Terry Bell paces the sidelines on the Kennedy High Football Field, calling to his players on the Richmond Steelers midget football team, presiding over a sea of black-and-yellow helmets and a group of young boys that remind him always of his own son. It’s just before kickoff on a Saturday afternoon, and Wiz Khalifa’s hit song “Black and Yellow” blasts in the background as the players and cheerleaders dance around.
Bell, who has coached the under-14 division for the recreational football club for the last 4 years, is driven by the connection he feels with his son. Jean Deshawn Grisby-Bell was briefly a Steeler before he went on to play varsity football at El Cerrito High. When Bell was first awarded custody of his son, Jean Deshawn grew happier and more confident after Bell enrolled him in the Steelers.
“It was a complete turnaround in his attitude and in his spirit,” Bell said.
Sixteen-year-old Jean Deshawn, was murdered in January 2011, and Bell wasn’t sure he could ever return to coaching all those young faces that so closely resembled his son.
But Bell reflected on what the Steelers meant. For the past 41 years, the youth football league has provided all the people involved with a strong sense of family, positive role models and a haven for those affected by local tragedies. So in hopes of giving back for all the good the Steelers did in his son’s life, you can find Bell at every game, wearing a picture of his smiling son around his neck, surrounded by a group of excited young men hanging on his every word.
The Steelers offer more than just a game. Bell said he sees a strong relationship between the organization and life in Richmond. “It’s a direct channel to the street,” he said.
The program keeps its role as a source of community strength because, behind the weekly scenes of chaotic youth football, a small group of proud, hardworking adults like Bell keeps it that way.
The Steelers meet three times a week during the fall to practice after school. Laquita Madison, the league secretary, cadet mom and Tiny Might Cheerleader coach, said the teams try to accommodate any child who wants to play. For children whose parents can’t afford registration fees or have extenuating circumstances, the Steelers will carry them. When Steelers Coach Reginald Preston II was killed in the Iron Triangle last year, the Steelers offered his children no-cost registration for life.
Though the Steelers fundraise, it is difficult at times running off the registration and door fees. Donald Jackson — known as Uncle Coach — began his work with the group 48 years ago, before the Steelers had officially even formed. Nearly half a century later, he still loves the organization – and sometimes, he said, he wishes local government and more of the community could be persuaded to feel the same way.
The Steelers almost didn’t have a field to play on this year, as no area schools were willing to lend out their fields on Saturdays. The Steelers appealed to the School Board at the board’s Sept. 5 meeting and the board apologized and restored the field at Kennedy High. Jackson said the league deserves more.
“I wish they would continue to do that because we have a positive image, not a negative one,” he said. “With Richmond, where things are going, we need something good.”
That’s a theme echoed by Eric Martin, the president of the Steelers organization. Martin started playing with the Steelers when he was eight, and never left. He said he feels that the Steelers, though not immune to the adversity found in Richmond, rise above it as a beacon of positivity.
“A lot of kids out here are missing fathers,” Martin said. “It’s important to give them someone to look up to.”
Martin, now 38, has been coaching for the last 13 years, and watched his two sons move up the program. Both now play high school ball at different high schools. Martin said he wants to give back to his community and show that, “There’s more positive stuff then bad stuff in Richmond,” he said.
Madison said she wishes the league could function all year round.
“It’s scary because you just don’t know what to expect for our kids,” she said.
Terry Bell knows that. But he wears his son’s picture around his neck not just as a reminder of what can go wrong, but of what can go right. He walks the sideline before the game with a mission to take those kids who look like his Jean Deshawn, he said, and “hopefully coach them in the right direction like I did for my son.”