Under a blanket of rain, players and coaches of the Parkside Saints football team trot onto the field. Elick Barnes, a.k.a. Coach Bo, adjusts a player’s bright orange mouth guard, while another tucks the 12-year-old quarterback’s shoulder pads into his gold jersey.
As much as Coach Bo wants this to feel like the celebratory start to a new season, it’s not.
It’s the first game in his coaching career, and in the West Philadelphia program’s decade-long history, that Clifford Smith, the Saints’ head coach, founder, and steadying rock, was not there.
Coach Cliff, a beloved mentor to hundreds of young Philadelphia athletes, died from COVID-19 and related complications in March at age 52, upending the local football community and leaving many to wonder whether the program that he devoted his life to building would crumble.
It almost did. Some players and coaches left and joined new teams, skeptical of the Saints’ stability. A few coaches, many of them Cliff’s lifelong friends, took the season off, the pain of his absence too great to bear. Paperwork for grant funding was locked in his laptop, and the program’s bank account was in the red.
“Most teams were gearing up to start working out,” said coach Reid Navarro. “We were having a memorial service.”
In Philadelphia, the role of youth sports transcends field boundaries. A coach often acts as a parent, mentor, and therapist — and Cliff played those roles and then some. Filling the momentous hole he left behind could not be done by just one person, and the many coaches and parents who stepped up knew it was about more than honoring their friend.
“There’s so much going on in the city, like what if I did say I didn’t want to take on the role?” said Tyrone Hamilton, now president of the Saints. “What’s next? Where do these 100 to 200 kids go? What are they gonna do in the streets?”
So on a cold March day, beneath a banner honoring Cliff that stretched across the field goal posts, coaches, parents, and players committed to making sure the league would survive.
“We said even if we can only keep it together for one year, to hold his legacy, that’s OK,” Navarro said. “We’re just trying to keep it alive for him.”
“We’re gonna ball for Cliff,” said 14-year-old Jamal Petty.
Clifford Smith — “Smitty” — was 5-foot-9 and stout, with kind brown eyes and a round face. He sported a bald head and a short goatee that grayed with age. He dressed to impress — often wearing clean Timberlands and tracksuits on the field.
Cliff grew up in the Mantua section of the city, “the Bottom,” and though he was raised an only child, other kids on his block — Paul “Paulie” Hall,” Elick “Bo” Barnes, Maurice “Huggie” Walker, and Reese Boatwright — became his brothers. They spent their summers riding bikes and playing street football, the boys frequently knocking on Cliff’s door at 38th and Melon Streets to beg his mom to let him come out and play.
Cliff was never a star football player himself, but he had dreams for the kids of his neighborhood, where about 43% of families live below the federal poverty line. Football could be a ticket out, a pathway to safety and stability, to keep kids on track to graduate from high school and college, he told friends and family.
Cliff, who worked as a manager at a workforce development firm, started coaching for the Frankford Chargers in 1996, and for 14 years, he piled kids from across West Philly into his car and drove them to and from practice and games.
“He just wanted to give them a better life, keep them off the streets,” said Toni Mickens, Cliff’s girlfriend of 22 years.
His dream was to start a league of his own in West Philly. So in 2010, as he watched Super Bowl XLIV between the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts, Cliff — a die-hard Eagles fan — decided that his team would be named after the winner.
The Parkside Saints were born a few months later.
Every day, Cliff practiced with kids on the field behind Tustin Recreation Center, or any open patches of grass in West Fairmount. He was a calm, disciplined coach who wanted to win — and did often — but saw beyond the scoreboard, supporting and caring for his players.
The program grew to upward of 250 kids, including a girl’s cheerleading squad and a mentoring program. If a family couldn’t afford registration fees or equipment, Cliff often paid for it himself.
Like in Frankford, Cliff transported kids — whether they were still on his team or not — to and from practice, often leaving two hours before it began, and getting home hours after it ended. On game weekends, his 20 players would pile into his basement and spend the night to make sure they had nutritious dinners and made it to the field safely.
“He had no children, but he had thousands of children,” said longtime coach Michael Beatty.
Tyshyne Cook was one of them.
Cook, 14, started playing for the Saints when he was 6. He grew up in the foster-care system, and Cliff took him under his wing, even having state employees inspect his home so Cook could spend weekends at his house.
“Coach Cliff” eventually became “Pops.”
“He was a father figure to me and to a lot of other players,” Cook said. “He taught me more than football. He taught me life, how to become a man.”
When the coronavirus shut down the city and, with it, the Saints’ practices and games, Cliff worried about his players, said Mickens. During an ice storm last winter, he was out on the field, planning for a spring season.
“All he does is football,” said Tyrone Hamilton. “All year long.”
Hamilton and Mickens, 48, warned him of coronavirus risks, but he insisted on continuing to give kids rides to practice and hosting coaches’ meetings, worried about the program’s stability after a year off.
It remains unclear where exactly Cliff contracted the virus, but he started showing symptoms after an indoor meeting. A few days later, his oxygen levels dropped, and he went to the hospital, Mickens said.
“On Saturday, I talked to him and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll see you at practice on Monday,’” said coach Paul Hall. “That was the last time I spoke to him.”
By Sunday he was in the intensive care unit, and, less than a week later, he was gone.
Cliff never asked for anything in return for all he gave his community, but in his death, his friends are fighting for his legacy to be publicly acknowledged. They would love to see the city dedicate a park in his memory, or install a mural of him outside of Tustin Rec Center, overlooking the field.
“Every neighborhood in Philadelphia, he touched,” Hall said. “There should be something for this guy.”
The unrelenting rain doesn’t dampen the energy in the Saints’ scrimmage against the West Philadelphia Panthers. Coaches pace along the sidelines and yell plays as the Panthers hammer them into their territory. Younger siblings practice handshakes and long tosses on the sidelines, gliding through the mud for a catch.
And yet all of this almost didn’t happen.
When the league shut down for a month after Cliff’s passing, giving people time to mourn and for the COVID-19 vaccine to become more widely available, Hamilton, who stepped up to replace Cliff as the league’s president, worried it would be permanent. The bank account was in the negatives after the league lost $13,000 in grants because paperwork and receipts — plus all parent and player contact information — were locked inside Cliff’s laptop.
And then there was the 12-and-under team, of which Cliff was the head coach. Only seven kids turned out for their first practice.
For weeks, coaches sat on the bleachers calling kids and parents and asking them to come back out. Slowly, more players arrived. The 12U team grew to 17 — just enough for a full team.
A fund-raiser helped them get off the ground and buy two new sets of uniforms — but players from the different age groups exchange sweaty jerseys between games, the new sets donning a black-and-white patch of Cliff’s face. They will get through the season, and with the prospect of the city soon building a new field, things are looking up. Still, they need more financial support to keep the league sustainable.
It’s impossible for most people to speak of Cliff without choking up. They still picture his black Chrysler 300 parked outside the Tustin field fence. Without him, “everything is a first,” said Hamilton.
“It’s something different when, for 10 years, football is you and this guy. And all of a sudden, he’s gone,” said Hall. “I haven’t been back on the field since he passed.”
But his death has also rekindled a flame in the hundreds of young men he mentored and supported, inspired to make him proud. Like Cook, who said that everything from here on — football or academically — is dedicated to Cliff.
“It’s hard, but at the same time I have to push myself for him,” he said. “I’m trying to live his dream.”
The Saints won’t be the same, but like family, members of the program are holding each other up. On a recent Saturday, as Coach Bo looked at his team of 12-year-olds, his tears blended with the raindrops.
“He’s proud of us,” he said. “He’s looking down smiling like, ‘They did it, they kept it goin’.’”