In Chester, the struggles of playing youth football in one of the country's most dangerous cities

Team members Ronell Whitehead (middle) and Tariq Lawler (far right) work out during a Chester Cougars youth football practice at Jack's Park in Chester.

No. 51 is untouchable.

It was retired by the Chester Cougars youth sports organization recently in a ceremony that occurred in between the bonfires, cheerleading performances, and football games that mark so many homecoming celebrations throughout the Philadelphia suburbs.

But the former No. 51, Zion Abdullah, wasn’t there.

One morning in June, the 16-year-old linebacker was shot while walking to Chester High School. Wounded, Abdullah ran a few blocks, collapsed, and died in the parking lot of another school.

It was at least the fifth time in eight years that the Cougars have lost a member or recent alumnus to gun violence, president William Morgan said.

Melvin “Coach Musa” Mosley remembered Abdullah as “my leader” and “just a good kid.”

“Every team got along with Zion,” Mosley said, “so Zion kept the peace.”

The Cougars also lost defensive coach Dwayne Smith, a hulking man nicknamed “Boulder,” who was gunned down on a Chester street in 2011 in a case of mistaken identity.

What do you say to your team after something like that?

Morgan paused, exhaling loudly.

Behind him, players — some so small they looked as if they had been swallowed by their shoulder pads — jumped out of cars and ran toward the field at Jack’s Park in the Feltonville section of Chester Township.

After a minute, Morgan found the words: “It’s tough.”

A Pop Warner program, the Chester Cougars draw athletes between the ages of 5 and 15 from across Chester Township. About three-quarters of their 225 football players and cheerleaders are from Chester, the four-square-mile city along the Delaware River that has been called the most dangerous in the state, perhaps even the country.

A 2016 Inquirer analysis found that each year between 2000 and 2014 the area averaged 53 homicides per 100,000 people, more than Philadelphia’s 21 and slightly higher than Camden’s 52. Chester’s average was higher than any other U.S. city.

One of Pennsylvania’s oldest cities, Chester was once booming with manufacturers. But as manufacturing declined in the 1970s, so did Chester’s economy. Nowadays, nearly half of the city’s 8,000 children live below the poverty line, according to census data, less than 20 miles from some of the nation’s wealthiest suburbs.

Barely three weeks after Abdullah was killed, the Cougars arrived for summer workouts to discover that more than $5,000 worth of shoulder pads, tackling dummies, even trophies had been stolen from a shed. Morgan said former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworksi, local businesses, and anonymous donors stepped up to help the program recover.

Across the Delaware River in Camden, a fledgling Pop Warner football team also struggles amid violence and poverty.

Robert Kelley, the Raiders’ president and coach, said he has not lost any players to Camden’s violence. But he has watched the streets take hold of players, some as young as 14. It is usually a pattern, Kelley said. A player stops coming to practice, Kelley said, then the coaches hear that he has been arrested.

“These kids, if you don’t give them something to do, they’re going to find something to do,” Kelley said. “It takes a community to make sure these kids stay right.”

In Chester, the lure of the streets is real, too.

“The biggest challenge is keeping the kids off the streets,” said Jamal “Coach Shake” Allen, a relative of Abdullah’s. “In this area, the streets have a grip on the kids from such a young age.”

The lure usually isn’t drugs, Mosley said, because kids don’t have the money. Instead, they are often pulled in by a close friend, the coach said.

On Friday, many players on the 180-pound team attended the funeral of former Cougar Ronald Lundy. The 16-year-old stopped playing football years ago, Mosley said, but he remained a friend and classmate. Lundy wasn’t involved in violence, Mosley said, and had a stable home life, one in which both his mother and father were involved.

Last month, while walking home from school, Lundy was killed in a drive-by shooting. It was the city’s 23rd homicide this year.

Ronell Whitehead and Tariq Lawler, who play running back and linebacker, were teammates of Lundy’s and Abdullah’s. The 15-year-olds said they each have had multiple relatives and friends shot or killed on Chester streets.

But on the field, Lawler and Whitehead aren’t thinking about the violence, they said. They are just thinking about the next route they have to run or the next player they need to tackle.

Camera icon Elizabeth Robertson
Tariq Lawler does drills during a Chester Cougars practice at Jack’s Park in Chester.

And when practice is over? The coaches serve as mentors.

“They teach you more about life,” Lawler said, “how to be a better person, how to handle adversity.”

“It’s more than just football,” Whitehead said. “They keep us out of trouble.”

The Cougars’ coaches are unpaid, Morgan said, and most were born and raised in the city of Chester.

Their jobs are less daunting when parents are involved. But here, that isn’t a given.

About half of the athletes come from single-parent households, Morgan said. Some parents attend every practice, he said; others don’t even drop their children off at the field.

“In order for our community to start progressing with the youth, we need more adults actively involved with youth sports,” Mosley said. “The kids need to talk to somebody.”

The Cougars focus not only on football, Morgan stressed, but also on academics. To play or cheer, students must maintain a C average; getting better grades can result in honors from their coaches or Pop Warner. If a student is struggling, the coaches set them up with tutors. They even set up payment plans for the $100 annual registration fee for struggling families.

They want their players to go to college, to see opportunities beyond Chester, where census data shows more than half of the 18- to 24-year-old residents have not continued their education past high school.

Morgan said about five Cougars alumni have played college football at some level.

But for every success story, there is a cautionary tale.

“You can save a lot,” Allen said, “but you’re going to lose a lot of kids to the streets.”