Never Ran, Never Will

Boyhood and Football in a Changing American Inner City


By Albert Samaha

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This uplifting story of a boys’ football team shines light on the under-appreciated virtues that can bloom in impoverished neighborhoods, even as nearby communities exclude them from economic progress.

Never Ran, Never Will tells the story of the working-class, mostly black neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn; its proud youth football team, the Mo Better Jaguars; and the young boys who are often at the center of both. Oomz, Gio, Hart, and their charismatic, vulnerable friends, come together on a dusty football field. All around them their community is threatened by violence, poverty, and the specter of losing their homes to gentrification. Their passionate, unpaid coaches teach hard lessons about surviving American life with little help from the outside world, cultivating in their players the perseverance and courage to make it.

Football isn’t everybody’s ideal way to find the American dream, but for some kids it’s the surest road there is. The Mo Better Jaguars team offers a refuge from the gang feuding that consumes much of the streets and a ticket to a better future in a country where football talent remains an exceptionally valuable commodity. If the team can make the regional championships, prestigious high schools and colleges might open their doors to the players.

Never Ran, Never Will is a complex, humane story that reveals the changing world of an American inner city and a group of unforgettable boys in the middle of it all.



2013 Mo Better Jaguars

Junior Midgets (ages 10 to 13):

Chris Legree—program director, coach in charge of Junior Midget age group

Gary Gravenhise—assistant coach

Gio—offensive lineman, defensive lineman

Isaiah—running back, defensive back

Junior Pee Wees (ages 8 to 11):

Muhammad Esau—coach in charge of Junior Pee Wee age group

Andrell—assistant coach

Oomz—running back, linebacker

Hart—offensive lineman, defensive lineman

Chaka—wide receiver, defensive back

Naz—quarterback, defensive back

Time Out—running back, defensive lineman

Dorian—offensive lineman, linebacker

Lamont—offensive lineman, defensive lineman

Mitey Mites (ages 7 to 9):

Vick Davis—coach in charge of Mitey Mite age group

Elsie—assistant coach

James—assistant coach

Oscar—assistant coach

Puerto Rico—offensive lineman, defensive lineman

2014 Mo Better Jaguars

Pee Wees (ages 9 to 12):

Muhammad Esau—coach in charge of Junior Pee Wee age group

Andrell—assistant coach

Oomz—running back, linebacker

Hart—offensive lineman, defensive lineman

Isaiah—running back, linebacker

Donnie—offensive lineman, defensive lineman

Chaka—wide receiver, defensive back

Naz—quarterback, defensive back

Time Out—tight end, defensive lineman

Dorian—offensive lineman, linebacker

Lamont—offensive lineman, defensive lineman

Junior Pee Wees (age 8 to 11):

Chris Legree—program director, coach in charge of Junior Pee Wee age group

Gary Gravenhise—assistant coach

Mitey Mites (ages 7 to 9):

Vick Davis—coach in charge of Mitey Mite age group

Elsie—assistant coach

James—assistant coach

Oscar—assistant coach

Puerto Rico—offensive lineman, defensive lineman

Tarell—wide receiver, defensive back

Author’s Note

I BEGAN REPORTING THIS BOOK IN THE SUMMER OF 2013. Over the next two years, I spent many hours with the players of the Mo Better Jaguars, their coaches, their parents, and other current and former neighborhood residents. I went to nearly every practice and game, and spent time with them at the park, at their homes, on the phone, in their cars, walking around, on buses to New Jersey, and anyplace else they’d let me shadow them.

This book is based on interviews, conversations, and observations from four and a half years of reporting in and around Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood, as well as outside research. It’s filtered through my own interpretations of what I saw, heard, read, concluded, and believed.

One of the harder decisions was over what to call a neighborhood like Brownsville. I went with “inner city” because it’s what most of the locals used and, I guess, the clearest way to put it at the moment. The word is loaded because it has been misused so often, especially in efforts to deny the forces of systemic oppression that batter black and brown neighborhoods.

I wrote this book because I wanted to explore why some kids made it out and some didn’t. What were the factors that made the difference? And did escaping tough circumstances also have to mean turning your back on the neighborhood? In my reporting on disenfranchised communities across the country, I repeatedly came across people who’d dealt with the fear of poverty or crime, learned lessons from their circumstances that helped them grow into successful adults, and then found themselves drawn back to their homes. This book is entirely from a third-person perspective because I wanted to present this world as it looked—and as it continued to look in the moments I wasn’t there. This story belongs to the people who allowed me to peek into their lives, and my primary goal is to do them justice, while answering the questions I’d become focused on.

While I do not appear in the book as a character, the story I chose to tell is undoubtedly personal, a journey to better understand tensions that have discomforted me. I was part of the wave of gentrifiers moving into Flatbush, Brooklyn, in the early 2010s, and I still live there as of this writing. My apartment is two and half miles from Betsy Head Park, an easy walk on a nice day. I go to bars and brunch spots that replaced longtime local businesses. There’s no escaping the knowledge of the benefits I’ve gained at the expense of families with deep roots in a place I only recently started calling home.

I began reporting this book around the time I’d started grappling with my feelings about football, the sport that dominated much of my childhood. I had NFL aspirations and played until my second year in college. I love the game and still believe that the virtues I learned from playing it were critical to whatever success I have been able to find. Like many, the more I learned about the brain research, the more I cringed at the big hits, wondered about the sport’s future, and questioned the morality of supporting it. In reporting this book, I hoped to cultivate some sort of understanding—in myself, at least—of what football’s place in American society is, will be, and should be.

Albert Samaha

January 27, 2018

Flatbush, Brooklyn





July 2013

THE BOYS CAME TO THE PARK FOR FOOTBALL PRACTICE on Saturday mornings in the summer. Some of them would be lost by winter; Coach Chris Legree couldn’t yet say which ones. It was early July 2013, and Chris was hopeful. Despite years of evidence to the contrary, he still held on to the dream that this would be the year he saved all the boys gathered around him at the park.

There were more than 50 of them lined up across the hard dirt field in the Brownsville neighborhood, deep in east Brooklyn. The youngest boys were 7; the oldest, 12. Most wore T-shirts and basketball shorts, though a few, the newcomers who didn’t know better, were in jeans. In a few weeks, they’d all be in helmets and shoulder pads, and Chris would learn “who was really a football player” and who wasn’t cut out for the game. But for now, in the thick heat of peak summer, their only tasks were to learn the plays and get in shape.

“Set! Go!” shouted Chris, who was 57, built like a bouncer, and had the robust, commanding voice of a former quarterback. “Let’s go! All the way through!”

The boys sprinted across the field, their sneakers and cleats kicking up dust. Yes, Chris knew some would be lost, but he was just as certain that within this pack, too, were future stars. Every boy had aspirations beyond professional football dreams. Isaiah, a rail-thin 11-year-old who ran with easy strides, his slender frame almost gliding with the dust, wanted to start his own business. Oomz, a mercurial and solidly built 10-year-old jogging in the middle of the pack, wanted to become a doctor. Hart, a big 10-year-old lumbering near the back, wanted to practice law.

It was hard to tell, at this point, whose childhood struggles were prologues to against-all-odds stories of upward mobility and whose foreshadowed tragedy. Who would make it out and who wouldn’t. To Chris, it sometimes felt arbitrary. He’d coached boys at this park for nearly two decades, and over those years he’d seen promising kids, from stable households and decent schools, fall into the streets, and he’d seen troubled kids, with poor grades and juvenile records, get on track. The adolescent years were fickle in this neighborhood. One push this way or that could make all the difference, erasing every move that came before. It was both a reason to hope and to despair.

“Keep going!” Chris shouted. “Don’t slow down! When they see us they gon’ know what Brownsville’s about!”

Within minutes, some boys were hunched over, out of breath, wilting in the sticky heat. Chris called for a water break. His eight assistant coaches, posted at various points on the field, reminded the boys that walking wasn’t allowed during practice. As the boys dispersed, to their backpacks piled at the base of a tall cement light post or to the water fountain behind the baseball diamond, Chris spotted an older boy watching them from behind the fence.

Chris always scanned the park during practice. A five-block patch of dried grass and cracked pavement in the center of Brownsville, Betsy Head Park was his domain. He’d grown up in the housing projects down the street, the Brownsville Houses, and his Mo Better Jaguars youth football program had practiced on this dusty field for years. Anybody looking for Chris knew to find him at the park. He waved at friends, greeted parents and former players, scouted for new recruits, and kept an eye out for any older kids who might tempt his boys onto the streets. Chris couldn’t protect his boys once they left Betsy Head Park, but as long as they were under his watch on this field, nothing could touch them.

The boy behind the fence wore a dark T-shirt, shiny basketball shorts, and unremarkable sneakers. He had close-cut hair, high cheekbones, and big, down-turned eyes that lent him an air of vulnerability despite the ridges of muscle visible on his calves and forearms. Chris didn’t recognize the boy, but the boy began walking toward him.

“Hey, how ya doing?” Chris said warmly.

“Hi,” the boy said. “I was wondering how I could join the team.”

Now that they stood toe-to-toe, Chris saw that the boy did not wear the hard face he’d seen on so many of the older boys around the neighborhood. His voice, too, was soft, hesitant.

“How old are you?”


The boy’s name was Gio. The first thing Chris noticed about him was that he was big for his age. The second was how politely he spoke even without a parent present. Later, after seeing him move on the field for the first time, Chris told his fellow coaches: “This kid got a chance to be a star.”

GIO HAD ALWAYS wanted to play football. He hadn’t gotten much of a chance to try the sport growing up in Saint Lucia, in the Caribbean, where his friends mostly played soccer. Gio was good at soccer, faster and more coordinated than the other boys his age. But the complexity and collisions of football appealed to him, and he watched the game as often as possible. His favorite team was the New York Giants.

By the time Gio was in grade school, his mother and older brother had moved to New York City, where they lived in a big brick apartment building in Brownsville. Gio stayed behind with his father in Saint Lucia while his mother settled into the new home. The boy enjoyed life on the island. It was comfortable. He had many friends. They often spent their afternoons on the beach, kicking a soccer ball, swimming, running races, and roughhousing. But it was a small place, and Gio grew bored of the beach. “It gets old if it’s the only thing you do every day,” Gio said. He welcomed his mother’s decision to bring him to America.

To his eyes, the country was full of wonders. Tall buildings blocked the horizon. Cars filled every driveway and lined every curb. Large flat-screen televisions glowed through living-room windows. A few days after he arrived in the summer of 2013, his mother took him to Coney Island, eight miles south of Brownsville, where the beach was thronging, far busier than any he’d seen. Wide-eyed, he took in the roller coasters, ice cream parlors, carnival games, and the hundreds of people strolling along the boardwalk and crammed towel-to-towel on the sand. There was abundance all around him. Within his own neighborhood, he saw big shops that sold many versions of any kind of item you could want. On a single block there might be a place for Chinese food, a place for burgers, and a place for deli sandwiches. Across the street from his apartment building, a block down from a halfway house, stood a Dunkin’ Donuts, a T-Mobile branch, a Dollar Tree, a fried chicken joint, and two pizza chains. Several blocks farther north, on Pitkin Avenue, the neighborhood’s main commercial thoroughfare, the shops lined up, one after the next, as far as his eyes could see—selling sneakers, suits, hair products, discount jeans, fresh fruit, liquor, video games, tattoos, and more. “It’s like you can get anything you want,” Gio said. He liked to go for walks along Pitkin Avenue, dropping into shops and people watching. He wondered if all of America was like this.

One Saturday, a month after his arrival, Gio cut through Betsy Head on his way home from Pitkin and saw kids playing football. The park teemed with summer life. Sweaty guys played pickup basketball on blacktops. Small children splashed in the pool. Joggers looped the red rubber track. Teenagers lounged on the jungle gym. Old-timers played cards on chipped picnic tables. Young men and women chatted on cell phones and ate greasy takeout on the red cement steps that served as bleachers behind the baseball diamond. Somewhere, a boom box was blasting hip-hop. And, in the center of it all, 50 or so boys kicked up dust.

Gio was taller than all of the boys, and as he watched them, he figured he was stronger too. He imagined himself running with the ball and knocking opponents to the ground, the big hits that made the crowd go ooooh! on TV. He thought about how popular football was in this country and the riches that came from being good at it. He began to dream.

GIO’S MOTHER DIDN’T know much about football, but she supported his interest. Though she came to the country with high hopes for the future, she worried about her son’s transition into American life. It was not the glittering paradise some of her relatives in the Caribbean pictured, and she’d hesitated to move Gio to the States. There were more opportunities here than anywhere else, she still believed, but soon after arriving she realized that those opportunities were more distant than she expected—especially for boys Gio’s age, especially in working-class neighborhoods like Brownsville, where she landed because rent was cheap. She learned that many of the schools in her neighborhood were notorious for hallway fights and low test scores. She read news articles declaring that Brownsville’s crime rate was among the highest in the city. She heard stories of young people falling in with local gangs.

Before her 12-year-old son could go off to college, start a career, and buy a house, he had to make it out of the neighborhood, avoiding the traps along the way. Gio had grown up in an insulated, safe environment, where he’d had the same friends all his life and saw the same people every day. His mother worried he’d be unable to handle the negative influences she saw around the neighborhood, the older boys on the corners late at night who pulled younger boys into their circle. She worked all day and so did Gio’s 20-year-old brother, and she worried how Gio would spend his free time. It calmed her to know that he would be at the park, learning from coaches and meeting new friends, for so many hours each week.

She met Coach Chris, liked his enthusiasm, and felt blessed to have another adult looking after her son. She hadn’t really considered how football could shape Gio’s future until she talked to Chris. The coach was telling her that her son might be good enough to go to college for free. Within days of their first meeting, Gio had become Chris’s prized prospect. Not only was he fast and strong, but he could kick the ball 40 yards and throw it nearly as far. He had a sharp mind, quickly picking up the plays and the rules, and he showed up to every practice. Chris bragged to high school coaches about him. When old friends dropped by the field to see Chris, he pointed to Gio and said, “Watch this kid right here. This kid could be a star.” He worked with Gio on kicking and blocking drills before practice and during water breaks. “Just imagine what this kid can do when he actually knows how to play,” Chris said.

The other boys were just as impressed. It wasn’t long before many of them looked up to Gio. He was funny and warm and, even though he was older and more athletic than the others, he never acted like he was too cool. One night, after a Tuesday evening practice in mid-August, a group of them stayed on the field with Gio to see how far he could kick the ball. The sun was setting. Lights on tall cement posts around the park illuminated the field, where, on the other side, a group of mostly West Indian men were playing soccer. Gio launched the football high into the darkening blue sky. As it barreled down, the other boys jockeyed to get underneath, but it hit the dirt before anybody could snag it, and it bounced around the way footballs do. The boys raced after it, pushing one another away until finally somebody dove on the ball.

“My ball!” shouted Oomz, as he hopped to his feet, his white shirt stained with dirt. He threw the ball to Gio, then got back in position for the next round. But before the kick, he heard somebody calling his name: “Yo, Oomz!” He turned and saw Hart standing by the side of the field with his parents, who were folding up the lawn chairs they’d sat on during practice.

“I’ll let y’all get the next one,” Oomz said to the other boys before jogging off toward Hart and greeting his parents.

“Oomz, you wanna come over tonight?” Hart said. “My mom and dad said it’s cool.”

“I wish I could, but I gotta ask my mom first,” Oomz said. “Next practice, though?”

“You’re welcome at our place anytime,” Hart’s mother chimed in.

The boys slapped hands and parted ways. As Oomz sprinted back to the middle of the field, Hart and his parents headed for their car, bound for a quiet block of nice houses in southeastern Queens. While a majority of boys on the team lived in Brownsville, some commuted to practice from middle-class pockets of the city, where white people lived and parks had lush grass. Several boys waited at the park entrance for their rides. Others took off on bikes or caught the bus or subway. A few stood with their parents talking to coaches, their conversations punctuated every minute or so by the thud of Gio’s booming kicks.

Coach Muhammad Esau, at 24 the second-youngest coach on the staff, stayed at the park with the boys waiting out front. Once they’d all been picked up, he turned his attention to the field, where the game of kick and catch continued. Esau had been a team captain during Mo Better’s glory years, a sure-tackling cornerback. Even back then, Chris thought Esau would make a good coach. In Chris’s ideal world, Esau would one day run the program. For now, he was deputy in charge of the Junior Pee Wee age group, which included Oomz and Hart.

“Yo, what y’all still doing out here?” Esau said to the boys on the field. “Y’all should be headed home.”

The summer had been violent. Tensions between the two dominant crews of the neighborhood, the Hood Starz and the Wave Gang, had thickened. On some nights, teenagers opened fire on one another on Rockaway Avenue, the boundary between their territories, three blocks from the park. The coaches recalled at least six shootings on the avenue this summer. Other nights, boys traded shots in the cluster of housing projects across the street from the park.

The coaches were familiar with the rivalry. Less than a decade earlier, a group of former Mo Better players had formed the Hood Starz. Some of those players got locked up after a police gang sweep in the late 2000s. Others were killed in the conflict with the Wave Gang. Hakeem, the 16-year-old alleged leader of the Hood Starz, had been murdered in 2010. And as the older boys went away, to prisons and cemeteries, younger boys stepped up to replace them and avenge their deaths, keeping alive a rivalry whose origins many of them did not know. Now Hakeem’s younger brother Poppa, once a star quarterback and team captain on Mo Better, was said to be among the crew’s leaders. Coach Chris didn’t believe this was true. “Just rumors,” he said. But he also knew that, for an adolescent boy, the neighborhood was a tinderbox of social pressures, street politics, and the directionless anger that blooms from the daily struggle of poverty. These were the same factors battering boys in working-class black neighborhoods all over America. In most ways, Brownsville had more in common with blocks in south Chicago, north St. Louis, west Baltimore, and east Oakland than it did with the increasingly gentrified stretches of north and central Brooklyn, much less any place in Manhattan. While crime rates dropped across America—most dramatically in New York City—in the 1990s and 2000s, violence became increasingly concentrated in these neighborhoods. Dreams of upward mobility still felt remote. Coach Chris had lost scores of boys to the streets over the program’s 18 years. Esau had played with some of them.

Hearing Esau’s orders, the boys left the field and headed home. Gio went south, down Livonia Avenue, to his building on Kings Highway five minutes away. Oomz went north, up Strauss Street, where his grandmother’s house was a block down. He lived on the same block as Poppa, whom he’d known for as long as he could remember. Poppa’s final year on Mo Better, when he was 15, was Oomz’s first year, when he was 7, in the Mitey Mite age group, which was headed by Coach Vick Davis, the most respected and feared coach in the program. When Oomz was 8, he and Hart led the Mitey Mites to a North Jersey Pop Warner League championship. “We was some pretty bad dudes,” said Hart. By now, they were veterans of the program, the two best players on the Junior Pee Wee team. At practice, they stood out from the boys whose muscles had yet to memorize the technical movements of football. Oomz and Hart had mastered the sport’s dance—hips twisting, backs flat, balls of their feet chopping the ground. Just as their bodies had internalized the sport’s mechanics, their minds were synchronized to the seasonal routines that had structured their lives for years. For Oomz and Hart, the summer was about to reach its crescendo—that narrow stretch of time every year between the first day in football pads and the first day of school, when the hours feel shorter and reality sets in.

THE DOOR TO the building was open when Gio arrived. The lock had been broken for at least as long as he’d lived there, in the massive brick structure locals called the Castle because it looked like one from the outside. The lobby was long and wide, and during the day it was filled with little kids playing, sometimes bouncing a red rubber kickball across the linoleum. Paper plates, empty cans, and broken glass littered the elevator floor. The building’s hallways were loud, echoing pattering footsteps, distant shouting, and thudding music. Gio liked many things about New York City, but one thing he hadn’t gotten used to was the constant noise. Cars blasting heavy bass waited at stoplights. Sirens whined. Gio entered his front door, shuffled down the long hallway of the railroad-style apartment, and collapsed onto his bed. The subway rumbled by on the elevated tracks a few dozen yards from his window, a long, low thunder that shook the bare walls of his room all day and all night. Some nights, too, he heard gunshots.

Still, he felt like he was adjusting well to the new environment. He hung around the park on most days and began recognizing familiar faces from the neighborhood. When the helmets and shoulder pads came on in late August, he quickly got comfortable with the equipment. At first, the gear had felt heavy and suffocating. The helmet blocked peripheral vision. The shoulder pads limited arm mobility. The tight pants lined with protective cushions slowed his strides. But by the end of his first week of practice in pads, Gio’s movements had become smooth and casual, as if the armor were nothing more than a hoodie and basketball shorts. What had initially felt oppressive now felt freeing. Stripped of fear and physical inhibitions, Gio ran full speed into the game’s maelstrom of collisions. Football, it turned out, came easily to him. It was the rest of his American life he had to worry about.



August 2013

THE DUST CLOUDS FORMED AFTER THE HITTING BEGAN. Several collisions in, the dust hung like a fog over Betsy Head Park. There was not much grass on the field, and so the dust rose from the ground. It drifted toward the housing projects to the east and the elevated subway tracks hanging over the park’s southern edge. The August evening was warm and humid and the dust stuck to everybody. It stuck to the legs and feet of the mothers sitting along the green benches near the park’s entrance. It stuck to the necks and foreheads of the fathers leaning against the waist-high fence to watch the hitting. It stained the yellow bills of the ball caps worn by the coaches spread across the field. It covered the purple mesh jerseys of the boys, who stood in two lines, facing each other, forming a stage for the tackling drill.



Oomz had just run through another defender. Oomz had gripped the football in his right arm, faked to the right, then cut to the left in a burst and knocked the boy trying to tackle him on his back for the second straight time. The boy turned onto his stomach and slowly pushed himself up.


  • "Samaha brings empathy and scrutiny to his reporting... There is much to enjoy and at the best moments to admire in this book... Never Ran, Never Will proves the continued salience of urban sports as a subject for exploring larger issues of race and class."—New YorkTimes Book Review

  • "Refreshing and raw, Never Ran, Never Will tracks the boys of Brownsville, Brooklyn as they age out of innocence and details the efforts of the devoted men and women laboring to guide them into adulthood. By the last page of Albert Samaha's compelling debut, you don't just want the boys of the Mo Better Jaguars to make it - you realize that we all need them to."
    Wesley Lowery, Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post national correspondent and author of the New York Times bestselling They Can't Kill Us All

  • "Never Ran, Never Will is the irresistible story of the Mo Better Jaguars, a football team of hard-luck boys in low-income Brownsville, Brooklyn. With dazzling prose, Albert Samaha's big beautiful book about teamwork and ambition, growing up and breaking away, will touch you with its heart and grace."
    Don Van Natta, Jr., ESPN senior writer, New York Times bestselling author, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize

  • "Good narrative nonfiction requires a kind of alchemy-thorough reporting and incisive writing are essential, but the most important ingredient is time. Albert Samaha's years-long commitment to this tale of striving Brooklyn kids and their dedicated football coaches shines through on every page. The result is a rare gift: a story with genuine characters, real texture, and deep, sensitive insight."
    Nate Blakeslee, author of American Wolf and Tulia

  • "Samaha takes readers by the hand and leads them on a visceral tour of a
    peril-filled world that, nevertheless, thanks to people like Legree, can also
    become a seeding ground for hope. An important book on many levels."—Booklist, Starred Review

  • "An inspiring tale... At the heart of Samaha's
    unflinching book are the life-affirming themes of sports, transcendence,
    courage, and manhood."—Publishers Weekly

  • "Albert Samaha writes with grit, grace and
    compassion about coming of age in a hard place. The young men of the Mo Better
    Jaguars-and their tireless coaches-face long odds on the field and in the
    streets. It's impossible not to root for them, to marvel at their determination
    and heart, and to share in their dream of a better future."—Jessica Bruder, author of Nomadland: Surviving America inthe Twenty-First Century

On Sale
Sep 4, 2018
Page Count
368 pages

Albert Samaha

About the Author

Albert Samaha is a criminal justice reporter at BuzzFeed. He has worked at the Village Voice, San Francisco Weekly, the San Francisco Examiner, and the New York Observer. His stories have won awards from the National Association of Black Journalists, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia, and others. He is a graduate of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and lives in New York City.

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