A coach's hidden life

Always there for the kids, with prison time in his past

January 27, 2008|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun reporter

Before you saw the Old Town Gators, you heard them coming. "WHO GOT YOUR BACK?" the pint-sized football players would chant as they marched in their electric blue-and-orange uniforms through East Baltimore streets to their home field on game days.

"I GOT YOUR BACK!" the 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds would echo back over the sound of cleats clicking on pavement.

Leading the parade - often chanting and clapping with dreadlocks flying - was their 31-year-old coach, Aaron McCown. A one-time high school quarterback and wrestler, he said it pumped up his players to march through "the projects," where many of them lived. He wanted them to hear shouts of encouragement and to feel that, like a tiny militia in football helmets and shoulder pads, they needed to defend their home turf.

On the field, McCown stoked his players with maxims intended to inspire ("BE PROUD OF WHO YOU ARE") before launching them like toy rockets into games. "I teach my kids intimidation," he would say.

The star receiver happened to be a girl, and McCown enjoyed taunting opposing teams by having her remove her helmet after games. He wanted them to know that "they just got beat by a girl."

In a neighborhood noted for absent fathers, McCown could be counted on. He'd show up in black jeans and a T-shirt before the season started to demonstrate pass coverage in the August humidity. He was as much of a fixture as the withered grass. "To these kids," said Dante Eubanks Sr., a Gators parent, "Coach Aaron was like a brother or father they don't have."

Given the bravado of McCown and the other coaches, it was not surprising that the six Gators teams - the youngest is for 5-to-7-year-olds, the oldest for kids up to 15 - expressed little concern about their coming games against the powerhouse White Oak Warriors in Montgomery County on Sept. 22.

They couldn't have imagined they would lose all six games or, worse, that they would lose Coach Aaron.

But by day's end, that's exactly what had happened, six games lost and McCown accused of threatening a referee with a gun. Federal marshals would soon be banging on his East Baltimore door before dawn to haul him to jail.

But that wasn't all. The team would soon learn, mostly from news media reports, all about McCown's past - how he had been involved in a decade's worth of serious crime, including heroin dealing, robbery and assault. He had served nearly two years in a maximum-security prison.

All of it left Gators coaches, players and parents to contemplate a day in which a football field had become a crime scene and their season suspended for one game. The team would soon be fined $1,000 by the league for failure to control coaches and supporters.

But more than any of that, the Gators wrestled with what to make of a man who had contributed so much and now emerged as more - or less - than what they imagined, a supposed role model who might have been anything but.

The widely reported incident heightened anxiety among parents in the Baltimore area and around the country about the need for better background checks to weed out unfit coaches.

To those who know McCown, the issue was more personal. Some wondered why a man who implored kids to stay out of trouble couldn't manage to negotiate that path himself.

But McCown's story raises more intriguing questions.

Hundreds of Baltimoreans lurch in and out of prison. Very few of them feel impelled to return week after week, year after year to a worn football field to try to better the lives of kids in East Baltimore.

Why did Aaron McCown?

And why was he so welcomed there?

A few good men

On this October night, the Gators make their own light.

The city has no field lights where the Gators practice. Their coach is in jail, but the playoffs are approaching, and the team has to prepare.

So a half-hour after sunset, several cars drive onto the field and park at odd angles with their headlights on. The players re-orient passing drills so they are in the paths of the beams.

More than lights, the Gators need coaches. So do all the teams in the Maryland Football and Cheerleading Association, which includes the Baltimore and Washington areas and is affiliated with Pop Warner. "It's hard to get quality guys that want to put in the time," said Mike Wills, football director of White Oak.

Wills regularly resorts to buying ads looking for coaches. "Seeking Dedicated Volunteers for the 2008 Season!" the current one reads.

The problem is particularly acute in East Baltimore, where there is a shortage of men, period. Thirty-six percent of the homes in the 21213 ZIP code are headed by a woman with no spouse present - a figure five times as high as some other areas in the state, according to the Census Bureau.

On the Gators, "probably more than 80 percent of the kids come from single-parent homes, and it may be higher than that," says Lisa Fitts, the team's program director. "They either don't have a father or mother at home or neither one, and maybe they're living with their grandmother."

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