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failing our athletes > part 2

Competing under fire

Deadly violence often part of life for young athletes

Boston.com article page player in wide format.
By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / June 22, 2009
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Gunshots rang out - at least six rounds in rapid fire - as girls played softball last month at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, just blocks from Boston police headquarters. Only a few girls flinched at the gunfire, and none ducked for cover as a pack of youths sprinted from the shooting site amid the scream of sirens and screech of tires from approaching police vehicles.

For student-athletes across the city, the chilling cacophony of violence has become part of the soundtrack of their lives.

“It’s something we hear every day,’’ said Madison Park baseball catcher Jeffrey Santana. “Sometimes we don’t even notice it.’’

Like never before, the challenges of staying alive and staying out of jail have become as crucial for athletes in the Boston schools as honing their sports skills, according to coaches, players, and youth advocates. It’s a disturbing reality that complicates efforts to develop a comprehensive high school athletic system in a city that, a Globe review shows, shortchanges its student-athletes on funding, facilities, equipment, coaching, and other services.

Two days before Thanksgiving, Charlestown High’s senior shortstop Sergio Ibanez, 18, was shot dead outside his grandmother’s house. Less than six months later, Soheil Turner, 15, who planned to play basketball next season at Charlestown, was killed waiting for a school bus. Numerous other student-athletes told the Globe they have been robbed or assaulted going to or from school, games, or practice.

“When they leave us at 6 o’clock, we don’t know if we will see them the next morning,’’ said Ibanez’s coach, George Farro.

‘Snitches get stitches’
Fifteen teenagers, most Boston school students, were killed this school year in the city. Boston school police logged more than 740 crimes against individuals and seized more than 625 weapons, including three firearms, reinforcing the fear among many coaches that one of their athletes could be the next to die.

“We’ve been to more funerals than graduations,’’ Madison Park football coach Roosevelt Robinson said of himself and Dennis Wilson, the basketball coach.

It was a gun crime at Madison Park that led Ibanez to Charlestown. A mild-mannered church keyboardist, Ibanez was walking to Madison Park’s music school two years ago when a gun-wielding gang stole his cellphone and the $3 in his pocket. Police arrested one suspect, and Ibanez’s parents, Jean and Ignacio Diaz, feared their son would be exposed to retaliatory violence.

“The boy who robbed Sergio knew who he was, so we needed to get him out of that school,’’ Jean Diaz said.

Rules of the street required they fear for the victim’s safety, as Madison Park basketball player Andre Mascoll reminded his mother after a gang jumped him in January, returning home from practice. Just days after a student survived a shooting outside Madison Park, Mascoll - two blocks from his Dorchester home - was confronted by thugs. One grabbed his arm, another reached in his pocket and stole the $12 his mother gave him, another punched him in the face.

“That’s when I went down, and they all started kicking me,’’ Mascoll said.

He suffered lacerations and bruises. Yet Wilson expressed relief when he heard the news.

“Andre was alive,’’ said Wilson, mindful that one of his ex-players was killed for a gold chain.

Mascoll’s mother urged her son to call police, but he warned her, “Snitches get stitches.’’

Which is why Ibanez transferred from Madison Park to Charlestown. A versatile athlete, Ibanez played two years of baseball at Charlestown and one year of hockey. He also scored high enough on MCAS tests to earn an Adams Scholarship, a four-year scholarship to any public college in Massachusetts.

Ibanez had no criminal or school disciplinary record. Though he lived across from the gang-beset Bromley-Heath complex in Jamaica Plain, no evidence linked him to gangs. But he made a fatal mistake late Nov. 24, responding to a plea from his cousin, William (Chino) Santos, to pick him up at their grandmother’s Roslindale apartment.

“If I knew it was [Santos], I would have told Sergio, ‘Don’t do it,’ ’’ his mother said.

Santos, she said, is a former convict who runs with the notorious Latin Kings. A little after 1 a.m., just after Santos slipped into the back of Ibanez’s girl-friend’s car - Ibanez sat in the passenger’s seat - a gunman approached, by all accounts intending to kill Santos. Instead, he wounded Santos and killed Ibanez. The crime remains unsolved.

For Farro, the news was chillingly familiar. In 2005, one of his football players, Kevin Walsh, 16,was stabbed to death in Charlestown’s Bunker Hill projects.

Fear of gang violence
Gang-related gun crimes are prevalent near many Boston schools and sports facilities. Police Superintendent Paul Joyce said gangs are recruiting children as young as 12 to wield guns.

“We’re coaching a lot of kids who have been traumatized by the violence,’’ said Paulo De Barros, the boys soccer coach at Burke High School in Dorchester.

Many student-athletes in Boston grew up with gang members. Some are gang-affiliated for their own safety. Others try making it on their own, sometimes walking blocks out of their way to avoid gang-controlled turf.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re not a troublemaker,’’ said Johan Rosario, a senior baseball player at Burke who was attacked by a gang on his way home. “If you’re wearing certain colors, or they don’t like the way you look, they’re coming after you.’’

The fear of gang violence was so high when Madison Park played O’Bryant for the city boys basketball title in February that police dispatched a mobile command center and dozens of officers to the game.

With several officers monitoring metal detectors and many others stationed throughout the gym - a number of youths were denied entry or escorted out - Madison Park won the championship without an off-court incident.

For many coaches, saving children from the streets involves trying to keep them out of criminal trouble. Burke baseball coach Paul Duhaime said he refrained from reporting one student who told him he kept a gun, hidden outside school, for his protection. Duhaime said he visited two other players in jail. At Dorchester High, baseball coach Ed Toto was trying to help three players this spring who had criminal histories.

In Charlestown, basketball coach Edson Cardoso cut two players caught carrying knives or box cutters into school, and he struggled to save several younger players with criminal records from further trouble.

“With some kids, honestly, I’ve dealt more with their probation officers and judges than I have with their teachers or guidance counselors,’’ Cardoso said.

South Boston football coach Sean Guthrie went to the playoffs last fall without his best linebacker, Sir Warrior Greene, who was locked up late in the season on an armed robbery charge and probation violation.

One of the lucky ones
Dorchester basketball star Darius Carter was more fortunate. He was nearly expelled as a freshman, was later wounded in a drive-by shooting, and then locked up for three months in a youth detention center for gang-related activity. He appeared on track to follow his older brother, who has spent most of his adult life behind bars. But as a junior at Dorchester’s TechBoston Academy, Carter repudiated the gang life, and as a senior he became the leading boys scorer in Eastern Massachusetts.

“I realized I didn’t want to die,’’ he said. “I wanted to go to college, so I started focusing on school and left the streets alone.’’

With his coaches, John Evans and Justin Desai, as mentors, Carter became one of his school’s best students and most popular leaders, earning him some good will when he needed to clear up his final brush with the law. On Jan. 16, a game day, Carter was excused from school while a jury in Suffolk Superior Court convicted him of aggravated assault as a youthful offender against a teenage rival in 2007.

The same afternoon, Torey Evans, 16, was shot dead in the street a mile from the Dorchester complex and a 15-year-old boy was caught minutes later entering the school with a gun. By the time Carter arrived at the gym from the courthouse, he had missed the first half of Dorchester’s game against O’Bryant. He played the rest of the game, scored 20 points, but Dorchester could not overcome a 26-point halftime deficit and lost, 94-79.

Carter, who received probation for the assault conviction, epitomizes the student-athletes in Boston who find ways to excel despite long odds against them. He plans to attend Brandeis in the fall.

It is teens like Carter, whose love of basketball helped motivate him in school and turn him away from the street life, who are testament to the social and economic benefits of high school athletics in the inner city. As numerous coaches said, it costs much less to educate students than to later incarcerate them.

To help others from losing their way, Wilson enlisted Greg Simpson, a former Madison Park star and NBA prospect, as a volunteer assistant this year. Simpson, 45, is on parole after serving 14 1/2 years for robbing convenience stores at gunpoint to feed his cocaine addiction. He told Wilson’s players how he made it from Bromley-Heath to the threshold of his NBA dream, only to squander it all.

“I worry about these kids because of all the gang violence,’’ said Simpson, who recently joined the Boston Foundation’s StreetSafe outreach team. “It’s very tough to make it in high school sports in this city because of all the obstacles. If you make it, you’ve done something great.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.

more from part 2