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Peewee football gives kids role models

on November 8, 2009

Desmond Carson has a habit of referring to his football players, who range in age from 6-14, as “babies.”  The term of endearment is also a reminder.  Though his peewee league players face larger-than-life troubles, they are still just kids.

Carson is the current president of the Steelers, a post he’s held for the past year. Thirty-five years ago, the Richmond native played for the Steelers himself.  The whole town loved peewee football when Richmond was a working-class community filled with families, Carson says. Playing for the team teaches kids the skills they need to climb out of the poverty, and many of them play high school football and go on to college, coaches say.

Carson stands in the middle of an expanse of playing field, clad in a red hockey jersey, and talks with his hands, often gesturing toward his players to make his point.  Like many football devotees, he sees the game as a metaphor for life.

“You see all those kids on the field?” Carson asks, pointing at nearby group of 14- year-olds in gold and green practice uniforms.  They huddle, run, catch and fall and then begin again with a huddle.

“They just get back up,” Carson says.  “That’s why I love football.  Because in life you know we all fall down.  But you gotta get back up.”

The Steelers practice for two hours a day three times a week during the season, Carson says, which teaches them commitment and discipline.  Seeing the kids so often also gives coaches a chance to instill in them a sense of possibility for a better life.  It’s important that they see options outside of street life and dealing drugs, Carson says.

The sun sets as Carson talks, and a 14-year-old player approaches him, saying that he has to go home before a court-ordered curfew.  The child trudges off the field by himself, still wearing his pads.  Carson explains that he’s just been released from juvenile hall, a story all too common for older players on his team.  Getting players early in life is essential to changing their life-course, Carson says.

Blue-collar life was crushed when factories and shipyards left the Richmond area, removing a rung on the ladder of upward mobility, according to Carson.

His father was a factory worker, and Carson clearly remembers the day his father was promoted to foreman when Carson was 7, and the pride he felt.  Carson went on to go to Berkeley for undergraduate, and then earned an M.D. from the Medical Center at Wisconsin.  He returned to Richmond as soon as he finished his residency in the Los Angeles area and has lived in his hometown since, working as an ER doctor in nearby San Pablo.

Now, Carson is the role model: a stand-in, along with the other coaches on the team, for the male figures he says are largely absent from his player’s lives.  The norm, he says, is for his players to be raised in single-parent homes.  Often they live with a grandparent as their sole guardian.

Carson tries to shape his players with his high expectations of them.

“I ask them, do you want to be a lawyer or an architect?” Carson says.  “What kind of doctor do you want to be?”

Carson drives a huge black SUV with shiny silver rims to show the kids that life as a hard-working and successful professional comes with big rewards.  He lauds the coaches, like Donald Johnson, who have coached the team for 35 years.  A number of current peewee coaches learned the game from Coach Don, Carson says.

Yet Carson wishes more Richmond residents would return to their hometown to lead a helping hand.

“I can’t judge people for living where they want to live,” Carson says.  “But it would be nice if you could come back and be active in the community.”

Involvement makes community, Carson says.  He points to where he grew up, three blocks from the field where he stands.  He remembers the names of the families on his street, ticking off their last names house by house as he looks toward his old block and imagines moving down the street of his childhood.

“When the neighbors move out of the neighborhood,” Carson says, “then it becomes the hood.”

At the end of practice, as Carson walks back to his shiny SUV, he waves at the players.  When he reaches the edge of the field, he sees a child sitting on the ground, looking down the street.  “You got a ride home, man?” he asks.  Carson waits for the player to nod before he leaves.

20091107_peewee/20091107_peewee.mp3|Carson on the Richmond Steelers|Dr. Desmond Carson describes the difficulties his team faces in a city filled with poverty and street violence.


  1. Alexa Vaughn on November 8, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Excellent story!

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