Zaakir Harrison froze for a moment on the sideline of the Marcus Foster Memorial Stadium football field Friday night. The 17-year-old Gratz High linebacker and tight end had just heard gunshots outside the stadium, one after another. He saw spectators rushing across the field. He saw his teammates race toward the locker room.
“I didn’t think it was real,” Harrison said of the scene at Gratz’s home game against Imhotep Charter in the city’s Nicetown section that was halted by gunfire in the second quarter with the Imhotep Panthers ahead, 19-0.
Harrison and his teammates were back on the field Wednesday afternoon, preparing for Thursday night’s road game against Public League rival Northeast High.
Later in the day, the football players joined with other fall athletes from the school in the Bill Ellerbee Gymnasium to listen to a speaker from CeaseFire Philadelphia, a violence intervention organization based at Temple University, and then enjoy a catered meal courtesy of the Philadelphia Eagles.
The message from the athletes and school officials was clear: The shooting that night outside the stadium that injured two teenagers and caused the game to end in the second quarter was a traumatizing event.
It also was a call to action.
“You deserve better,” Erik Zipay, Gratz’s football coach and athletic director, told a gathering of about 150 athletes. “You are leaders in the school, and soon you will be leaders in the community, and you need to push that forward.
“What happened was abnormal. It shouldn’t happen. It was unacceptable.”
Gratz principal LeYondo Dunn told the students to reject the notion that the gun violence reflected on them or their school.
“Friday night does not define us,” Dunn said. “What defines us is what we do every day in this school. We are much bigger than what happened.”
Robert Warner, director of CeaseFire Philadelphia, spoke to the students for about 10 minutes, stressing the support his organization provides for the community.
“I ride past this school every day, twice a day,” Warner said. “I’m out there. Talk to me.”
Rahmayne Jackson-Bey, a senior lineman for the Bulldogs, recalled the chaotic scene when gunfire erupted just outside the stadium.
“It was traumatizing,” Jackson-Bey, 18, said. “It was just a bad experience for me, for all the players.”
Jackson-Bey said the incident has led to an increased spirit of support and cooperation at the school.
“Gratz is a great school. We stand by Gratz Nation,” Jackson-Bey said.
Scott Gordon, the CEO of Mastery Charter Schools, said Eagles officials reached out and offered to pay for the students’ meal after the speeches.
The meal was catered by Deke’s Barbecue in Roxborough, which brought 40 pans of chicken, ribs, brisket, macaroni and cheese, coleslaw, and corn bread.
“The Eagles reached out, and it’s great to be recognized,” Gordon said. “They see what’s happening with this school, how these are the best of our youth.”
Zipay reminded the students: “Tomorrow night, make sure you cheer for the Eagles. They paid for this.”
Two teenagers were struck by bullets, according to police. A 14-year-old was hit in the left foot and a 15-year-old in the left leg.
Police have not reported any arrests or motives in the incident.
In a phone interview, Imhotep Charter coach Nick Lincoln said he was struck by the look on some of his players’ faces in the aftermath of the shooting.
“It’s so hard for these kids to be kids, to let their guard down,” Lincoln said. “But they make a choice. They make a choice every day to be part of a football team, to come to school, to do their schoolwork.
“And then to see them after this happened, to see the look on their faces, it was like the innocence had been taken away from them.”
Harrison said he was on the sideline when he heard gunfire.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “At a football game? When it’s supposed to be all joyful, energy, positive energy going on, everybody playing the game they love to play.”
Harrison said the incident will serve to motivate him and other leaders in the school community.