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Warrior spirit

Bullets took their teammate, but on the Boys’ Latin football field, Jahsun Patton’s legacy lives on.

As his Boys' Latin teammates warmed up for their game against George Washington High, Jeremiah Carter walked to the side of the football field and took a knee. The early October sky over the Northeast Super Site had turned from gray to a dark, stormy blue.

When Carter stood, he kept his eyes closed in prayer. The lineman didn’t use to do this in four years of playing football for Boys' Latin, but after his close friend and teammate, Jahsun Patton, was shot to death last year, Carter made it a priority to pray before every game — for his teammates’ health and safety.

Once finished, he rejoined his teammates for the national anthem before calling them in for their pregame huddle.

“We fight!” he shouted from the middle of the circle.

We fight!” his teammates echoed, shifting side to side.

“We march!”

“We march!”

The game was played at a pace as steady and intense as the downpour that came just after kickoff. By halftime, the score was tied at 6.

But in the third quarter, things quickly began to unravel for the Warriors of Boys' Latin. The ball soared high over the outstretched hands of a wide-open Mohamed Diawara. A few plays later, quarterback Malik Johnson fumbled a snap.

Up in the bleachers, Maxayn Gooden shifted anxiously.

“Come on, Jah," she said to herself, a plea to her dead son. "You’ve got to give me something.”

If you ask longtime Boys' Latin athletic director Joe Dunn what happened next, he’ll explain that offensive coordinator David Hand called a trick play. On third and long early in the fourth quarter, Johnson threw to Diawara, who waited for the defense to converge on him before pitching back to Johnson, whose Hail Mary floated into the arms of Sa’ood Gibson.

But if you ask Gooden, it was a message from Jahsun.

“He knows when I really need something, he just makes it happen,” she said. “I miss him physically, but it’s almost as if he’s still like, ‘Mom, I’m still here, and I could do so much up here that I couldn’t do down there.’ ”

As a result of that Hail Mary, Boys' Latin won by 14-6, making the Warriors division champs for the first time in the history of the all-male college prep charter school in Southwest Philadelphia. Players bumped in midair and poured an orange Gatorade bucket of water over head coach Anthony Pastore, who wrapped his assistant, Damir Clayton, in a bear hug.

In a postgame huddle, the teammates draped their arms over one another’s shoulders and listened raptly to their coach. Then they spoke.

“We did it for Jah!” some shouted, clapping.

Gooden, who stood behind the coaches in the huddle, buried her hands in her face.

Jahsun (JAH-son) Patton had been a defensive back on the team the season before. He was visiting his sister in Harrisburg to celebrate his acceptance into college when he was shot and killed. He was 18.

His loss has had an impact that spilled into this year’s football season for the school — in large part because of the effort made by Patton’s mother and coach to make sure the teenagers understand the impact of gun violence, and to keep Patton’s death from being merely a number in Philadelphia, where at least 28 other teenagers were shot to death in 2017.

That’s why Gooden had Eric Ware paint a mural of Patton over the summer, his narrow eyes, wiry build, and stoic expression watching over Boys' Latin athletes as they trained in their weight room. It’s also the reason Gooden offered the team words of encouragement in the cramped and steamy locker room moments before the pivotal game against George Washington High.

“Although his time with us was shorter than we expected, he still lived a fuller life than I realized," she said, reading off her iPhone. "His Warrior spirit left its mark on you guys. It’s that Warrior spirit that will be present. That is his legacy. That is your legacy as well.”

Jocelyn Smith Lee, a University of North Carolina-Greensboro professor who studies how losing loved ones to violence shapes the well-being of black males, says that with big moments like anniversaries, it’s important to do what she refers to as "calling out the process.” In the case of Boys' Latin, that meant openly recognizing how the loss of Patton altered the team. It’s important, she said, given the messaging to be macho that boys often receive growing up, which can make it harder for them to work out their feelings.

As the team whooped and ran out of the locker room, Jeremiah Carter hung back. The senior thanked Gooden for her speech, then followed her slowly out of the locker room, wiping away his tears.

‘Where we’re from, you can lose anyone on any day’

To get to Boys' Latin on time each school day from the rowhouse in Northeast Philadelphia where he lived with his mom and sister, Jahsun Patton had to rise at 5 a.m. and catch two buses and one train. He appreciated the brotherhood of the school, where the students wear jackets and ties, and must study Latin. He joined the school theater production of Bad Interpretation, a look at Greek mythology through a modern lens, and kept a 3.5 GPA.

He came to the football team late, not walking on until his senior year, and, his mother says, found a perfect outlet for his hyper energy. His work ethic did not go unnoticed. Midway through the season, he earned a starting position.

“He was quiet, he was punctual, he was tenacious,” Pastore said. "He worked his way until he was noticed. And that’s what kind of kid I remember.”

Christina Cho, who taught Patton in ninth-grade biology, remembers an energetic but focused boy who was quick to hit his classmates with “bro, chill out” whenever it was time to be serious.

“Jahsun is not the first student I’ve lost since I started teaching," she said, "but it definitely was the most impactful that I’ve ever experienced, in the sense that it was jarring for a huge part of the community because of what a huge person Jahsun was.”

Boys' Latin had already experienced its share of tragedy. In the summer of 2016, Tyhir Barnes, 15, was shot and killed after a pickup basketball game in Southwest Philadelphia. William Bethel, 16, died of gun violence on the Easter weekend after Patton’s death.

“Often there is this narrative about young black men that solely talks about perpetration of violence,” Smith Lee said. “There’s also this counter-narrative of extreme vulnerability, and of being a victim and survivor of violence that often goes untold.”

Harrisburg Police Detective Kirk Aldridge was in a deep sleep when he got the call about the shooting, which occurred about 2:30 a.m. on Nov. 25, a Saturday. What stood out to the 30-year veteran of the force about Patton’s death was how much of a “true victim” he was.

The shooting occurred during a small party at Patton’s sister’s place. His sister’s boyfriend’s brother, Derrick Butler, 31, is charged in the slaying, allegedly shooting Patton nine times before fleeing. U.S. marshals caught him more than a week later in Johnstown. There was no apparent motive, the detective said, other than that the alleged shooter, who was 30, simply didn’t like Patton.

“I just felt so bad for the family,” Aldridge said. “I told his mom I have three sons myself, and that could have been me. One of my kids could have been wherever, run into the wrong person, and next thing you know they’re shot for no reason.”

While Patton’s death was unexpected, it had a familiar ring in Philadelphia.

"In our neighborhood, where we’re from, in our city, you can lose anybody any given day,” said Diawara, the Boys' Latin senior and one of Patton’s closest friends on the team. “Because like, anybody can go any day, and it’s like, I look at the world a little different. Like, I just try to cherish the moments with the people that I got.”

‘He’s still in my head’

Diawara was a sophomore when he met Patton through friends on the team. The pair became like brothers after a trip to Six Flags in New Jersey, spending their time in the cafeteria talking about football, colleges, girls. Diawara recalled when Patton turned in his striped navy and maroon tie for a solid maroon one with the Boys' Latin insignia on the bottom. The changing of the tie is for seniors who have been accepted into college.

That fall, Patton had gotten into East Stroudsburg and Kutztown Universities.

Diawara was also one of the last people to text Patton. Diawara found out about the shooting the next morning while scrolling through Instagram and seeing his friend’s picture. It broke him; he had never lost someone so close.

“When I first heard Jahsun died, it was like a rush through everything,” he said. “In my head, I seen from the first day I met him up until now in like a flash, in two seconds. I saw everything that we ever did together. … I couldn’t get him out of my head for a while, and I still can’t till this day, like, he still there.”

If Diawara had flashbacks, other friends, like Jeremiah Carter, avoided anything that would remind him of his loss, like the weight-room mural. He and Patton had shared classes and lunch. During his sophomore year, an uncle was shot while sitting in his car with his two daughters. Losing his uncle and then Patton, he said, only makes him appreciate life more.

“I try to play every game like it’s my last," he said. "'Cause you never know.”

Smith Lee says this experience of hypervigilance is common in teens who have lost someone close this way — "constantly looking over your shoulder, wondering if you will be next, having a sense that you are in danger, and constantly feeling vulnerable that you will lose your life to gun violence.”

The memorial for Patton at the school was standing-room-only. Cho remembers feeling overwhelmed through tears — and laughter. She observed how relatively quickly the students seemed to bounce back from their grief.

“I can’t even tell you how many stories I’ve heard from individual students of friends, brothers, cousins, sisters, passing away on a relatively frightening regular basis,” Cho said. “It’s a normal part of their lives, which is really scary.”

Younger people are often more resilient than people give them credit for, Smith Lee said. If supported, young people can experience post-traumatic growth, often working harder in memory of their loved one.

“Every snap I play a game, it’s like, he, he’s still in my head,” Diawara said. “Like everything we say ‘Jahworld’ every day, it’s like that’s how we carry ourselves, because he was a big part of us and we lost it.”

‘Warriors on three, family on six’

Before entering its Nov. 2 playoff game against Imhotep, the city’s best, Boys' Latin had already blown past expectations. Though undefeated, the Warriors still felt they had something to prove.

The boys ran their usual drills on their field in the middle of West Philadelphia. The motivational signs Pastore hung before the start of the season, including a tribute to Patton, still stood during practice the night before Imhotep:

“Make today count. You’ll never get it back."

At the end of the session, Pastore preached the importance of sticking together. Then he gave one last piece of advice.

“I’m going to take a look at that mural in the weight room,” he told the players. “To remind me why we started this.”

He was referring to their very first practice of the season, back when he teamed up with longtime friend and Frankford High head coach Bill Sytsma. Frankford had lost one of its own, Messiah Chiverton, a 16-year-old junior-varsity player, who was shot to death after school last year. The coaches thought it would be good for the teams to work out together, dubbing it “Practice 4 Peace.” Gooden spoke to the boys about gun violence as they sweated profusely under the July sun. The practice was meant to set the tone for the rest of the season.

As Diawara taped up before the Imhotep game, he wrote “#LLJah” for “Long Live Jah” in Sharpie on his wrists.

Not even the spirit of Jahsun Patton could hold off the powerhouse of Imhotep. The champs put up 32 unanswered points. But the Warriors had held Imhotep to 20 fewer points than the year before’s blowout.

And there was one more game to look forward to, the one where their season would come full circle:

The Thanksgiving game against Frankford.

The boys on the two teams stood in the warm locker room before they were to walk out side by side for the retirement of Patton’s jersey. Sytsma, the Frankford coach, addressed both squads about the meaning of the game.

“Remember, we do have a message,” he told them. “We met in July to bring attention to violence, especially for our younger generation, and we’re bringing unity together to show that despite being rivals, we can work together.”

“Understand and know what the moment is about,” he said. “Does everyone understand me?”

Two teams roared in unison:

“Yes, Coach!”

Gooden and Quinn Patton, Jahsun’s father, led the procession onto the chilly field, holding a framed white jersey bearing the maroon No. 18. When the teams broke for their benches, Carter led the Warriors one last time.

We fight!” Carter shouted from the huddle.

Gooden had organized her own memorial. She had driven with four of Jahsun’s friends, all in college now, to find some balloons. At a Dollar General she picked up a red “I Love You” balloon and some with red stars and yellow smiley faces.

As she handed the bunch to his friends, several balloons detached from their strings and started to soar in the strong wind.

“He taking the red," she joked. "Y’all know he like that color.”

Gooden and her son’s friends looked up at the sky uncertainly, still laughing and insisting that Patton was playing games with them. She exchanged hugs with her son’s friends and teachers on the sidelines before leaving the game early with her youngest daughter, Amyah, 9.

She’s been to enough Boys' Latin games throughout the season to sense how this one would end. She also felt a tingle of grief underneath the excitement of the game and reunion. It had finally sunk in that Jahsun was gone.

The 44-year-old single mother said that after his death, she learned a lot about the young man she had raised, such as his leadership qualities and how much he influenced close friends and teammates. She started the JahWorld memorial scholarship fund, where she raised money through GoFundMe and held a bowling event on Jahsun’s birthday to give five $100 to $500 scholarships for city football players who demonstrate leadership skills on and off the field. She also runs a mentoring program called Women of Valor 74 when she is not working at Child Care Information Services of Philadelphia.

She posts frequently on Facebook and Instagram about Jahsun and gun violence. “I get a lot of comments, and a lot of mothers who have lost their children, you know, tell me I give them encouragement and I give them strength. So for me, that’s the good thing. I feel like that’s what I want to do. I feel like I want to be the voice for people that can’t speak.”

To release the emotions she feels over his death, Gooden performs praise dancing at the Kingdom of Life Church in North Philadelphia. She’s reminded of her son on holidays like Halloween, when he stayed home with her weeks before his death instead of going to a party, or on that first Christmas, which felt empty without him.

"He left me with a lot to be thankful for and left me with a lot to say, 'OK, I’m proud of you.’ ”

Boys' Latin dominated Frankford that game, as it had for most of the season, with a final score of 46-20. After Diawara hoisted the clear football that was the “Practice for Peace” trophy, he drew it close and stood in a circle with a couple of opposing players, sharing the moment.

Boys' Latin regrouped for one last postgame huddle. Pastore was brief, congratulating the players on the season and wishing them a happy Thanksgiving. Patton’s friend Diawara spoke, quietly.

“We know who we did it for.”

Raishad Hardnett and Lauren Schneiderman contributed to this article.