Oakland youth football team escaped shooting twice, but won’t let violence break it

Oakland youth football team escaped shooting twice, but won't let violence break it

Stepping onto the football field at Oakland Technical High School on the last day of July, Donario Simon was excited to finally don the Oakland Dynamites jersey for his first ever football game. The 10-year-old was ready to put what his trainers taught him to the test: you don’t have to be the biggest or the strongest. You just have to be the smartest on the field.

But instead of running across the field with his teammates, he ran away before the game started when gunshots erupted in the stands.

Donario was not alone. Hundreds of parents and children from the school also ran for cover that day. Donario’s mother, holding his 4-year-old sister in her arms, screamed his name as she searched for her son, who had made it safely off the field and was waiting for his mother across the street.

Not everyone there was so lucky. Three people, including a 6-year-old girl, were injured in the shooting. (All three have since been discharged from the hospital.)

“I was scared,” Donario said. “I got down and started running, I jumped the fence. I almost fell because I had my cleats on.”

Coach Steve Peterson (left) joins Walte’ Chewy Ore and Oakland Police Commissioner LeRonne Armstrong in speaking after a shooting during Dynamites youth team practice in Oakland.

This isn’t the first time the Oakland Dynamites — which includes several teams for kids ages 5 to 14 — have been close to gun violence. Last year, a player’s father shot and killed the father of another kid on the team, causing the kids to run for cover. The victim, Reuben Lewis III, had just arrived to pick up his children from practice. The suspect, Daniel Stith, is in the Santa Rita Jail for murder.

A Dynamites youth player holds a soccer ball during practice in Oakland.

Other Dynamite players were also affected by gun violence. The younger brother of Aaron Pryor, the 16-year-old star running back for Skyline High School who was gunned down in 2020, plays for the organization.

After the most recent July shooting, Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said the shootings were not a reflection of the Dynamites, but of people “who are callous and don’t have the guts to take the stuff anywhere else.”

Team leaders and family members say running a youth football program after the shootings hasn’t been easy. The organization has faced other struggles, including a loss of participation due to a shortage of coaches that reduced the number of teams from five to three in recent years. But they rebuilt the team and say they won’t let fear take over a famous Oakland institution that has transferred players to the NFL.

And when the team recently held a prayer circle to help players, families and coaches deal with the stress of the final shooting, the kids showed that enjoying football still matters most. After the prayers, which included a speech from the police chief, the players ran onto the field and began throwing the ball around while their laughter filled the air. Donario was among them, smiling as his coaches cheered for him and the other kids.

Dynamites youth soccer player Marlon Haynes III, 9, helps Jakahrie Murphey Jr. lift weights on the sidelines of practice in Oakland.

After the last shooting, the Oakland Police Department promised to send an officer to practice and games, which the department did until the end of the season after the last shooting. So far they have not made any arrests in the July shooting, but police said they have identified a suspect and believe others may have been involved.

Meanwhile, practice and games continue for the nearly 200 boys and nearly 70 cheerleaders who are part of the teams. Most of the children are from East Oakland, an area that suffers from disproportionate gun violence and poverty compared to the rest of Oakland.

Coaches and parents say Oakland’s oldest youth sports organization, a nonprofit founded in 1961, operates as a family trying to create safe spaces for young people.

Coach Dwight McElroy said recent tragedies would not defeat the team.

“The devil can’t win,” he said of the shooting. “There is no way we are going to let that define what our future will be with these young people.”

This mission to protect and inspire children has enticed former players to return to the team as coaches.

Instead of focusing on the violence that’s playing out on the sidelines, the coaches and parents say they teach kids stamina and discipline while keeping them off the streets. Soccer, they say, gives children a safe environment to play, run, and be aggressive. And the kids are thriving.

Maurice Jones-Drew, a former NFL player for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders, said youth sports teams give kids an opportunity and deter them from crime. Jones-Drew, coach of a Brentwood youth sports team, said the Dynamites produced “a lot of great players” who went on to play high school and college football.

Left: Andriette Phillips, whose son plays on the Dynamites team, attends a prayer group held after a shooting at a team training session. Right: The first training session after shooting. Photos by Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

Above: Andriette Phillips, whose son plays on the Dynamites team, attends a prayer group held after a shooting at a team training session. Above: The first training session after shooting. Photos by Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

Studies show that youth sports benefit children’s mental and physical health and help children improve their cognitive abilities and get better grades. Studies also show that high school athletes are more likely to go to college.

John Beam, the coach and athletic director of the Laney College football team, said the Dynamites are an Oakland institution that brings together kids from all parts of the city and binds them together as “one family.” Some of his players at Laney College were former Dynamites players and now coaches for the organization.

“It gives them a place of community,” Beam said. “Whole communities are coming to support these young people. Children look for that positive reinforcement.”

Some families may find it difficult to afford the $450 team fee plus equipment and travel expenses. That’s why the team’s almost 80 coaches often pay out of their own pockets to support children.

Being allowed to play gives kids an opportunity to dream and hope — whether it’s joining the NFL or playing high school or college football.

Zepheniah Latu, a 12-year-old running back and linebacker who has played for the Dynamites for two years, hopes to one day play for the NFL.

“Football is my passion,” he says. “I’m my favorite player because it just gives me a purpose to work every day.”

The team leaders emphasize the resilience of the Dynamites. Walté “Chewy” Ore, the team’s president, has spent the past five years rebuilding the team’s members. He even brought home a championship title. But the track record doesn’t reflect what the coaches are really teaching on the field.

“Football is a game, it’s a game of life,” Ore said. “You will go through struggles and hardships on the soccer field that will prepare you for struggles and hardships in real life.”

Dynamites youth football players train in Oakland. It was the first practice session after a shooting the week before.

He knows these battles personally. After high school, Ore served three short jail terms for marijuana convictions when the drug was still illegal in California. A former player on the team, he returned to the Dynamites as a coach.

“My main goal is to hopefully get invited to a college autograph day for some of these kids,” Ore said, adding that he believes some current teammates have the talent to play college football.

Donario could be one of them. His dream is to make a professional team in either football or basketball by the age of 19 so he can buy his mother a mansion.

His mother, Crystal Jones, said she was hesitant about letting him return to the Dynamites after the final shooting, but eventually relented. Jones said the healing circle helped Donario recover from the trauma of the shooting.

Jones said the coaches offered much-needed support to her family – including helping pay for transport to games – after her husband died suddenly last year and she was left to raise three children on her own.

The help of the coaches goes beyond financial support. They keep in touch with players’ teachers on a regular basis and review report cards and organize community clean-ups and food giveaways.

“They’re really committed to being great role models for the kids,” Jones said.

Jeff Cotton, who has coached the Dynamites for nearly 20 years, said the team teaches “togetherness, family, responsibility and respect.”

Dynamite youth soccer player Hefa Tonga, 6 (center), and others listen during a prayer group.

Born and raised in Oakland, Cotton sees himself as a father figure to the kids and even to some of the other coaches he mentored as children. He’s watched some kids go to college football and go pro — Josh Johnson is a backup quarterback for the Denver Broncos.

But Cotton also lost children along the way. One of Cotton’s all-time favorite Dynamites players was shot and killed about five years ago in his early 20s. Cotton glanced down at his hands and smiled briefly as he remembered the youngster as an unstoppable force on the field.

Despite the tragedy, Cotton said it was the job of a lifetime. And now he gets to coach his 12-year-old son, Jeremiyah Cotton.

“I get yelled at a lot,” Jeremiyah said as he scanned the field for his father before practice recently, before adding, “But then I get better.”

For the children, the team is also a chance to build a brotherhood. A win for kids like 6-year-old Kaiwjuan Pryor, whose older brother Aaron Pryor was shot dead in 2020.

Kaiwjuan looked up to his big brother and also wanted to play soccer, his mother Janay Clark said. Kaiwjuan also becomes a star himself.

His teammates don’t take his brother’s place, but have become an unshakable pillar in his life, Clark said. They play together and invite each other to birthday parties.

“We’re all family,” Clark said. “Everyone looks out for each other”

Sarah Ravani (she/she) is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SarRavani

Sarah Ravani (she/she) is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SarRavani

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