The eyes of Frankford High School football coach Bill Sytsma — the man whose job, he says, is to keep the seats filled — scan the 150 or so empty chairs that sit inside the school’s grass-covered football field in advance of its June 3 graduation ceremony.
It was the evening of Friday, May 31, the first day of Sytsma’s experiment.
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The sun, still visible, had already begun its final descent above Large and Dyre Streets, casting shadows just beyond the empty seats that would soon be filled with Frankford’s senior class during its commencement.
The 40-year-old coach had just talked about some Frankford players who had been killed by gun violence, the responsibility he feels to protect the others, and the new idea he hopes will keep those chairs occupied.
That’s when the symbolic emptiness struck the first-year coach, his eyes seeing what he hoped his heart, his players, and their parents would never have to endure again.
“Yeah,” Sytsma said as he forced an uncomfortable smile and fidgeted. “It is eerie looking at the empty chairs.”
Sytsma has lost players to violence. He was an assistant coach at Frankford for four years before becoming the head coach.
In October 2017, Messiah Chiverton, a 16-year-old junior with the Pioneers, was shot and killed. In December 2018, Kasim Rodgers, who had played at Frankford but transferred to Gratz, was shot and killed.
“It makes the weight of the job feel real,” Sytsma said of the deaths. “We’re talking about a kid, a teenager who has his whole life in front of him, and in a second it’s just snuffed out.
“You feel the weight of this job when you realize what these kids are going into when they leave your presence.”
On that Friday, May 31, Sytsma gave the players a reason to stay with him a little longer.
He opened the team’s rehabilitated locker room to his players, complete with a living room set, TV, couches, board games, video games, snacks, laughter, dancing -- and safety.
Soon after he was hired in March, Sytsma — who works in the school as a student climate specialist — his staff, players, and others cleaned and rehabbed the locker room, he said, “to make it a home.”
“Basically, it’s just a place that they can come to and hang out together without fears of violence or anything like that,” Sytsma said.
The idea to open it to his players on Friday nights came a week earlier after Sytsma read an email from a school official that reminded him that several Frankford students were killed just weeks after last year’s graduation.
So Sytsma sent an email blast to his players and invited them to hang out in the locker room every Friday night from about 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
The response from his players, he said, was overwhelming.
“My job as a coach is not just to build them as football players but to build them as men and making sure they’re out of trouble,” he said. “Making sure that they have a full life is part of my job.”
Jahaam Mungen has toughness. Perhaps it comes from his mother.
No matter its origin, Mungen, a senior next year at Frankford, needed it as a sophomore when he joined the Pioneers football team as a 5-foot-6, 132-pound defensive lineman.
Despite being undersized, Mungen earned a starting role and was named a team captain as a junior last season. He has since moved to outside linebacker and sometimes plays cornerback.
The 17-year-old, now 5-9 and 160 pounds, fell in love with football when he was 4 years old and living in Southwest Philadelphia.
His mother, Tarra Mungen, put him in karate until he was old enough to play football.
Eventually, they moved to Northeast Philly, where Mungen played youth football for the Oxford Circle Raiders and Lawncrest Lions. There, he played with Bryant Williams, one of the 11 Frankford seniors who graduated on June 3.
Williams, Mungen said, later convinced him to join Frankford’s football team. Mungen attends Franklin Towne Charter, which doesn’t offer football. He lives a few blocks from Frankford.
A few months into Mungen’s time with the Pioneers, Dominic Doyle, then the coach, huddled the squad during an October practice.
Messiah Chiverton had been shot and killed, Doyle relayed.
“I just remembered thinking, ‘Damn, he’s really gone?’ ” Mungen said on Friday, June 7, just outside Frankford’s raucous locker room. “That really just made me think. That could have easily been any one of us, and we really need to stay out of the streets. And football is one of the things that keeps us out of the streets.”
As he spoke, Mungen’s teammates, playing video games inside the locker room, erupted in laughter.
Chiverton’s death also made Mungen respond immediately when Sytsma opened the locker room on Friday nights. He didn’t know the other Frankford students killed after last year’s graduation but said he still recognized their value.
“I don’t know if they were going to college,” he said. “But their futures were bright. Whatever they were going to do, their futures were bright. They didn’t deserve to have their lives cut short. Parents shouldn’t have to bury their kids.”
Mungen said he wants to be safe from the streets. He wants to be successful. For work during the school year, he washed dishes and served food at a nursing home. He plans to work as a camp counselor this summer.
He likes history but said he might study business or criminal justice in college.
Mungen said he might also join the military or become a firefighter like his mother, who has spent 15 years in the Philadelphia Fire Department, she said, and has been a lieutenant in Southwest for the last five years.
As a first responder, Tarra Mungen, 42, said she has seen what bullets do to young bodies. She calls herself a “praying mom.” Her church, she said, also opens its doors to neighborhood kids on certain nights to provide a safe alternative to the streets.
She prays day and night for her son’s safety. She also taught him that no matter what, trouble could still find him.
If not for Frankford’s open locker room, Jahaam Mungen said, trouble wouldn’t have to look very hard to find him and his teammates.
If not for the locker room, he said, they would be out riding their bikes, hanging out on the street or in a local park.
“Somebody could be shooting, and a stray bullet could hit you,” he said. “That’s happened plenty of times. You can stay out of the way, not get into trouble, stay away from fights and all that, and stuff [still] happens sometimes.”
Last summer, Sytsma and Anthony Pastore, the football coach at Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia Charter School, brought their teams together for what they called a “Practice 4 Peace," a joint practice in West Philadelphia that included inter-squad football drills but was mainly geared toward violence prevention through education, communication and finding common ground.
Both programs had recently lost players to violence.
In November 2017, Boys’ Latin senior Jahsun Patton, 18, was shot and killed in Harrisburg. Patton’s mother, Maxayn Gooden, addressed both teams during the joint practice.
“That split-second that you pull a trigger is that split-second you affect a whole family and a whole community,” Gooden said that day. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about [Jahsun], and I wish he was here.”
The sentiment stayed with Sytsma.
“Her words kind of really seared right through me,” Sytsma said. “Her son was a 3.5 GPA student. He was going to college. He was going to graduate. In an instant, that was taken away.”
Giving is what seems to fuel Sytsma, who played football at North Catholic High School from 1993 to 1995. At Frankford, he proctors in-school suspensions, hoping to send students sent to him back to their traditional classrooms.
“The job just doesn’t end when you walk out the door,” he said. “It’s with you all the time.”
In addition to a place to hang out on Friday nights, Sytsma also provides food in the football locker room. During the first week it was open, Sytsma’s younger sister, Lisa Kling, 38, stocked the locker room with snacks and drinks.
In Week 2, Ryan Nase, the second-year football coach at Cheltenham High School, donated pizzas to the Frankford locker room.
Nase, who played football at Father Judge High and Lafayette College, is part of the Gregory Hennigar Foundation, a nonprofit named for Nase’s friend and Judge teammate who died in a car accident.
“When I heard what Bill was doing,” said Nase, 34, “I knew it fit the mission of our foundation, and we were happy to help.”
Sytsma has gotten other donations, will accept more and has considered moving the team gather to a recreation center. During Week 1, about 30 players showed up. In Week 2, about 20 came, he said.
Asked how long he would keep the locker room open on Friday nights, Sytsma answered almost immediately.
His eyes, however, found those empty chairs one more time before his mouth opened.
“As long as I need to,” he said. “As long as I need to.”