On the Road with Brooklyn’s Homeless High School Football Team

12/15/2010 1:00 AM |

Columbus was 4-1 and coming off an 8-0 win over South Shore the week before. Inside the stadium the crowd ran about 150 people deep, all of them rooting for the home team. A thickset man in a Blue Steel hoodie sat at a folding table with a grey metal lockbox collecting admission—five dollars a ticket. Out on the sidewalk a handful of kids watched the game through the chainlink fence. “Make ’em eat dirt! Draw some blood!” yelled a man and a woman standing together at the top of the metal bleachers. “Hey 81,” the woman hollered at one of Automotive’s players, “come say that to my face!” What 81 had done to provoke her ire wasn’t entirely clear. Such, though, is life on the road. Outside a woman stopped to listen as she passed by the field. She’d lived in the Pelham Parkway Houses across the street for seventeen years, she said. “Every Saturday I can hear them playing.”

Columbus’s pep band was tucked inside a baseball backstop, using it as a bandshell of sorts. Their leader, a short middle-aged woman in a black stocking cap was waving her hands, imploring her charges to slow down a song. The cheerleading corps bounded out onto the track, the dance team following them a few plays later. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys blared from a loudspeaker. Students in class sweatshirts with nicknames printed across the backs—”Smiley,” “Empresso,” “Pinkie,” “Mustafa,” “Gaza Kidd”—milled about in front of the stands calling out to teachers and friends they saw in the crowd. Near the end of the half a group of them took out a long paper banner they’d painted for the team to run through when it returned to the field from the locker room. It ripped in the wind as they unfurled it. They spent halftime with it spread out under the goal post trying to tape it together as other students laughed at them from the stands.

The most striking thing about a high school football game is the near-constant activity. Ostensibly the games are sporting events; really they’re venues for conducting the business of high school, just along axes slightly off-center from the norm. It’s a space where the classroom’s constituents meet as civilians, where traces of the wider world make their way into the schoolyard. Teachers in their casual clothes tease students about missing homework assignments; students tease their teachers about the ratty jeans they’re wearing; alumni home for the weekend tell their old coaches stories about life at college; parents catch up with one another; ex-players swap strategies for the offensive line.

“You know that this is your house,” Austin says. “Instead of going to other peoples’ house and trying to prove something there, you have your own house where you don’t have to prove nothing. You can just play and have fun.”

“House” is a metaphor, of course. As, for that matter, is the “home” in home field. There was, though, something in the unselfconscious easiness of the students as they bounced about the place that made it feel almost an extension of their living rooms.