When he walked onto a football field, James Richardson -- usually a mass of gangly arms, unruly mouth and disrespecting eyes -- transformed.

"He was a football player who was on at every play, worked at every turn," says his coach, Noel Cyrus. "He always did it right, with his heart and his mind. Whether it was practice or a game. He came to life on the field. He became the person he was always meant to be."

James, 17, the star running back known as "J-Rock," was "5-7 and 150 pounds soaking wet, but he played like a 6-foot-4 steam engine. He could dunk, you know?" Cyrus says.

J-Rock was killed Feb. 2 inside Ballou Senior High, in Southeast. Police say J-Rock called a longtime rival, Thomas Boykin, 18, "pretty" that day. A brawl followed, ending with gunshots echoing through the cafeteria and hallways. Boykin was charged with murder.

Ballou is a tough school where metal detectors are nearly as abundant as library shelves. But in years past, the football field has been a green haven impervious to the hard street life that claims a student or two each year.

"I've never before lost a player. Never," says Cyrus, who's been a coach since 1986. "Personally, I'm just coming to terms with what happened."

On Coach Cyrus's field, boys become heroes. Troubled homes are replaced by a tight football family. Ignored sons become key players.

For the first time, Cyrus is dreading the football season. He almost quit this year. But after J-Rock died, a student who played for Cyrus six years ago invited him to his college graduation. Another who played 10 years back asked him to stand in his wedding.

"J-Rock didn't even have a driver's license. He never had a prom," he says. "I gotta be there for those other players who can still have these things."

-- Petula Dvorak

James Richardson "came to life on the field," his coach says.