For Coaches, Real-Life Losses

By David Abel  |   Globe Staff  |  May 18, 2007

When Roosevelt Robinson and Dennis Wilson learned that Jerome Wells had been shot to death, they realized he was the third former quarterback they had lost to violence since they began coaching football at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury.

One was found floating in the Charles River. Another was shot to death at a Dorchester party trying to help a girl who had a necklace stolen. And Wells, 20, was shot Tuesday night on a Roxbury street, standing next to his seven-months pregnant girl friend.

"I do more funerals than graduations or proms," Robinson said. "It's just very sad."

In their front-row seat to Boston's street violence, they have helped bury dozens of former players, athletes they tried to recruit, or other students they have known.

"It's very devastating, very dishearten ing, very depressing, and very scary," Wilson said. "And it's getting worse, not getting better. It seems like every day another kid is dying. It's mind-boggling. How's it going to stop? When's it going to stop? When are they going to learn the value of a life? It's just really crazy."

Over the years, the duo -- Robinson, 42, has been the team's head coach since 1992 and Wilson, 56, the assistant coach since 1981 -- have struggled to keep their players from falling victim to the violence all around them.

They said yesterday that they have taken their players for meals and to the movies and, when necessary, given them money and jobs. For some, they have stood in as surrogate fathers.

They said they have tried to teach from their experience, that life presents trapdoors, and that a young man needs to know who he is and what he wants from life to avoid getting sucked in by the drugs, the thugs, the evils that have consumed too many of their peers.

There have been successes, but the failures have been catastrophic. Some found the streets more alluring than their coaches' words.

"We don't just teach kids football and basketball; we teach them how to be men, how to make good decisions that may not be fun but are the right decisions," said Wilson, who is also the school's basketball coach and teaches history. "But too often they get drawn into the bad things."

As of yesterday, 22 people have been homicide victims in the city this year, one more than at the same time last year. All but one victim was younger than 30, and all but two were men. 
Last year the city had 74 homicides, one less than the total in 2005, which hit a 10-year high.

Robinson and Wilson remember Simba Sharif , a foster-care child who played quarterback for Madison Park in the 1980s and turned up dead in the Charles River several years later.
Errol Morrison , another quarterback, was shot in the back of the head on Norwell Street in Dorchester in 1995 after trying to protect a woman, they said.

Other former Madison Park students they have mourned include Lloyd Industrious , a basketball player killed in 1994; Earl Pate , a basketball player stabbed to death in the early 1990s; and Cedrick Steele , 18, who was struck and killed by six bullets in March after walking into his uncle's barbershop on Dudley Street.

The problem, they say, is a lack of respect for others.

When Robinson played football for Dorchester High School in the late 1970s, he said, there were drugs and violence, but the culture was different. "Today, there's no respect at all for parents, teachers, coaches. Too many of these kids cuss and swear at you, and they don't think anything about it," said Robinson, who is also a firefighter.

So Robinson and Wilson said they try to make their players see the value of life, the opportunity to make something of themselves. "I ask them: Why would you kill someone for $50? I tell them, 'You can't replace a life.' "

One student who appreciated their influence is Miguel Lacourt , now 22, a linebacker who graduated in 2003 after helping lead Madison Park to a state championship. He saw fellow students die.

"Some people just can't think that will happen to them," he said in a telephone interview. "I thought, 'Wow, that could have been me.' "

Chuck McAfee , the headmaster of Madison Park, called Robinson and Wilson "true role models who are in a constant battle to keep their players on the straight and narrow."

"They're always trying to steer them from that negative element, trying to pull them in a different direction," he said.

That lure apparently caught Wells, a former all-city quarterback at Madison Park who had run-ins with the law and had been shot once before. Two young men were arrested within hours of his slaying; the motive remains unclear.

Robinson and Wilson first met Wells years ago, when they coached him on the Pop Warner Roxbury Raiders and the Mighty Mights .

Arlisa Bennett , Wells's mother, said the coaches did their best to look out for her son, who she said was studying to be an electrician.

"If Jerome got into anything, Coach Robinson was right there," she said in an interview at her home in Roxbury. "Coach Robinson would come to my house and really let Jerome have it. And I mean he would make Jerome get out there and do extra runs."

She said she didn't have to call Robinson to ask for help -- he usually called her. But when she did reach out, Robinson was there.

"I had his number on speed dial," she said. "I would call up Coach Robinson and say, 'You know what? This boy is over here hanging out,' or something, and he'd be right over."

The Rev. Miniard Culpepper , who ministered to Wells at his Dorchester church, said he, Robinson, and Wilson tried to persuade Wells to use his football talent to get into college.

"We wanted to compare notes on Jerome," he said. "Everything was about Jerome going. . . . It was a way out. It would have been a way out."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.