The Promise Of A Fresh Start

Prospects for two Edmondson players could hinge on football

January 29, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg and Lem Satterfield | Kevin Van Valkenburg and Lem Satterfield,Sun Reporters

At 7:04 a.m. Tuesday, 17-year-old Sterling Jones, bleary-eyed and shirtless, opens the front door of his rowhouse on Wheeler Avenue in West Baltimore. He squints into the sunshine, nods his head, then disappears back inside.

He has lived on this block - a drab, gray stretch of cracked concrete - for most of his life but largely views the neighborhood with indifference. The sidewalks are littered with debris, and, on some houses, plywood takes the place of windows and doors. Some proud homeowners with well-cared-for homes remain, but many other dwellings are tattooed by graffiti and run-down. Sterling's grandfather owns the Grant Two Spot, the bar at the corner.

His mother is a barmaid there.

Young men standing on the street in threes - the ones who scan traffic, looking for customers - know Sterling by name and occasionally say hello. Some are old friends. Some might even show up at the game, when Edmondson plays City College under the lights at Poly.

It's the biggest game of the regular season, and college scouts should be in attendance. For years, Sterling has told people from his neighborhood that he's going to play in the NFL, but first he has to get a college scholarship. This game could be his best chance to get noticed. He's not the biggest kid on the team, about 5 feet 11, 200 pounds, but he is a ferocious hitter. In football parlance, he drops the hammer, his shoulder pads and helmet slamming into opponents with an explosive crack.

Football, he believes, is his passport to a bright future. One far from this neighborhood, where fights break out when the clubs and bars empty, and drug-related robberies and assaults are common. He remembers the time a few years ago when two men were gunned down right in front of his grandfather's bar. Even now, he sometimes hears gunshots as he drifts off to sleep.

Someday, football is going to get him out of here. His family, too. Away from the crime and disappointment to a fresh start somewhere else. Even if the NFL is a long shot for someone his size, he refuses to believe it can't happen if he works hard enough.

Minutes later Sterling gallops downstairs, dressed in dark blue jeans and a heather gray Edmondson football T-shirt. He grabs two granola bars from the kitchen as Edmondson quarterback James "Buddy" Thorne arrives to hitch a ride to school.

The two teenagers amble out the front door and into Sterling's car, a heavily driven white Chevy Cavalier station wagon that his mother, Venida, passed on to him after he made honor roll as a junior. Sterling inserts a CD and, after a few clicks, the rap song "Whip It (Real Hard)," by Rick Ross and the Triple C, blares from the car's speakers. The music is so loud that Buddy and Sterling don't bother speaking.

As the car pulls away, in the opposite direction from the Grant Two Spot, Sterling glances in the rearview mirror, then toes the accelerator, weaving the car through early-morning traffic.

He is supposed to clean the house today but will have to get to it after practice, before his mother gets home, he hopes. By the time she gets off work, she'll be in no mood to hear excuses.

`I can't wait'

In the fleeting moments before the morning bell, Sterling Jones struts through the front doors of Edmondson-Westside High School, and everyone seems to gravitate in his direction. Girls flirt and giggle when he smiles. Teammates throw him playful punches. Friends shout questions from across the hall: You going to whip up on City this weekend, son? Have you heard Jay-Z's latest? Why didn't you call me back last night, yo?

Sterling fires back answers, hollering above the din, bantering with everyone. Even teachers chuckle at his enthusiasm and wish him luck on Saturday.

The reticent teenager from Wheeler Avenue has been replaced by his alter ego. Like a councilman running for office, he works the room, tapping knuckles, locking eyes, embracing girls and flashing his magnetic grin. Football players at Edmondson sit at the top of the school's social pyramid. They are popular with the student body and, because they usually set a positive example, they are popular with teachers, too. But even among the football players, Sterling, with his outsized personality, is in a class by himself. Inside these cracked walls and crowded hallways, he's a bona fide star.

He makes his way to the drab school cafeteria and settles himself next to two of his best friends, linebacker Kyle Jackson and running back Tariq Jones. Other Edmondson players are crammed around the table. Each time someone makes a joke, Kyle laughs without a sound, closing his eyes and dropping his chin to his chest, his body convulsing and bouncing.

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