By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
"Those kids are my junior Olympians," says Darius Lawshea, their track coach and football speed trainer. "Wait till you see them do their thing on the football field."
Lawshea and Wallace, like the other two dozen coaches, volunteer their time without pay. "My son sees Coach Row as his uncle," Gainer says. "It's a very personal connection between the coaches and the players."
During the seven years coaching this squad, Wallace has had only two losing seasons. Yet they never managed to advance to a league Super Bowl. That all looked to change in 2011, as Nay'quan and his friends were dominating the regular season.
Then came November 3, 2011, a Thursday-night practice before the divisional playoffs, when automatic-rifle rounds sprayed into the team and shattered their season. Moments after Nay'quan was rushed to the hospital, a hysterical friend called Gainer to tell her he'd been killed. "I prayed," she remembers. A few minutes later, Nay'quan's uncle and volunteer coach Chavis Wright called to tell her to rush to Jackson.
She found Nay'quan seriously injured but lucky to be alive. One bullet had hit his upper torso, exiting through his left shoulder and miraculously missing his vital organs. He spent four days in the hospital with his family, coaches, and teammates by his side. "The hospital was full of kids," Gainer says. "There is a lot of love between my son and his teammates."
Two days later, Miami Gardens Police arrested Bivins, who wounded three other people in the spree, for attempted murder, and today he sits in jail awaiting trial. But the Cowboys were still reeling. Parents were scared to let their kids return to Bunche Park. "My son couldn't sleep for two days after the shooting," says Kia Myles, whose boy was on the ground next to Nay'quan. "He didn't want to go back. I wasn't about to let him go back either."
Undermanned and rattled, Nay'quan's squad lost a month later in the semifinal. "It was rough," Wallace says. "I told them death and tragedy happens all the time. It might be tough, but we have to move on, stick together, and work together to make it through."
But recovering from the horrible drive-by and his team's dashed Super Bowl dream was just the beginning for Nay'quan. He had nerve damage in his left arm and needed six months of physical therapy before he was cleared to play football.
"An 11-year-old getting shot by an assault rifle is very painful," Wallace says. "But he didn't miss a beat. He wanted to get back on the field right away."
Little did Nay'quan and his team know, but the shooting was only the beginning of the turmoil his team would see in the next year.
With a thunderous crash, a Broward County SWAT officer hurls a metal hook tied to a rope through the glass door of Red Carpet Kutz barbershop in Lauderdale Lakes, then secures the hook to the iron bars on the door frame. A police truck revs its engine, tugging the rope until the door rips off its hinges. The cops rush past two barber stations, kick down a closet door, and find a secret room, pimped out into a Vegas-style sports gambling den with three booths and tinted windows.
A block and a half away, another police team busts into Showtime Sports, a sporting goods store, where another gaming room is hidden in the back. By the end of the day on Oct. 30, the cops have hauled away $40,000 in drop safes and boxes stuffed with documents proving that the spots were operated by Brandon Bivens and five other coaches of Broward-area little-league football clubs.
The raid was the nadir of 17 dark months for youth football in Florida that started with a devastating ESPN special report and ended with one of the area's biggest leagues all but defunct. The arrests proved that not all coaches are like Wallace, a hard-working blue-collar dude mentoring kids and winning football games.
"It's about kids being exploited unfortunately by greedy parents and greedy grownups and coaches who were basically nothing more than criminals," then-Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti said after the arrests.
The investigation began in May 2011 after a report aired on ESPN's Outside the Lines. Coaches were secretly recorded exchanging wads of cash in the stands of SFYFL games in Broward during the 2010 season. The SFYFL, the second-oldest league in South Florida, started play in the 1980s. At its peak in 2010, it fielded 22 teams with 6,000 kids. When the Bunche Park and Miami Gardens teams were launched in 1990 and 2003, respectively, the programs both joined the SFYFL.
ESPN, though, uncovered a seedy underbelly in the league. Reporters interviewed Osbert Small, a coach for the Pompano Beach Cowboys, who was seen on camera exchanging money with several men during the SFYFL's Super Bowl in November 2010. Small later claimed he was only "holding money for an individual."
The report also noted that gamblers recruited children and their parents, offering one mom $2,000 to have her son play for a certain team, as well as providing the kid with clothes, shoes, and money. One coach told ESPN he lost one player when another team offered the boy's mother $3,500.