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Former Mizzou players, now high school coaches, lead their teams by listening first

Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Angry and tired.

Those two words kept flashing across Robert Steeples' phone when he asked his De Smet football players to express their feelings in a recent group text.

The coach's heart sank.

"That really stung me because here we are with young men I've come to know as possessing boundless energy and boundless resiliency ... and at 14, 15, 16 years old to be using the word tired," said Steeples, who in his fourth year as De Smet's head coach led the Spartans to the Class 6 state championship last fall. "That's when I realized they're watching us adults and they want to help. But if they're just as tired as 30-year-old me or a 40- or 50-year-old person who's been dealing with this for years, we're going to burn them out before they're in position to lead."

Last year the Post-Dispatch published a story about a core of former Mizzou football players from the Gary Pinkel years who have become high school head coaches around the state, many of them African American. A year later, many of those young coaches face far greater challenges. First, COVID-19 wiped out the final three months of their school year. Now, these coaches are learning how to talk to their players – and listen – about the events and issues that command the nation's attention.

This week, the Post-Dispatch revisited some of those local coaches, among other players from the Pinkel years who are now coaches and educators tasked with guiding the next generation amidst the news of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, the protests, the violence and the fury that's unfolded across the country, and in some cases, their backyards.

"It's hard. It's hard. It's hard," said Vashon coach Will Franklin, a Mizzou wide receiver from 2004-07, "because you can work to be a model citizen as a young black man and still not be good enough for those who grew up with hate. That's the most frustrating part."

A year ago Franklin left his job on Mizzou's football staff and returned to St. Louis to take over the head-coaching job at Vashon, his alma mater. His role transcends far beyond football. Just half a mile from Vashon's campus on Cass Avenue a fire gutted a Family Dollar store Monday night when looting and violence followed a day of peaceful protests. Another half mile west, retired St. Louis police captain David Dorn was shot to death by looters at a pawn shop.

By Tuesday morning, Franklin had met with multiple families of players affected by the overnight mayhem.

"Just as things were starting to open back up, here we are with this," Franklin said. "Some of my players' parents work at these stores. Not only were they out of work for so long (during the pandemic), now they get a chance to go back to work and this happens. And they're back out of work. Now these young men who depend on their mother or father or both to provide food on the table to have a healthy meal, who knows where that's going to come from? It's just a tough situation."

What happened last week in Minnesota, when a white Minneapolis police officer killed Floyd while kneeling on his neck, struck a raw nerve with Steeples. He spent parts of two years playing for the Minnesota Vikings. He met his wife in Minneapolis. Her family still lives there.

During training camp in 2014, Steeples was driving to meet her and her family after practice. Parts of the highway were shut down to two lanes. Exits were closed. He needed to turn around.

"The next exit was 15 miles down the road. I didn't want (her family) to wait any longer, so I pulled off the side of the road to talk to a police officer," Steeples said. "Things were tense just because of the traffic. He was shouting at me to get his point across. I couldn't miss the exit. All this was happening while my father was on the phone. I told him, 'Let me hop off and talk to this cop in the middle of traffic.'

"My dad's a strong man. He's a military vet. To hear the fear and concern in his voice when I stepped out of the car was foreign to me. I never heard him that concerned."

Eventually, Steeples drove away without incident. But his father's voice left him shaken.

"A week later Michael Brown happened," he said. "I thought, this could have been me. Thank God cooler heads prevailed."

Steeples grew up in Ferguson not far from where Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer on Aug. 9, 2014. That's when Steeples was inspired to pursue a career in coaching to "get in the trenches with the youth" in St. Louis, he said.

Steeples has been away from his players since the pandemic shut down schools, but on their regular text message chain, he now does more listening than talking. These days, his players' emotions range from rage to confusion, he said.

"As these kids start to listen to each other," he said, "they start to embrace each other more."

At De Smet, an all-boys private Catholic school in Ladue, Steeples' team is a mix of white and black students from a wide variety of backgrounds and neighborhoods. It's not only the black players who are angry about what's happened around the country, Steeples said. For some white players, there's concern mixed with confusion.

"They're confused because they don't know how to help," he said. "They're being asked (to help) but also told, 'You wouldn't understand.' (They ask,) 'How do I understand? How do I help?"

He encourages those questions, and when the team discusses current events, Steeples urges players to tackle topics that might seem uncomfortable around teammates who are different.

"Your growth," he said, "starts right at the edge of your discomfort."

This week Steeples started what he called a positivity chain via text message, asking his players to share positive images of unity and peace from the protests around the country.

"The negatives shouldn't be passed to the wayside," Steeples said, "but I know mass media does a good job covering that. So let's show the 60 to 70 to 80 percent of protesters who have George Floyd in mind."

Down in Oklahoma, Lorenzo Williams has talked to his players from Westmoore High School about joining peaceful protests in their area. The former Mizzou defensive tackle from 2004-07 said he tells his players, "This is your right to voice your opinion and protest. Just don't do anything stupid."

"Listen to the cops," he said. "If they tell you to back up, back up. Don't get into a situation where they're shooting tear gas or rubber bullets. You want to be in the peaceful part. If there's a curfew in place, don't be out past the curfew. ... Don't do something that's going to get you killed."

Williams talks regularly to his players about interacting with police.

"My white players hardly ever ask me about that," he said. "My black players ask all the time. I usually try to use those questions and address the whole team. ... I have to tell them, (if you're pulled over) you have to keep your hands on the steering wheel. Don't reach for anything unless they tell you to. Always say, 'Yes, sir. No, sir' every time. No back talk. Drive legally. Have your seatbelt on. Don't make any sudden movements. Don't reach for your phone or anything.

"Even then ..." Williams paused. "I have to tell them, I can't guarantee you that you won't get pulled out of your car. They might say you fit the description of someone they're looking for."

When Franklin discusses the police with his players about the police, he doesn't just talk. He shows. He brings in former Mizzou teammate and St. Louis City police officer DeQuincy Howard to meet with players and answer their questions.

"A lot of these kids don't know (police officers) used to be someone just like them before they put that uniform on," Franklin said. "To talk about it helps change the narrative: This is a police officer. Not all police are bad."

When it comes to protests, Franklin encourages his players to get involved.

"I'm all for (the protests), but I'm not for the looting or the riots," he said. "I've protested. I've been out there. These things aren't new to me. But the looting and the rioting gets away from why we're really out there. No change is going to come from that. It's going to lead to more vacant buildings, more empty stores, in a community that we keep saying we've got to build up. We cannot build up if we're tearing them down at a faster rate than it would take to sit down at a table and have conversations."

"I get the frustration. I get the anger," he added. "But, man, we've got to get to that table. Once we get to that table and start having these uncomfortable conversations and really start talking and actions get behind words, that's the action I want. I don't want to tear down the community where I grew up and where I coach."

Back in Columbia, De'Vion Moore is preparing for similar conversations but with a different audience – and not on the football field. The former Mizzou running back (2008-11), who attended Hazelwood Central, just finished his second year as the principal at Alpha Lewis Hart Elementary on the north edge of Columbia. His students range from kindergarten to fifth grade, old enough, he knows, to learn about history and social justice. This past year a group of fourth and fifth graders approached the faculty about putting on a presentation about the Birmingham Children's Crusade of 1963, a civil rights march that led to hundreds of arrests and police violence.

Moore, once Mizzou's leading rusher during a 10-win season just a decade ago, is now inspired by that curiosity.

"I want for our children to be vocal," Moore said. "I want our children to learn to do it in a way that allows movement towards whatever cause they choose to stand for or against. In doing so that could very well mean that they at some point in time in their lives will have to come across a very challenging barrier for them, one way or another.

"That is the hardest component to think about when I'm trying to wrap my head around all of this. How can we build systems and build structure for children to explore these hard times?"

As uprisings continue in St. Louis and around the country, Moore's former teammate hopes the purpose of the protests – racial justice and equality – doesn't fade once football and normal activities return.

"That's going to be the biggest challenge," Steeples said. "As sports come back, let us not lose sight of the issues we took notice of when we had time to take notice."