See our slideshow of the youth football league at work and at play.
The dark gray Chevy truck rolls backwards onto a fence-enclosed field, with grass the color of hay, in the heart of the Fifth Ward. Front doors open and seven kids pile out; once the hatch to the bed is unlatched, another eight practically pour onto the field.
"Shit, it's hot in there!" one says, wearing a sleeveless shirt, royal blue football pants and beads of sweat about his face. It's after 6 p.m., it's 94 degrees out and the back of the truck doesn't have air conditioning.
"Down!" shouts Carlos Honore, 32, the man driving the truck. The boy drops to the ground and begins doing push-ups.
"'N' word it's 20, if you curse it's 20," another boy explains. He's wearing a red shirt over his pads, with black football pants. He's carrying a gold helmet, with a black fleur-de-lis — the insignia of the New Orleans Saints.
These are the Fifth Ward Saints.
A second truck, this one bronze with a dented fender, pulls up outside the gate, and the five boys sitting in the bed hop out. The truck engine makes an ugly sputtering sound, stalls momentarily and then is off.
The group has grown to nearly 30, some arriving on foot. Many have a stretched-out or oversized T-shirt over their shoulder pads; a few wear jerseys. A couple have cleats, but most wear normal shoes. Football pants are common, but they range in colors: blue, white, black, light yellow, red and gold. With so little congruity, the group hardly looks like a team.
Carlos has the appearance of a former athlete: bald on top, with a hint of a goatee, wearing a gray sleeveless shirt showing his tattooed, muscular arms. The definition in his calves says there's still strength in his legs. A whistle hangs from a black cord around his neck. Standing five feet, 11 inches, he towers over everyone around him. None of the kids are more than 13 years old.
Beyond being a team shuttle, the bed of Carlos's truck also serves as the team's equipment room. He pulls out a bag of footballs and tosses it on the ground, and the boys swarm. He pulls out shoulder pads and helmets, distributing them to the kids who've gathered around him. He stops when a spindly boy with a shaved head approaches.
"Where's your birth certificate?" Carlos asks.
"I'll bring it Thursday," the boy responds.
"I need it before Thursday. Your momma home?"
"Yeah. But she don't have a car."
"I'll take you to get it."
"I live on the south side."
"If I take you, would you know how to get me there?"
"Okay, I'll take you home after practice."
Carlos hands the boy a set of pads and a helmet. "I need to get you a chin strap." As the boy jogs away, the helmet sways on his head.
While the coaches organize the kids to get practice started, Carlos's wife — Tatum, a tall, attractive woman, usually with a small boy clinging to her leg — has turned the hood of the truck into an office. White forms and manila folders are scattered across the metallic gray surface, head shots of the various players are stacked up and a black binder is open. The binder must be ready for Saturday, the first game of the new season — the teams' second in existence.
By the time everyone has showed up, it's almost 6:30 p.m. and more than 75 kids are on the field. Minutes after the boys have separated into the four age-specific teams (Pee Wee, Preps, Junior Varsity or Varsity), a fight starts outside the gate. One of the Pee Wee coaches and Carlos run over to break it up.
The players always get distracted when fights happen. Some start wandering toward the gate or lock their gaze on the fight mid-drill or when a coach is talking to the group. The coaches will only be so patient; they point to the fight and say that's the alternative.
Stay on the field, be a part of something, or go outside the gate and fight for nothing.
Driving the streets of the Fifth Ward in the middle of the day, the looks on many people's faces, as they sit on patios of dilapidated homes, at bus stops or walk down the street, say that something along the way didn't work out as hoped.
It's easy to dismiss the neighborhood as overrun with gangs, drugs, prostitution and poverty. They're a part of the Fifth Ward, but in speaking with the residents and cultural leaders in the predominantly African-American community, it's clear that there's more to this area in northeast Houston.
"Ten years ago, yes, it was a tough place to live; the Bloody Fifth some called it," says Dr. Albert Lemons, the principal at Atherton Elementary and a lifelong Fifth Ward resident. "[Today] it's an area with a variety of cultures, a variety of people; it's a safe environment for kids, it's no longer like it was back in the heyday."
Lemons, 65, was one of the early and primary community supporters of Carlos Honore and his football program. The Fifth Ward didn't have anything like what Carlos was proposing. Lemons introduced the coach to key people in the community, in hopes that others would recognize the contributions the Saints could make to kids and parents.
The community would grow to embrace the concept, but the people in power did not. A sit-down meeting with Councilman Jarvis Johnson was much talk amounting to nothing. A talk with state Representative Harold Dutton also led nowhere.
There were other programs available to kids — the Julia C. Hester House, the Boys & Girls Club at Finnigan Park and the Mayor's After-School Achievement Program (ASAP), which are scattered around the Fifth Ward — but most were typical after-school programs, allowing kids the freedom to come and go as they please. Many choose to go, spending time riding bikes or walking the streets.
These kids were why he and Tatum decided to move their three boys out of a new home in Katy and into a red-brick, two-story house near the corner of Waco Street and Rawley Street, nestled among homes on the cusp of falling down. After arriving in Houston, the couple started Texas Women and Children's Advocacy Services; the Saints football program and a basketball team in the winter come under the TWCAS umbrella. Carlos spends most of his day-to-day developing its social services side.
Despite some difficulties, Carlos's program has managed to succeed. There are nearly 150 names on the master roster; anywhere from 70 to 85 show up on a regular basis. Most every kid has equipment, and the majority haven't paid a dollar to participate. Carlos asks that parents pay $20 for the season, for the sake of accountability, but most don't have the extra money. Carlos doesn't turn them away.
"Carlos definitely has one of the toughest situations," says Ray Vasquez, the president of the Texas Football Association, the league the Saints play in. "Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, he has something for those kids to do; the children know where they're going to be and what they'll be doing. It's something for them to look forward to."
"The Fifth Ward is like any other neighborhood," says Dewayne Pugh, one of the Pee Wee coaches. "Maybe it don't have the money, the community isn't as expensive, we don't have a lot of things, but we stick together. We barely make anything, but we're trying to make a way for ourselves and others."
Occasionally, a mom will bring out a case of water, or an older man will walk up with a football or a set of shoulder pads. The contributions aren't much, but they're appreciated. Carlos can feel the support. People wave when he passes them in his car and ask about the Saints. For Carlos and his family, their role in the community has grown to more than running a sports program. Moms and dads of players will stop by the house at odd hours, asking for parenting advice. Prostitutes knock on the door asking for help paying electricity bills or food to help feed their kids.
Sitting on the couch, his hand in Tatum's, wide-eyed and seemingly disbelieving of his own story, he says, "We're just trying to give back in a way that doesn't break us."
Family is a term used loosely in practice and pregame huddles, but in a way, the Honores are funding and maintaining a family of nearly 100 — players and coaches included.
Carlos Honore first visited the Fifth Ward almost three years ago. He recognized himself in the kids who were roaming the streets at all hours with little or no adult supervision. He, too, spent his time around the "wrong crowd" while growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He had run-ins with the law before he was a teenager.
The middle child of seven, Carlos says his parents were around but were "functioning drug addicts." His father was a computer scientist and his mother a university professor, and yet, there was rarely food in the refrigerator or money for groceries.
"It wasn't until I was a bit older that I realized what was going on," Carlos recalls. "For a long time I just thought we were poor."
When he was 12, the family moved to Iowa City, Iowa, so his parents could attend drug rehab. When it came time for high school, Carlos enrolled at West High, where he tried out for the football team. Prior to high school he had no organized sports experience.
He was a natural. By the end of his sophomore year, his first at the varsity level, he was a first-team All-State running back.
Reese Morgan, the head coach at West High during Carlos's time there, referred to the star running back as a "special player" and a leader, along with a variety of other coaching superlatives. "If we ever needed a first down or touchdown or a big play, he was our go-to guy."
Prior to his junior year, Carlos's parents decided they needed a fresh start and were planning to move to Alabama. Carlos didn't want to leave and, for obvious reasons, his coaches didn't want him to go either. None of his teammates had room. The offensive line coach, Ben Fincham, had a suggestion: The young man could probably move in with his parents, Dick and Linda Fincham.
"We said, if this is going to happen, he's going to be part of the family," Linda recalls. This was understood and agreed upon by the three Fincham kids, as well as the Honore family.
He was dropped off by his father on a Friday and the rest of the family left for Alabama that Sunday.
The living situation took adjustments on both sides. The Fincham children had been living out of the house for a few years once Carlos moved in, but motherly instincts remained.
"I had always stayed up until my kids came home, so Carlos was surprised the first time he came home late and I was up," Mama Fincham says. "We had rules for our kids and he never had any."
"I went from staying out until three or four [in the morning] to having to be in by 10," Carlos recalls.
Over time, the young man grew close to his adopted parents, eventually referring to them as Mama and Papa Fincham. "That was fine with us," Linda says.
He was again an All-State running back during his junior and senior year. By the time he graduated, his name was all over West High's offensive record books. A few of the records still stand: most rushing attempts in a game (40 vs. Waterloo West High), most career points scored (344) and most rushing touchdowns (Season — 29, Career — 74).
Tennessee, Miami, Kansas State, Nebraska and Iowa were among the Division I schools talking to him. On signing-day he accepted a full-ride scholarship to the University of Iowa, mainly because it was "close to home."
Following his freshman year at Iowa, Carlos's high school transcripts came under question by the NCAA. Upon developing into the dominating running back that he was, the talk around Carlos was that he had NFL-type talent. And he bought into it, doing just enough with his academics to stay eligible. Going into high school, his test scores were so low that he was placed in remedial courses. The courses didn't meet NCAA qualifications, and his college eligibility was suspended.
Carlos transferred to Southwest Missouri State University, where he played football, but never rediscovered the passion and love for the game. A year shy of completing a degree in criminal justice, he dropped off the team and out of school. "I lost my interest in football and I didn't have anyone to tell me [dropping out] was the wrong choice," he says, more than ten years after the decision.
He moved back to Louisiana and worked a series of odd jobs, including carpentry. He says he felt lost. That is, until one night out with a group of friends at a casino in Baton Rouge, when he met an attractive woman from a town with "nothing but sugar cane." That was more than ten years ago, when Carlos and Tatum met. They've been married for five years now.
His own story is why Carlos saw these young boys roaming the streets and believed a football team could help. "[My childhood is] why I can talk to and work with these kids," says Carlos. "When I tell them they need to do well in school, I'm not preaching from what I think, I'm preaching from what I know. I'm trying to make sure these kids have someone pointing them in the right direction.
"A lot of people look at [these kids] and think they're bad seeds," Carlos continues. "They just don't know any different, they haven't been given a chance."
It's a clear Thursday in late September, shortly after 5 p.m., and Carlos is making his first round of pickups before practice. He's at the wheel of his truck and uncomfortably busy. He's not reckless, just overly occupied as he's driving down Waco Boulevard. The composed look on his face says he has it together, but the situation seems like one of those Farmers Insurance commercials on how accidents happen.
While flipping through the pages of a black notebook open on his lap and resting against the steering wheel, he's also dialing the phone number for one of the kids who lives at the first housing project. Carlos's middle son, Ashton, is bouncing around in the back seat. A series of squiggly black lines are stained onto the gray felt roof. Ashton isn't allowed to have pens in the car anymore.
As the truck pulls up to the Coke Apartments, a group of eight males, ranging in age from teens to mid-20s, are sitting just inside the gate. The one wearing a black backward Yankees hat, black shirt and diamond earrings is holding the money, fanned out from his left hand. They're throwing a set of dice against the concrete step, hollering and cursing with each roll. Four small children are further down the walkway, pushing a plastic motorcycle. The distinct smell of marijuana looms in the air.
None of his players are waiting. Carlos dials another number while watching the scene out front, shaking his head in disapproval. A parent answers and tells him her son is across the street at the gym at Finnigan Park.
Eventually the boy walks out of the gym and slowly toward Carlos's truck. That he's late and his coach has clearly been waiting doesn't persuade the boy to jog or even walk at a faster pace. He has droopy eyes and is heavy around the middle. When he finally gets within yelling distance of the truck, Carlos shouts, "Where's your brother?"
The boy shrugs his shoulders. The brother hasn't been to practice in a week.
"Well, if he ain't playing anymore, I need my equipment," Carlos says.
The boy continues past the truck toward his house to get ready for practice.
"We can only help the ones who want to be helped," says Carlos, almost to himself.
This tends to happen, kids quitting because of disinterest or laziness. Sometimes they change their minds later, but Carlos only allows two chances. The previous weekend, a boy on the Preps team quit mid-game while his team was on the wrong end of a lopsided loss. The following Monday evening, a note appeared on the doorstep, written by the boy, apologizing and asking to be allowed to come to practice. Carlos smiles while telling this story. He may finally be reaching the kid.
With those who don't reconsider, every set of pads and every helmet is a commodity to be reclaimed. Someone else can certainly put them to use.
While Carlos dials a number for another player, three others appear out of the gym. "I'm leaving in five minutes!" he says, as the boys near the truck. He waits 15 minutes before the first one comes out of the complex, practice gear on.
Once back on the road, with four kids across the back seat and two more in the truck bed, Carlos asks about progress reports, which were delivered to homes this week. "I got good grades," one says. "Only one F."
"Really, only one? Your grandma called me and says you have four F's."
The boy doesn't respond.
"I'm not going to be too tough on you because it's just a progress report, but we need to get those grades up," Carlos says. "We start tutoring next week."
The Saints' practices are usually problematic attempts to control chaos. Eighty-plus kids with little or no exposure to authority figures, mixed with football coaches who value military-like discipline but don't know how best to implement it.
As kids start showing up to the field, either hopping out of a truck or walking over from their house or being dropped off by a parent, a boys-being-boys atmosphere erupts. The young kids start tackling one another, the older boys talk to girls outside the gate, while the kids who fall in-between throw Hail Mary passes to see who has the best arm and who can make the best diving catch. Everyone is lively inside the gate.
That is, until the warm-up laps. When the coaches yell for the boys to take their two laps around the field, it's like they just woke from an afternoon nap. Most drag their feet or run a few steps, enough to be out of view of a coach, and then walk.
"Don't make me chase you around the field, because I will!" yells Lafayette Lotts, another Pee Wee coach and father of LaShaud Lotts.
A few will jog the entire two laps. Once the laps are completed, or the coaches get sick of waiting, the players split up and join their respective teams.
On days when tutoring is scheduled, one of the teams will gather under the tents and a box of books and notebooks will appear. The younger kids tend to work with the coaches or a willing parent, focusing on whatever subject seems to be a problem. Last year, volunteers from Baylor University came out to help with the older kids. For every case of a child on top of his studies, there's a failed product of the system. During the first tutoring session, Carlos was working with a boy the coaches call "Big Red." While paging through one of the books, it was apparent that the boy, who is in the third grade, could hardly read. Tatum and Carlos had been discussing adding a social services aspect to the program, and may start with this boy and his family. Tatum has a master's in social work, and has been working in the field for more than eight years.
When it's not their day for tutoring, teams go about their regular football business. Usually necessity, chance and resources dictate the events of the day. When a blocking sled materializes, though without pads and rusty, it becomes the focal point of the JV afternoon. When short on helmets and shoulder pads — because they're lost or left at home — the Pee Wee team is forced to rotate players through the equipment they have available, or to just not allow tackling. When Carlos comes into possession of a tackling dummy, the Preps, JV and Varsity run combination drills, implementing use of the sled and dummy. And while the three teams work through drills, from the opposite corner of the field will come "Anthony, if I gotta tell you to put a shirt on one more time!" or "You boys better put your shoes back on!" The Pee Wee team is tough to manage. Program-wide, nearly every practice follows this same theme of improvisation — and borderline Theatre of the Absurd.
While the area inside the gate is alive with drills and the sounds of whistles and of men yelling and the crush of helmets and pads, life outside the gate is typically mellow. In early September, when temperatures were in the high 90s, residents would sit out on patios, enjoying the breeze, watching the Saints. The neighbor in the house off the north end of the field, close to the railroad tracks, spent the early evenings on his back, working beneath his car, blaring music, typically rock or hip-hop. Young moms would walk by pushing babies in strollers.
And then there are the neighborhood kids, who wander around the surrounding streets in groups in the hours after school. Some could be playing for the Saints, and want to, but haven't met or won't meet Carlos and Tatum's requirements, which aren't much: that one of them meet the parent or guardian to get approval and have forms signed, and that a copy of a birth certificate be provided. Instead, the kids hang out and fights happen. Sometimes a slap-boxing match gets out of hand or a pair of kids confronts one another over smack-talk heard around school. Occasionally the cops are called when the groups refuse to disperse.
The coaches do what they can to minimize the impact of the world outside the gate, while the teams are on the inside.
"We tell the kids, when you come in the gate, leave all the negative stuff outside," says Carlos.
Each team has an eight-game season as part of the Texas Football Association. Most will have at least one playoff game. The father of one of the talented Pee Wee running backs, the boy with the head of dreadlocks, likes to remind anyone who will hear it, "We going to the Super Bowl!" His mouth is full of gold where teeth would be.
Midway through its second season in existence, the Saints program has 70 to 85 kids who come out on a regular basis. It's a significant improvement from the four that turned out to the first practice, two of whom were coaches' sons. That was two and a half weeks before the first game of the season.
The poor initial turnout came despite the distribution of 5,000 flyers in and around the Fifth Ward. So Carlos and the few early supporters "decided to pound the pavement," going door-to-door in various housing projects, trying to sign up kids at their front door. It worked. By the second practice there were nearly 30 boys.
As turnout improved, the need for funding increased. On weekends, Carlos and a few players would stand on street corners or in front of grocery stores with signs that read: "Fifth Ward Dad's Club — Bridging the gap between sports and academics — Now Registering." Carlos says it was humiliating but necessary.
One Saturday afternoon, while he was standing in front of a Fiesta Food Mart, one woman approached Carlos and accused him of exploiting the young boys in order to make money for himself. That same afternoon, he met Dewayne Pugh.
At the time, Pugh was working with a youth football program outside the Fifth Ward. But the Fifth Ward was Pugh's home, where he was born and raised by his grandmother.
"I know what it's like not to have anything; I can relate with these kids," says Pugh, of why he was compelled to join the Saints. "I wanted to do for these kids what my mama and my granny done for me."
A boisterous man with a bald head and Southern twang, Pugh was willing to take the role no one else wanted: coach of the Pee Wee team. Pugh also proved invaluable when he was able to recruit high school friends who had football experience, and were also looking for a chance to contribute to the community.
With the little money he'd managed to pull together, Carlos started scouring the Internet and various contacts for used equipment. He found some helmets and shoulder pads on Craigslist and eBay, and was able to buy second-hand items from teams or wholesalers in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Louisiana.
Within days of the first game, the team still didn't have uniforms. And there wasn't any money remaining from fund-raising. Carlos and Tatum knew they were important. The boys had been excited about these from Day 1. Uniforms presented an identity. "We couldn't have the kids run out on the field in their T-shirts," Tatum says. She gets choked up while talking about the next part.
"We took out a mortgage on our house to buy the uniforms," she says, wiping a tear away from her eye. Carlos completes her thought.
"We got them on Friday, and on Saturday we were still spray-painting numbers on them, hanging them on the fence to dry before each game," he says. They were white mesh practice jerseys, which occasionally make appearances during practice.
They've pulled together all the necessary paperwork and applied for 501(c)(3) status, which will make the team a nonprofit organization. Once that goes through, they can begin knocking on the doors of the big buildings downtown in hopes of finding some corporate sponsors.
Players and their parents don't know about the sacrifices. "I don't need a pat on the back," Carlos says. "The reward is Saturdays and the look on their faces. Especially if we win."
On the Friday evenings before a game, the Honore house seems like it's been injected with Red Bull.
Aside from Carlos, his wife and their three boys, there are usually another 20 to 35 boys staying the night. Some stay because they wouldn't be able to make it to the game otherwise, while others do so just because they prefer it to being at home. The family usually buys pizza and drinks for everyone. When it comes time for bed, bodies are sprawled across couches and air mattresses, and some sleep on blankets in the hallways.
Everyone associated with the Saints gets revved up for game days. The coaches desperately want a win and the boys love putting on the uniforms.
When the team is playing at home, families of the players sit close to one another in the shade of the lone tree on the field. The few gold pop-tents are reserved for the players. Despite the large roster, turnouts are typically poor. Not all the parents share in the game-day excitement.
A snack stand is set up in one corner of the field. Offerings include sausage on a stick, barbecue brisket and chicken sandwiches, and Frito pie. Carlos and Tatum were up late making most of it.
The Saints' game-day uniforms change the disposition of the team. The Pee Wees in their gold jerseys and the rest of the teams in their white tops appear focused. There's not as much disarray and aimless tackling — at least, not until after the game.
For the coaches, game days start early and end late. They chalk the lines, set up the yardage markers, set up the tents and make sure every player has his uniform. And a mouth guard; kids are always losing their mouth guards. They also help out with the other teams when another coach can't make it.
As much as the Saints team is about and for the kids, it serves the coaches as well. Aside from Carlos, most grew up in the Fifth Ward. Most had rough childhoods and have some sort of criminal record or unfortunate circumstances. In some ways, this coaching gig and this team are about starting over and getting a life together. It's a distraction from the unhealthy vices that may have unhinged them before. But it's a distraction in the best sense.
"This is a learning experience for all of us, it's something none of us have ever had," says Pugh, of the coaching staff. "We've known each other for a long time, but this is something to talk about, it's something to keep us together and something we can support one another in. We don't let each other get down or give up, we hold strong; we can't give up — these kids are used to being disappointed."
"Man, today is just one of those days," says Carlos, after he pulls up to the field after picking up a few last kids. He says this a lot.
This day, a Thursday in early October, really is one of those days. The boys seem more riled up than normal and are running about, throwing footballs and blindsiding one another.
The previous evening the team trailer was broken into. It was sitting in an empty lot near where one of the JV coaches lives. Someone took bolt cutters to the lock. The team doesn't have much, but the tutoring tables and chairs were taken, along with extra shoulder pads, helmets and facemasks, and a propane tank for the grill the team uses to make food on game days.
On top of that, during Carlos's last round of pickups, when he pulled up to the Coke Apartments, the droopy-eyed boy was watching his mother being handcuffed and forced into the back of a police car. The boy chose to come to practice anyway; he told Carlos he didn't want to be home.
Carlos is looking at his feet and slowly shaking his head. He seems worn out. Today really is one of those days.
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There was a bit of good news. Turns out two of the Varsity losses were now wins. One of the other coaches in the league figured out that two of the teams had been suiting up boys who were too old. Like freshman-in-high school too old. Instead of being 2-3, the Saints varsity team was now 4-1, which guaranteed a spot in the playoffs.
Practice is beginning late, the sky already showing pastel shades. The Varsity boys have been milling about, waiting for Carlos to arrive.
With no lights, practice will end once the footballs are no longer visible. Carlos yells: "Varsity, let's go, we're burning daylight!" He's racing against time.