Maybe somewhere in this city is a kid like Malik Townes was eight years ago. Maybe somebody just shot his father, and maybe a world that allows that to happen is one that does not feel real at all. Maybe he’s thinking about that world: about the weeds that are growing from where the sidewalk should be, about the vacant storefronts that are standing where the businesses should be. And maybe in this moment he will start to feel like the critical mind he’s been blessed with is actually a curse. The more he thinks about the way things are, the angrier he becomes. The more he thinks about why they are that way, the more helpless he feels.
With any luck, this kid will find a field like the one Malik Townes found. He will snap on a helmet and buckle up some pads and he will discover the therapeutic value of 100 yards of grass. Instead of spending his evenings on that stoop paralyzed by the purposelessness that surrounds him, he will spend them navigating a world that suddenly feels as it is within his control. Maybe this field will do for the kid what it did for Townes. Maybe it will save his life.
“I found the field, and it became my outlet,” said Townes, who graduated from the Academy at Palumbo this year and will play football at Alvernia College in the fall. “I’ve met a lot of kids on the field who’ve gone through the same things as me, who’ve lost their fathers or mothers or brothers, and I’ve realized that to be able to get your pain, rage, anger out on the field is one of the healthiest outlets that you can have.”
Which brings us to a consideration that seems to be missing from the ongoing debate about the wisdom of conducting school and sports in the midst of a pandemic. In a city where athletic fields are often harbors of safety, what happens if those fields remain closed?
It is not an easy question, and there might not be a correct answer, but neither is an excuse for a lack of consideration. So on late Wednesday morning, Townes rounded a corner on the south side of City Hall and joined a group of high school football players and coaches who had gathered in front of the Octavius Catto statue. They wore face masks and exchanged elbow bumps, and in general comported themselves with the distant reserve that has come to define social interaction in the year 2020. In a pandemic where Black Americans are five times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than their white counterparts, the threat to these young men and their families was unmistakably real.
Yet the focus of the gathering was an epidemic that, for a considerable yet seldom heard swath of our population, is even more acute. Three weeks ago, a 15-year-old named Angelo Walker was riding his bike near a playground in Overbrook when a bullet knocked him dead. Walker, who played running back at Frankford High School, was at least the eighth high school football player to die from gun violence over the last several years. With the School District of Philadelphia having yet to arrive at a decision on the fate of the fall sports that these teenagers play, their main concern wasn’t the danger that they and their peers will face if they play, but the danger that they will confront if they don’t.
“Truly, I don’t think anybody has that perspective like us,” said Matthew Pajuste, an offensive lineman at Martin Luther King Jr. High School who has committed to play at the University of Buffalo next year. “If football season were to be canceled right now, honestly speaking, the violence toll would spike. I hate to say it, but there would be a lot of young lives lost. There are a lot of my old teammates who I used to have to keep in check so they don’t go back to their old selves, they don’t lose themselves again — that’s why we’re out here.”
Suhail Gillard, Mastery Charter.
Quameer Knight, George Washington.
Kristian Marche, Imhotep.
Jahsun Patton, Boys Latin.
Messiah Chiverton, Frankford.
Zion Vaughan, Penn Wood.
Jayvon Pendleton, Imhotep.
Angelo Walker, Frankford.
To those of us from more privileged areas of the city, these young men often exist as little more than headlines, their deaths written off as the sort of sad but inevitable things that happen in those neighborhoods. But to the players who shared a field with them, and to the coaches who guided them, such disregard only magnifies their grief, the existential pain of each loss coupled with the sense that nobody cares.
“One young person lost in this city is one far too many,” said Nick Lincoln, a former head coach at Imhotep who has launched an anti-violence initiative in partnership with ODAAP called Beyond the Field. “We’re here to call out our leadership and our community to take a stand together and come with solutions.”
While Lincoln’s initiative is focused on raising public awareness for the gun violence that has claimed three of his former players, look close enough at the ongoing debate surrounding the opening of our schools and you’ll see a glaring example of the privileged disconnect that he is attempting to combat. It may well be the case that shutting down schools and locking the fences to our fields of play best serves the general interest of public health. But the binary, zero-sum dialogue leads one to wonder whether its participants are mistakenly equating the public’s health with COVID-19 because COVID-19 is the thing that most threatens theirs. And that raises a question: in our haste to stamp out a risk that all of us face to some degree, are we adequately considering the risks that are some of ours alone?
“I am much more susceptible to dying from a gunshot before I go home than catching COVID,” said Padjuste, his broad lineman’s frame dwarfed by the statue of Octavius Catto rising in the background. “And that’s a fact.”
As Padjuste spoke, Malik Townes milled in the background, a mask tucked under his chin. Today, he is a high school graduate who is a couple of weeks away from moving his life into a dorm room in central PA. But eight years ago, he was like thousands of other kids, lost and alone and overwhelmed by the weight of the inner city’s oppression. He tried to take his own life. He did not succeed. And then he found a field that saved him.
“There are kids that have nowhere else to go,” he said.