 yards in 2007, according to TedSilary.com. The record was broken last season by senior quarterback Tymir Jackson and his 1,190 rushing yards. He will run track at California University of Pennsylvania.
In 2016, Johnson, who also played football at Valley Forge Military Academy and Temple, was shot and killed near Overbrook Park. In 2010, Lamar Murphy, a defensive lineman who graduated with Gay in 2009, was shot and killed.
After Overbrook, Gay went to Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. to play football. He said he talked to the coaching staff about Murphy and got him an opportunity at the school. Murphy was killed in the summer of Gay’s freshman year before Murphy had a chance to attend.
“That one hit me hard,” Gay said, “because you always think that if he would have been able to come he would have been able to see outside of West Philly. But everybody don’t make it out.”
New generation of leaders
When the DEA agents spoke to his team, Sytsma said, they emphasized the need for younger generations to positively influence even younger generations.
“They said we need to start by influencing kids in first grade, in fourth grade,” Sytsma said.
Cheick Diawara and Joar Dahn, who played football at Prep Charter in 2016 and Roman Catholic in 2015, respectively, organized the recent Stand 4 Peace Rally in the aftermath of a shooting in Southwest Philadelphia. Diawara, 21, whose younger brother, Ibrahim, is a sophomore defensive back at Boys’ Latin, addressed both teams at the Practice 4 Peace.
(Below: Diawara, 21, addresses Boys’ Latin and Frankford football players at the Practice 4 Peace)
On July 12, MaryEllen Hoffman, a parole officer in Delaware County, took her two young children to visit Frankford’s open locker room. A friend’s Facebook post had alerted Hoffman to Sytsma’s Friday night plan to keep his players safe. It also inspired her.
“I didn’t come from a lot,” Hoffman said in a phone interview. “I was one of eight" children.
Hoffman said she had spent much of her adult life working with young people who lived in tough environments. The single mother said she wanted her children, Calvin, 6, and Kathleen, 10, to have positive interactions with people from different walks of life.
So Hoffman contacted her Facebook friend, who connected her to Sytsma. When they arrived at Frankford that day, Hoffman said, her children never hesitated.
“I didn’t even have to ask them if they wanted to interact with the players,” she said. “They just went right up and said, ‘Can we play, too?’ ”
She was moved by the kindness and hospitality of the Frankford players. Calvin, who said he loves football, was invited to return for Frankford’s first home game in August to serve as the team’s ball boy.
Sports for peace
Here are two youth-sports leagues that hold summer events designed to help young people avoid violence. If you know of others, please contact email@example.com.
The Midrange Morris Basketball League
Started in 2012 when Dawud “Midrange” Morris became an assistant coach at his alma mater, Cheyney University.
Games are played at Whittier Playground at 27th and Clearfield Streets.
The MMBL has a men’s and women’s division for players no longer in high school, per NCAA rules, Morris said.
MMBL was registered as a nonprofit organization in 2018 and is geared toward violence prevention in Philadelphia, Morris said.
Morris was named Cheyney’s head men’s basketball coach in 2014.
Morris played professional basketball in London after graduating from Cheyney in 2009.
In 2002, Morris helped Strawberry Mansion win the Philadelphia Public League championship with a 73-62 victory over Northeast and its star sophomore point guard, Kyle Lowry.
The Peace on the Streets Summer Basketball League
Started in 2006, this was a response to a spike in violent crime that touched the West Oak Lane Area, said program director Kenny Sadler.
The league runs from June through August at the Mount Airy Church of God in Christ at Ogontz and Stenton Avenues.
It’s for boys 10 to 13, with a senior division for those 14 to 16.
Volunteers help organize the league.
Several recent alumni have gone on to play college basketball.
In its early years, guest speakers would speak to the players.