Every evening, the boys on our block gather in a big gang. Black, white, hispanic, they meet in the large, irregular intersection of Clay and Raines. The group swells from ten, to fifteen, then twenty boys, ranging in age from about twelve to eighteen years old. Sides are drawn, taunts are shouted and it begins. No uniforms, no goal posts, no markings on the ground. Just boys. And a football. Back and forth, the ball is tossed and caught. Or dropped. Good plays are cheered all around. Dropped passes are jeered, then forgiven. Close calls are mourned. The big boys run the game, call the plays, make the rules. They are the stars and the referees. Their decisions are undisputed. Boys get hurt. They are, after all, playing on pavement. Skinned knees, bloodied elbows, bruised ribs. The play stops for a moment. The injured boy is examined and encouraged to shake it off. The game continues.
On and on they play, tirelessly, for hours and hours. When we finish dinner and go outside to sit on our porch, they have already begun. When dusk falls, and we go inside, they are still playing. We are not the only spectators. There are other grownups watching from neighboring porches. Little kids on bikes and trikes watch from the sidewalks. One tiny preschool girl is a regular. Up and down the block she rides her tricycle, between her driveway and the corner. She sits at the corner and watches for a while, then, bored, returns to her driveway. A few minutes later she is back at the corner. No one seems to be watching her but, once, when she turned the corner and kept going, her mom was there in two seconds. Harsh words, a quick slap and the boundary was re-set. The little girl was reminded that safety lies between her driveway and the corner. She has not ventured beyond since. She satisfies herself with sitting at the corner, watching the big boys play football.
Cars pass through the intersection, interrupting the game. The boys move aside for a moment, then resume play. Occasionally, a driver yells at them, annoyed at their choice of playing field. The boys don’t retaliate. They just wave the driver through, and go on with their game. Moms come to retrieve sons for dinner or homework or chores, but the rest play on. Sometimes a boy will break some unwritten rule and will be exiled to the grassy area that runs down the median of Raines Park. The offending boy will pace, will watch, will grow bored and sit in the shade of a tree. He will only be allowed to rejoin the game when the biggest boys are satisfied that his penalty is complete, when he has, once again, earned the right to play.
I love these boys and their never-ending game of football. I may not be able to see their faces, but I can see their hearts. I love the way they get along, solve problems, resolve disputes. I love their inclusiveness, their rules, their ethic. I love the way the bigger boys treat the younger boys with dignity and the respect the younger boys give them in return. I love their shouting and their taunting and their cheering. I love their tirelessness, their perseverance, their energy. I love how hard they play. I love that these games belong to these boys. I love that they play for the pure joy of playing. I am grateful that they are here, that they are so alive, so graceful and grace-filled, so masculine, so innocent. I thank God for these boys and pray that God will bless them and protect them from all harm. We won’t read about these boys in the newspaper. Urban young men. City youth. Not in trouble. Not at risk. Just playing football for the love of the game.