It’s 5 o’clock on a Wednesday in July, and Denzel Richmond and three friends have biked 30 blocks to Marion Motley fields near East 79th St. to check out the latest talent in youth football.
Surrounding the four teenagers are about a hundred Garden Valley Falcons, aged 6 to 14, many just a week into their newly ordered pads or purple-and-white jerseys. Today, they sprint through pass plays, crisscross around circle cones in the grass.
“Come on, fellas!” shouts Coach Danny Solomon – “Coach Boom” to pretty much everyone – to the 12-year-old division running through Assistant Coach Codell Gaines’ Oklahoma Drill. “You got to be more aggressive, fellas,” he says. “Get low, drive low! Turn the nasty up a bit! Y’all smiling a bit too much out there.”
Fifty yards east, over the stray cleats and water bottles, Assistant Coach Greg Johnson yells to a 9-year-old speeding down the grass: “You got that chicken wing hanging out there,” he says. “Tuck that arm in, boy, or he’s gonna take it from you!”
Both coaches are two out of the hundreds in the Cleveland Muny League Football, a Cleveland-sponsored summer sports program serving more than 3,000 kids. For the past two decades, coaches claim Muny has operated on a shoestring budget, bolstered by occasional oversized checks and cash from parents’ pockets. Since Mayor Bibb took office in January, he’s made the 76-year-old program part of his comprehensive violence prevention strategy.
By now, Richmond, 15, sees the coaches’ shouts as tough, necessary love. From 2014 up until late last year, he was knee-deep in the rigor of Muny League training. In his Muny stint, Richmond tallied 14 touchdowns, two MVP awards, 45 trophies and three concussions. Now too old to play but too young to coach tackle, Richmond stands with his posse – Ty-Zer Holloway, 15, Kaylon Bailey, 14 and friend Ja’Heem Edwards, 11 – observing as if he were himself a college scout.
“All these kids know I’m here for them,” he said. “I got literally every kid located in the Valley knowing Denzel’s there in the evening.”
With those 18 TDs, 20-plus sacks and perfect attendance varsity jacket in Muny, Richmond is a shining example of what Cleveland’s Muny Football League can produce. Created in October 1946 as a city-led summer extension to kids’ school-year gridiron, Muny has benefited over the years from the help of benefactors, from parents’ pockets to the Cleveland Browns.
“We keep kids off the street, give them something to do,” Joe Reccord, Muny’s executive director for the past 12 years, said. “Not every kid’s on the streets. But just give them activities instead of being at home, playing, you know, video games.”
Investing in football – and kids
For most of Muny’s storied history – it was championed by former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell in the ‘90s and has graduated three Heisman winners – the League has, in coordinators’ minds, been grossly underfunded by the city.
This year, following a spring crime spike and a police shortage, Muny was named a part of the Bibb administration’s “comprehensive” plan to prevent youth violence, joining the like-minded (and revamped) Hoops After Dark and Midnight Basketball. Following lengthy lobbying efforts by Ward 5 Councilman Richard Starr, and a $1.75 million grant from the state for violence reduction efforts, City Council doubled Muny’s previous $80,000 budget to $160,000 a year.
“We’ve never had a city-wide after-school program strategy in the City of Cleveland,” Bibb told Starr at February’s budget hearing, adding that the administration had interest in “a comprehensive, after-school, out-of-school time approach to serve young people.”
About time, in Reccord’s eyes. A former star high jumper who’s been with the League since 1993, Reccord had long linked Muny’s yearly funds to stifled growth “in the last 20-plus years.” Then, in 2021, Starr began doubling down on City Council asks as League interest skyrocketed with the easing of Covid concerns. In about two years, Muny doubled its divisions and grew from 65 teams to 100, taking its players all the way “from Columbus to Buffalo” —with many parents having to dig into their own pockets to cover costs.
Now, with more city funding, Muny has added flag football and new cheerleading coaches. And, in 2021, due to parental demand and the unpredictability of puberty, they slashed the weight requirement for 12-year-olds.
“Now, any kid that wants to play football,” Reccord said, “can play football.”
Does Muny “work”?
To observers on the grass or stands, it seemed that tailback Raymond Williams was headed for athletic glory. At Benedictine High, the then 17-year-old walked the halls as “Mr. Football Ohio.” By then he was already talking to scouts – and had scholarships on the horizon – at the University of Akron and Florida State.
Reccord, still a coach-coordinator back in 2003, took to Williams, where he found a good heart and a ruthless player.
“That kid is like a son to me,” he said. “I had hard times getting him to understand that.”
On April 16, 2003, right after Williams had turned 18, he was out walking on East 124th St. with teenagers Jon Huddleston and Lorenzo Hunter. Hunter carried a toy gun pistol, converted to look real, and told friends he was intent on robbing a drug dealer, Rodney Roberts. The four boys met at East 124th and Crazen Ave. Roberts retaliated. Hunter was shot nine times.
Williams, the only one tried as an adult, was given an ultimatum by Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold: Pick one of the colleges to go to in the next six months, or face steep jail time. Though Williams chose academia, and played for North Carolina’s Shaw University, Reccord sighs when recalling what-could-have-beens. Williams never played professional ball in his adult years.
“He was something to see,” Reccord said. “He was destined for the NFL.”
Despite the idealistic overtones of Bibb’s multi-layered violence prevention strategy – a quarter of which buffs up after-school sports programs – researchers have disagreed over the years as to whether such programming keeps kids on positive paths.
In June 2021, British academics analyzed 24 studies of violence-preventing football and basketball leagues in 12 countries. On one side, routine contact sports regulated teenage hormone levels; in other studies, daily hits and tackles led to aggression spikes that seeped into off-field violence.
“We found a moderate effect of participation in sports programs outcomes,” the researchers wrote in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology.
Solomon – Coach Boom – who joined Muny in 1993, admits that the League can only cover so much ground as far as keeping kids saintly. Coaches can’t be, Boom says, watchful after practice ends.
“When one of them fall short, and they end up in jail, that takes a toll on a coach,” Boom said. “When you see one of them fall, it’s an emotional thing.”
He adds, “But you can’t save them all.”
Advocates in city government
Wayne Drummond, who became Cleveland’s 41st police chief this year, is optimistic. A lean 57-year-old whose family moved to Cleveland from Jamaica in the ‘80s, Drummond appears passionate whenever discussing the effects of crime on youth. (In July, he teared up talking to reporters about the accidental shooting of 10-year-old Cayden Williams.) When minding Bibb’s, as Drummond says, “holistic” take on handling crime – it’s one of the reasons he says he took the job – the new chief says he prefers a proactive approach over hardline policing.
“If society, and more particularly the Cleveland community, believes that law enforcement … will solve the issue of gun violence by itself,” he said in a conference room at City Hall in July, “then we are losing the battle.”
Sonya Pryor-Jones, Cleveland’s chief of youth and family success and lead architect on youth-related violence prevention strategy, said that since her appointment in early 2022 she has helped “elevate” prevention programming from the general scattershot approach of the Jackson administration. She has a $1.1 million increase in the Office of Prevention, Intervention and Opportunity to help grow and publicize their efforts.
Pryor-Jones said waving Muny pompoms was a positive experience during her impoverished childhood.
“It was my first trip,” she recalled. “We went to Florida for a competition. Really, the first time I got to go out of town was with the cheerleading league.”
Drummond, whose policing policy is heavily focused on illegal guns, shares Pryor-Jones’ mindset. In a post-George Floyd age, when departments across the U.S. are still struggling to attract eager recruits, Muny, says Drummond, builds a trust link with young residents whom a blue uniform may repel.
“We don’t have that credibility and the relationship,” he said. “We try to get that relationship. But it’s nothing like those guys” at Muny.
“I should know,” he added, allowing a smile. “I played Muny football. I’m a product of it.”
A push from Council
On July 13, a week before 154 teams across Northeast Ohio – about 3,080 kids – begin one of the largest seasons in Muny history, Reccord gathers 40 coordinators at Lee-Miles’ Frederick Douglass Recreation Center for a briefing. Despite the funding overhaul, Reccord seems stressed. He and his team have security to hire, physicals to schedule, new coaches to vet, liability waivers to sign before deadline.
It’s the first time they’ve met in person in over a year.
“Don’t forget we got Covid out there still,” Reccord said to the coordinators. “I got a call from a couple of coaches that has Covid. Now they got a lot to cover.”
Jason Dunn, Muny’s acting president since 2006, stands up to warn coordinators about scheduling revision – it’s tough with 154 teams, 68 more than 2021 – and to introduce their “special guest,” Richard Starr.
“Councilman really, really went to bat with Muny,” Reccord added, sitting next to Starr. “With this increase you’re going to see some of that trickle down, as far as expenses. But next year he promises a lot more,” he nudged.
As long as Reccord has been executive, Starr has been championing a funding hike. In the ‘90s, he played for the Cleveland Renegades, and dodged crime by joining the King Kennedy Boys & Girls Club in Central. An MVP of East Technical’s football team, Starr ran for Ward 5’s council seat – twice – highlighting his work as the Boys & Girls Club director and championing its success lowering youth gun crime rates. In budget hearings, Starr often appeared fierce calling out City Hall’s lengthy neglect of the east side, about how “our rec centers are falling in” and “kids are fighting in schools.”
“When you allocate and fight for money, expectation rises,” Starr said, fervently, dressed in a gray suit and sea-foam face mask. “Muny was getting about $80,000 since the ’90s; the league has doubled. We can’t have a league being a ghetto league.”
“Right,” Dunn said.
“If you know the streets, you know it’s been drama for decades,” Starr said. Heads nod. “But we’re the bridge of that. And it starts with playing football.”
Reccord stands up. He looks to the second row. “Coach Phil, where are you?” he said to 69-year-old Renegades founder Phillip Cullum. “Did he always talk like this?”
“Yep, he did,” Cullum said.
The room erupts in laughter. Starr’s cheeks widen behind his facemask. “Coach Phil,” he said, “coached me when I was six years old.”
‘I got to go to the field’
Ciara Richmond likes to tell others that her son Denzel was born with a football in his hand.
But it’s not her fault, she says, but the fault of Denzel’s father, Anthony Richmond, a college ball player whose career was cut short due to a back injury.
“That’s his mission in life,” she said sitting in her living room in the Central neighborhood. Around her are cages of parakeets, and on the wall is a framed portrait of Barack Obama. Her voice raises a pitch: “‘I got to go to the field, Mom. I got to go to the field!’”
It was 2012 when Anthony drove Denzel to his first Muny game. He was a budding linebacker and center in the Garden Valley Falcons’ Termite division under Coach Boom. (Falcons coaches stick with teams as they grow.) Ciara, a nurse aide since 2002, quit attending games after a while, due to fears of injury to her son and of her own unbridled passion.
“I was the mother who would run out on the field,” she said. “Because he was so good – oh my gosh.”
Solomon – Coach Boom – said Denzel showed promise. “I think his future’s bright,” he said. “I’m gonna be honest. There’s not many kids who grow up down here make it out.”
As he climbed the divisions, Denzel found himself pulled into football culture while keeping his grades sharp. Other Falcons, though, were lured by Kinsman drug power. One dropout friend of his, who Denzel said he hasn’t talked to since 2020, reinforced his own commitment to Muny. “It’s painful,” Denzel told me. “It hurts thinking about [him]. Because we all playing together. We [had] the same dreams once upon a time.”
In 2014, Denzel’s father Anthony was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Three years later, as his condition worsened, he moved into a nursing home, where he watched Denzel’s games on his phone. “Denzel took trophies up to the facility,” Ciara recalled. “He would call when he knew he had to play.”
On September 15, 2018, a Saturday, Denzel woke up at 5:35 a.m. to find his father had died in his hospice room. Denzel rode home with his mom, and he lay in bed for hours debating whether or not to play that day’s game. Riding to the fields, he wiped away tears. At game time, Boom gave Denzel the option to sit.
“I wanted to play,” Denzel recalled. “Coach Boom was like, ‘Are you going to play?’ And I was like, ‘Yes.’”
In the game’s third quarter, Solomon selected an offensive drive to highlight Denzel – in Denzel’s dream position. “He’d always wanted to play running back,” Solomon said. “I wanted to give him the opportunity.”
The switch worked. With two minutes remaining in the quarter, Denzel cut through the middle of the defensive line, and ran a 75-yard touchdown. His first.
“We beat that team 45-0, man,” Denzel said. “It was crazy.”
Ciara grinned. “The boys didn’t even get a yard in.”
Today, as a sophomore at at Lutheran East High School, Denzel brims with youthful optimism. He said he’s spoken with a few college officials, even taken advice from Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. He envisions making drives for Ohio State – or Oregon, maybe. Standing tall in front of his trophy dresser and a 4-foot-tall action photo of himself in his bedroom, Denzel doesn’t mind gloating. “I’m expecting some offers after this season.”
Though the fear of head injuries frightens her – Denzel has already had three concussions – Ciara said she’ll be in the stands.
“I’ll be there Sunday morning, right after church,” she said, “rooting for my baby.”
Correction: A prior version of this article incorrectly stated that Muny football is free for participants. While scholarships may be available in some cases, fees vary and are set by each individual team. In addition, statements about Sonya Pryor-Jones and the city’s violence prevention strategies have been corrected or clarified.
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