Oakland’s youth football team has escaped gunfire twice but won’t be swayed by violence

Oakland's youth football team has escaped gunfire twice but won't be swayed by violence

Aug. 28 2022 Updated: Aug 28 2022 12:06.

When Donario Simon walked onto the football field at Oakland Technical High School on the last day of July, he was excited to finally put on the Oakland Dynamites jersey for his first football game ever. The 10-year-old was ready to put to the test what his coaches had taught him: 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 around the field with his teammates, he was run off before the game started when guns broke out in the stands.

Donario was not alone. Hundreds of parents and children at the school that day also ran for cover. Donario’s mother, clutching 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 across the street for his mother.

Not everyone there was so lucky. 3 people, including a 6-year-old girl, were injured in the shooting. (All three have since been released 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 shoes on.

Coach Steve Peterson (left) leads a prayer next to Walte’ Chewy Ore and Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong after a shooting occurred during the Dynamites youth football team practice in Oakland.

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

Other Dynamite games have also been touched by gun violence. The younger brother of Aaron Pryor, the 16-year-old star running back for Skyline High School who was shot in 2020, plays for the organization.

After the latest shooting in July, Oakland Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said the shootings are not a reflection of the dynamites, but of people “who are restless and don’t have the courage to take these things elsewhere.”

Team leaders and family members say starting a youth football program after the shooting has not been easy. The organization has faced other struggles, including a drop in participation due to a lack of coaches, which has reduced the number of teams to three from five in recent years. But they’ve rebuilt the team and say they’re not afraid to take on a storied Oakland institution that has put players in the NFL.

And on a recent evening, when the team held a prayer circle to help players, families and coaches deal with the stress of the latest shooting, the kids showed that the joy of football is still important. After the prayers, including a speech from the police chief, the players ran onto the field and began tossing the ball around as their laughter rang through the air. Donario was among them, smiling as his coaches cheered him and the other kids on.

Dynamites youth football player Marlon Haynes III, 9, helps Jakahrie Murphey Jr.

After the latest shooting, the Oakland Police Department promised to send an officer to practice and games, which the department also did through the end of the season after the latest shooting. So far, they have made no arrests in the July shooting, but police said they have identified a suspect and believe others are involved.

Meanwhile, practices 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 experiences disproportionate gun violence and poverty compared to the rest of Oakland.

Coaches and parents say Oakland’s oldest youth sports organization, a nonprofit started in 1961, functions as a family that tries to create safe places for young people.

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

“The devil must not win,” he said of the shooting. “There’s no way we’re going to allow this to define what our future is going to be with these young people.”

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

Instead of focusing on the violence that plays out on the sidelines, coaches and parents say they’re teaching kids perseverance and discipline while keeping them off the streets. Soccer, they say, gives kids a safe environment to play, run and be aggressive. And the children experience.

Maurice Jones-Drew, a former NFL player for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders, said youth sports teams give kids an outlet and keep them away from crime. Now a youth sports team coach in Brentwood, Jones-Drew 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, participates in a prayer circle held after a shooting at a team practice. Right: The first exercise after the shooting. Photos by Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

Top: Andriette Phillips, whose son plays on the Dynamites team, participates in a prayer circle held after a shooting at a team practice. Above: The first exercise after the shooting. Photos by Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle

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

John Beam, the coach and athletic director of the Laney College football team, said the Dynamites are an institution in Oakland that brings together kids from all parts of the city and blends them into “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 come to support these young people. The kids are looking for that positive reinforcement.

For some families, affording the $450 team fee plus equipment and travel expenses can be difficult. Therefore, almost 80 coaches of the team often pay out of pocket to support children.

Allowing them to play gives kids a chance to dream and hope – about joining the NFL or playing high school or college football.

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

“Football is my passion,” he said. “My favorite player is me because it just gives me purpose to work every day.”

Team leader emphasizes the resilience shown by the dynamites. Walté “Chewy” Ore, the team’s president, spent the last five years rebuilding the team’s membership. He even brought home a championship. But track record doesn’t reflect what coaches are really learning on the field.

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

Dynamites youth football players practice drills in Oakland. It was the first exercise after a shooting at an exercise the week before.

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

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

Donario could be one of them. He dreams of making it to a professional team either for football or basketball until he is 19, so he can buy his mother a villa.

His mother, Crystal Jones, said she was hesitant to let him return to the dynamite after the latest shooting, but eventually gave in. Jones said the healing circle helped Donario recover from the trauma of the shooting.

Jones said coaches are providing her family with desperately needed support — including help paying for transportation to the games — after her husband died suddenly last year, leaving her three children alone.

The help from the coaches goes beyond financial aid. They keep in regular contact with players’ teachers and check report cards as well as 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.”

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

Born and raised in Oakland, Cotton said he sees himself as a father figure to the kids and even some of the other coaches he mentored when they were kids. He’s watched as several kids have gone on to play college football and one has gone 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 players on the Dynamites was shot and killed in his early 20s about five years ago. Cotton cast his eyes to his hands and smiled briefly as he remembered the youngster as an unstoppable force on the field.

Despite the tragedies, Cotton said it’s the work of a lifetime. And now he gets to train his 12-year-old son, Jeremiah Cotton.

“I get yelled at a lot,” Jeremiyah said, looking down the field for his father before practice on a recent day before adding, “But then I’ll get better.”

For the children, the team is also an opportunity to build a brotherhood. An asset to children like 6-year-old Kaiwjuan Pryor, whose older brother, Aaron Pryor, was shot and killed in 2020.

Kaiwjuan looked up to his big brother and wanted to play football, too, said his mother, Janay Clark. Kaiwjuan is also becoming a star in his own right.

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

“We’re all a family,” Clark said. “Everyone looks at each other.”

Sarah Ravani (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SarRavani

Sarah Ravani (she/her) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SarRavani

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.