Out of tragedy, a team

Memory of slain teammate, an innocent victim of street violence, drives players to face season of obstacles

May 13, 2007|By DAN RODRICKS

His surviving teammates and lacrosse coach created a memorial to Christopher Clarke on the wall of the basement locker room at Patterson High School. They took the gloves, blue helmet, lacrosse stick and blue-and-white No. 24 jersey out of his locker and fastened them to the bulletin board near the door that leads to the steps to the playing field.

It was fine for a little while.

But, equipment being in meager supply at one of the last large-zone high schools in the city, and most of the players unable to afford their own, the team in time had to take pieces of the memorial to continue playing games.

"Yeah, we've since had to borrow some of Chris' equipment from the wall," says Jon Kehl, the young history teacher who just finished his first season as the Patterson lacrosse coach. "But I think Chris is OK with that."

FOR THE RECORD - A column by Dan Rodricks in Sunday's editions incorrectly reported that Towson University will be involved in the running of Patterson High School in Baltimore. Patterson, one of three city high schools slated for reforms, will have its own governing board. Towson University is not involved. THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

During the winter, Kehl put up his own money for six used sticks so Clarke and his teammates could start practicing. It was one of those sticks they found in Clarke's locker after the Patterson senior was shot to death in March - an innocent victim of Baltimore street violence. They returned his cleats to Clarke's mother, and they used the ball they found in his locker as their first game ball of the season.

Clarke's surviving teammates remember him as they step out of the door to the playing field. Before the start of each half, they huddle closely, raise their sticks, and shout: "One-two-three, rest in peace, Chris!"

The Patterson High School lacrosse team of 2007 was short on skill; they played a hard-nosed game lacking any pretense of finesse. Only four of them had been members of the 2006 team, and only six of them had ever touched a lacrosse stick before. They played some games without substitutes, and even when the whole team was there, Kehl had only a couple of players on the sideline.

And, of course, the Clippers played without Clarke, whom Kehl describes as "an amazing young man, a natural leader."

The 2007 Clippers won just a couple of games. They lost a few by wide margins.

"On the sideline, I rarely pay attention to scores," says Kehl. "But I think Walbrook beat us by 20."

What the Clippers lack in lax skills they make up for by the ton in heart and spirit, and that's all the more remarkable considering the circumstances of their lives and the tragedy that marked the start of their season.

"We lost a ton of games," says Kehl. "But the guys get on the bus, and they're never moaning or crying. They come out of practices pumped and ready to go again. Our kids are very passionate."

The boys hold themselves proudly, even solemnly, as they march across the gritty floor of the locker room, up the steps and out to the grass in the rundown stadium, where about 25 fans wait on a splendid spring day for a game against Southside Academy. The boys kneel and pray. The captains hold hands as they meet their opponents at midfield. They chant and cheer.

"One-two-three, rest in peace, Chris!"

By all accounts, Christopher Clarke was someone headed for success from a high school the state had declared an academic failure. (Patterson was one of the city schools targeted by the state for takeover last year. A partnership headed by Towson University will soon be running it, and here's hoping that includes involvement by the Tigers lacrosse team and coaching staff.)

Clarke was 18 years old, a good student, musician and athlete, handsome, polite, well-liked by his friends and the adults at his church. He had intended to graduate from Patterson and enter the city police academy.

On March 13, he finished classes, went to lacrosse practice, then to his part-time job at the Burger King on Kane Street, then to his friend's house a couple of blocks from his own. Clarke was on Cliftmont Avenue when gunfire erupted. Three young men were wounded. Two survived. No arrests have been made.

In a city where such violence is common, Clarke's death was outrageous and infuriating - a kid on a good track caught in the crossfire of losers.

The Patterson school newspaper was filled with emotional comments from students and faculty. "You were, to me, the embodiment of limitless potential," one of his teachers wrote.

Kehl, his lacrosse coach, went to the funeral with some senior players. Afterward, they went to lunch in Fells Point; the players decided to dedicate the season to Clarke.

"Let's do what Chris would want us to do," one of them said.

At the first practice of the season, Kehl gathered the players in a circle at midfield and had them state what was on their minds and in their hearts. They were angry. They were sad. They bonded quickly as a team.

"I think it gave more purpose to the season," Kehl says, when I ask how Clarke's death affected the team. "It gave the team cohesion, kept us from falling apart."

They lost most of their games, including Thursday's against Kenwood, but spoke of the improvements they made as players and as a team. The boys of the 2007 Clippers might not be among lacrosse's elite, they might not play for a powerhouse, and the college scouts aren't even looking in their direction. But they have passion, and they understand community, staying loyal and keeping faith.

"One-two-three, rest in peace, Chris!"

Men and women with criminal records can obtain information about re-entry programs and jobs by contacting columnist Dan Rodricks at 410-332-6166 or at dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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