Forced to sit out football season, high school players and coaches worry about what else they’ve lost

In Norfolk, Virginia, the pandemic robbed players of more than yards and glory

For high school senior Pierre Royster, fall Fridays were supposed to go like this:

Wake up early in the town house he shares with his mother and two siblings in Norfolk, Virginia. Slip the red, white and black Lake Taylor High School Titans jersey over his hoodie and head to class. Check in with coach Hank Sawyer, who led the Titans to a state championship last season. Rest up after school. Head to the field house and strap on his pads. Burst through the field house door with the other senior leaders, strutting onto the field through a haze of smoke as cheers roll down from the packed bleachers. Then ball out, chase another chip and hopefully earn a free college education.

But for Royster and thousands of other boys across the country who rely on football for structure, guidance and a leg up toward college, the coronavirus pandemic robbed them of more than yards and glory. Virginia is one of 15 states (plus Washington) that canceled football this fall. In Norfolk, a city of 243,000 where the 20% poverty rate is double the national average, the loss placed hundreds of disadvantaged Black boys at even greater risk — and forced members of the football community to rely on each other more than ever.

“Football keeps me out of trouble, like from gangs, gang violence. It keeps me sane,” said Royster, whose father is incarcerated. “Not having my dad around, football is like an outlet, just to get away. Like, I love when I’m playing. Being around Coach Sawyer, he’s a father figure. And I love being around my teammates. There’s a bond, they’re like my brothers, we can talk about anything. So when they stopped football, it was more than that. Like, I can’t even see my brothers and my best friends.”

Norfolk is part of the football-famous 757 area code, the Hampton Roads metropolitan area that includes Newport News and Virginia Beach, a region that has birthed scores of star athletes, from Michael Vick to Allen Iverson. Norfolk alone has produced former NFL star Kam Chancellor and Hall of Famer Bruce Smith, plus about a half-dozen current NFL players and too many Division I college players to count.

Lake Taylor coach Hank Sawyer (center) and Pierre Royster (right) talk at football practice. The games are canceled, but the Titans still practice weekly.

Carlos Bernate for The Undefeated

In normal times, Norfolk has five high school teams playing on Friday nights and almost a thousand kids ages 5 to 14 competing on Saturdays. The coaching trees stretch back decades, with roots and branches throughout the high schools and youth leagues. Hundreds of parents volunteer time and energy. Little kids wear their jerseys to high school games on Friday nights, then run in their heroes’ footsteps the next morning. Norfolk’s heartbeat is the crack and thud of colliding helmets and pounding cleats.

But Norfolk has been on life support since football activities were sacked by the pandemic in March. This is a gritty, get-after-it, hard-hat town that locals call “Shark City” — and when some sharks stop swimming, they die.

Norfolk public schools are operating entirely by remote learning. When school resumed in September, football teams were allowed to practice under socially distanced restrictions, with no pads, no hitting and no huddles. A shortened season is supposed to be played in the spring — if there’s a vaccine or treatment for the virus by then.

“It’s like a dark cloud is over the area,” said Dyrri McCain, a Norfolk native and head coach of Maury High School, which also won a state championship in 2019. “Because there’s so much love for football here. Not only for the players, but parents look forward to Friday nights, their entire families have been involved with it for so long.”

Da’Jon Evans, a Maury senior, feels the void. “There’s not really anything to look forward to going into the weekend,” he said. “Football has taught me a lot. It’s taught me how to be respectful, how you can use your manners as well as being fluent with other people. Off the field, I feel like my coaches have prepared me for the real world. It’s just like, everything football-related is everything real-life-related.”

Lake Taylor quarterback Jeff Foster (center) on the canceled fall football season: “It’s been frustrating, but I’m using it as an opportunity to work on what I need to work on.”

Carlos Bernate for The Undefeated

Coaches such as McCain and Sawyer coached harder than ever this year, just without games — a constant rush of calls, texts and Zooms. But as job losses caused by the pandemic rippled through Norfolk, kids’ phones started getting disconnected. Internet access got more spotty. Seventy-three percent of Norfolk public school students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and the coaches felt some of their most at-risk kids slipping away.

“It’s been a real challenge, mentally and physically,” said Sawyer, who has been coaching for 40 years, including more than two decades as head coach at Lake Taylor, and has won three state championships.

“A lot of the kids don’t know what’s going on, and as a coach, as an adult, I’ve never been through anything like this either,” Sawyer said. “So a lot of times I don’t know if I have the right answer. The kids have questions, and I’m always optimistic and try to be positive to tell them it’s going to get better. And of course, every time I tell them something’s going to get better, it tends to get worse.”

Norfolk football players typically put on a helmet about age 5, in the city youth league now run by Demetrius “Pete” Allen, head of the division of athletics and special services for the recreation department. Allen is a Norfolk native who played wide receiver for the University of Virginia and some pro ball before coming home to give back what was given to him. He was coached by Sawyer at Granby High School, and he coached McCain at Maury and Hampton University. That’s how it works in Norfolk.

“Football is an essential part of these kids’ social development,” Allen said. “Just being around other kids, learning how to work with each other, setting short- and long-term goals. Dealing with failures. Dealing with success. I just know how important football is, and right now they’re not having those opportunities.”

Some kids were able to play this fall in private leagues around the area, but many disadvantaged kids were not due to costly entry fees or transportation difficulties. A few high school players left for private schools that chose to play games. A star running back for Lake Taylor, Malik Newton, skipped his senior year and enrolled early at the University of Pittsburgh.

Best friends and Lake Taylor teammates Pierre Royster (right) and Jeff Foster (left) throw a football outside Royster’s house.

Carlos Bernate for The Undefeated

Left behind are seniors such as Evans, Royster and Lake Taylor quarterback Jeff Foster. Their families can’t afford to pay for college, so they’ve spent their lives working toward scholarships. They are the type of solid 757 athletes who expected to earn some type of Division I opportunity, but have received only a couple of Division II or Division III offers. And now they are being squeezed from multiple sides: Coaches can’t watch them play, they can’t visit schools, and fewer scholarships are available because the NCAA has given many college athletes an extra year of eligibility.

“It’s been frustrating, but I’m using it as an opportunity to work on what I need to work on,” said Foster. Said his teammate and best friend Royster: “Hopefully, we get to play in the spring, God willing. Just play our best, hopefully get a late FBS or FCS offer. God already got everything mapped out for me. This is just like a little break. Ain’t nothing I can’t get over.”

“This is actually more of a motivation because I know that I have less time,” said Evans. “I know I have to put that much more work to get where I want. It’s like our coaches always tell us: ‘Level up. Barbecue or mildew. Complain or compete.’ ”

That’s the Shark City mentality. But what about the hundreds of other high school players in Norfolk who are not big, strong or fast enough to play college ball? What will keep them going?

“I worry about a lot of kids,” said Allen. “Our coaches, these men and women are amazing. They’re not just coaches. They’re counselors, they’re father figures that spend time with these kids, making sure that they’re doing things off the field as well as on the field. There’s so much now that’s missing. Who’s there for that direction? Who’s there to hold these kids accountable, who’s there for the support and the encouragement, you know, the pat on the back? A lot of times, having that coach in your life gives you a reason to do right. To take that out of a child’s life, especially some of the kids who we work with in the communities that we work in, that is huge right now.”

McCain and his staff have gone the extra mile during the pandemic. “Call them, try to find them, call the parents and say send him around. I want that kid who may not be as talented around so they can see leadership on a daily basis. I’m holding them to the same account with grades. A lot of times, it doesn’t have anything to do with going to the NFL.”

That’s why Norfolk football is still alive during the pandemic, still pushing through all the lost games and socially distanced practices. Coaches refuse to let go of their players, and players let coaches know that when the game is stripped down to almost nothing, what remains is everything.

One recent day, Sawyer was despondent about not being able to get more colleges to look at his seniors, such as Foster and Royster, who had done as much as anybody to win him that third state championship. Sawyer was on the phone with Royster, feeling like he was at the end of his rope. “Tell me,” the coach said, “what can I do?”

“Coach,” Royster told him, “just keep in touch with us as much as you can.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.