His boys had just won the game, but as they jogged toward him, the football coach was still furious.

Kevin McGill, known to Southeast Washington as Coach Kevin, would have normally started his postgame speech with praise after a season finisher like today, when these 12-year-olds had endured scorching heat and pulled off a win in double overtime.

But their success on the field meant nothing if they didn’t know how to stay alive off it. His players should have known that by now.

A week earlier, the coach had watched two of his boys start a fight at practice over a tackle. Neither had walked away when tempers flared, as Kevin had often admonished. And not a single of their teammates had stepped in to defuse the skirmish, when they were supposed to have each other’s backs.

The fight had been a test of what Kevin for three years had been trying to teach them — how to act as Black men in a part of the city where arguments often led to gunfire — and they had failed. So he had assigned the boys homework due before their game in May: to write a reflection on how they react to negative things and the potential consequences.

“You can get in really bad trouble,” wrote one player who had started the fight, “or you be a man and walk away.”

But only six of the 27 players handed in the assignment, and now Kevin was lecturing the boys huddled at his feet after their win.

“Y’all understand what I’m saying?” he said. “Football be far from my mind when I’m coaching sometimes.”

He pointed to the stack of homework.

“This is more important.”

Born and raised in Southeast Washington, Kevin wanted the boys to understand what was at stake. At 34, he had already lost two dozen friends to gun violence and nearly been killed himself.

Of all the bodies he has seen lying in caskets, however, the most painful was 11-year-old Davon McNeal, his star running back on this team of boys he was trying to teach to be men. At the funeral, Kevin stood with his players as they laid eyes on the lifeless child. Kevin saw Zay, his linebacker and one of Davon’s closest friends, convulse in anguish.

Davon’s killing emerged as one of the most high-profile and wrenching in a city already consumed by grief. A stray bullet killed him on the Fourth of July last year, as the death toll mounted in D.C. during both the worst public health crisis in a century and amid violence that pushed homicides to a 16-year high. Both afflictions weighed heaviest on Black communities east of the Anacostia River, and the loss of this 11-year-old star came to symbolize that suffering.

For Kevin, the agony of losing his player sharpened his purpose: If he couldn’t save Davon, he would dedicate his life to saving the rest of the team. That meant it was critical for him to reach the boys before they went through puberty and started high school. At that point, as Kevin had experienced, society starts to view Black boys as threatening Black men. Their lives, in Kevin’s mind, would become choices that would lead toward violence or away from it.

The boys were about to become teenagers. Kevin was running out of time.

Fireworks and gunfire

Kevin never liked the Fourth of July because, for him, it is hard to tell the difference between fireworks and gunshots. In high school, he always spent the holiday with a girl, far from the popping sounds that filled his neighborhood streets. As he grew older, he liked to be at his family’s house. Last year, he wanted to see Davon and his mom, Crystal McNeal — who, at that point, had become family. But Crystal had arranged to spend the day at an anti-violence cookout near Cedar Street SE, which is in a section of Anacostia with a history of high crime rates. Kevin decided to make different plans.

“I’m not going there,” he thought to himself. “They shoot around there.”

Kevin first met Davon when he was 9 years old and known in Southeast for his talent on the football field. He played with his entire heart, and Kevin liked that. It reminded him of himself.

A few weeks after Davon joined the Metro Bengals, Kevin started giving him rides to and from practice. Most players would race for the back seat, but Davon always climbed into the front. In the car, the boy often talked about where he and his friends would go to college (Clemson) and their favorite rapper (NBA Young Boy). Kevin liked to catch Davon staring out the window and ask, “You a’ight?” before poking his arm and sending him into a fit of giggles.

Kevin became close with Crystal, too, a violence interrupter who mediated disputes between some of the city’s most dangerous criminals. The coach could see her influence on Davon, who wrote a speech for his sixth-grade class about how to stop violence in his community. Kevin thought he was the perfect role model for the rest of the players.

“I need you to be the leader of the team son,” Kevin had texted him earlier that summer, telling him, “they look up to you.”

“Ok,” his player replied.

Davon would never get the chance to fulfill that promise.

About an hour after they had exchanged texts on July 4, Crystal called Kevin. She was screaming.

“They shot Day Day!” she said. “They shot Day Day in the head!”

Kevin, posing for pictures with his cousins, froze with the phone in his hand.

Sixteen years had passed since he’d received a call like that one. A junior at Ballou High School, he was at home with a sprained ankle when the phone rang. It was his football teammate, who told him that their best friend had been shot. Kevin rushed to the living room, turned on the news and saw James Richardson — the almighty running back known as “J-Rock” — on a stretcher with his arm hanging off it. He was killed steps away from the cafeteria where they had lunch together every day.

That was Kevin’s first real experience with grief, and it festered inside him until it found an outlet: rage. He became embroiled in a neighborhood feud to get back at the teenager who killed his friend. He bought a gun, and, two years later, he was caught with it and jailed. After he graduated high school, Kevin quit his overnight job at CVS and sold drugs. His friends were dying in street fights. It felt like he was going broke buying T-shirts that said “Rest in peace.”

Kevin knew what it took to stay alive as a Black man in the nation’s capital. He knew how hard it could be.

But nothing from all those years of violence and suffering would prepare him for what he would see less than half an hour after he heard Crystal wail on the phone, when Kevin arrived at Children’s National Hospital.

“I’m here for Davon McNeal,” he said to the medical receptionist.

The receptionist told him he’d have to wait to see Davon until someone could escort him to a back room. Kevin paced under the fluorescent light. His co-coach arrived, then his city council member, then his pastor. He hoisted his body over the counter and tried to peer through the doors leading to the child.

He grew frustrated with waiting. So when he saw the doors slide open, Kevin flew through them. Sprinting down the hallway with security on his tail, he saw Crystal moaning and convulsing in the doorway of a small room. They locked eyes.

“Let him in,” she said to the officers, looking at the coach who had grown to love her son as his own. “That’s his father.”

The officers fell back, and Kevin ran into the room. There he saw his boy, punctured by tubes and covered in blood. The floor was red, the beeping incessant. Davon was dead.

Kevin kissed his running back on the forehead, left the room and collapsed onto the sterilized floor.

The Black Knight

Ten months later, Kevin climbed into the driver’s seat of a black van. Three of his players, still sweaty from one of their first practices of spring season, clambered into the rows behind him. They stepped on piles of dirty football jerseys and bent cones, mixing their locker room stench with the stale Lysol odor in the air.

Kevin turned the key that Friday, blared 93.9 and started the hour-and-a-half-long journey to drop each child at home.

Since Davon died, Kevin and the boys had spent most nights, before and after practice, in that van. Crystal purchased it with money from clothes she sold in Davon’s memory and had its back door decorated with a life-size cutout of her son in his jersey bearing the number 3. On the side, she added in thick letters the team’s nickname for Davon: “the Black Knight.”

The Black Knight became a moving memorial for Davon and the space where Kevin was most focused on his fight to prevent another tragedy. The coach used it to safely shuttle his boys around town, the way he had with Davon, and to teach life lessons that they could carry with them when they exited the van doors and stepped out into a world that puts Black men in danger.

His own childhood football coach, Daniel Thomas, drove him to and from practice each week. Kevin learned to trust the man he called Danny in the car, where the pure volume of time they spent together signaled that his coach cared about him in a way he wished his own father did.

Their relationship may have saved Kevin’s life. In 2009, Kevin was 22 when he was at a funeral for one of his friends and learned that another one had been killed. He realized in that moment he, too, would die soon if he didn’t change. He turned to Danny, who reminded Kevin of what he had told him when he was 10: His choices will determine the outcome of his life. A year later, Kevin was coaching alongside Danny. Three years after that, he was an ordained minister and leading a team of 12-year-olds.

“You gotta follow me on Instagram,” Kevin said to the three players behind him, staring at them through the driver’s mirror as they scrolled through their phones. “I follow all y’all back because I got to make sure you aren’t doing anything wild on there.”

The boys nodded, distracted by a TikTok video.

Kevin continued to address the back seat, telling the boys to change their Instagram profile picture to a football image and add “sports athlete” to their bio.

“It’s called social media etiquette,” Kevin said to the boys for the third time without a response. “You can lose a scholarship because of what you put on there.”

Most days last season, Kevin drove across Southeast Washington and parts of Prince George’s County to pick up players. He repeated the same route after practice, rarely arriving home before 9:30 p.m. That was on top of his day job as a personal trainer at the Navy Yard and in addition to the nights he drove the boys to play laser tag or back to his apartment for pizza. He occasionally invited players to stay with him for a week at a time if they weren’t doing well in school, and he knew they needed extra support.

“I like getting them in the car,” Kevin explained. “You can find out everything once they get in the car.”

Kevin was particularly focused on getting through to Xavione Brown, a magnetic personality who was one of Davon’s closest friends. The coach feared that a popular boy like him would be an easy target for feuding neighborhood groups. Kevin also knew that Xavione, whom he called Zay, was even more surrounded by gunfire than the coach was as a boy. Zay’s father was caught in a crossfire four years earlier and paralyzed from the waist down.

Davon had brought ease, humor and lightness to Zay’s life. The two of them liked to meet at the playground, shoot hoops on the basketball court and, afterward, beg one of their moms to please order pizza. They used to argue about who had more girls, even though neither had come close to kissing one.

Then Davon was killed and another one of his classmates died of an illness. And over the last year, while Zay was mourning the death of his friends and living with the daily sight of his father on a hospital bed near the kitchen, three of his uncles were fatally shot.

Zay was starting to think that it was only a matter of time until he, too, would feel a bullet tear through his skin. He had tried to ignore those fears by turning to Netflix, video games and the basketball hoop that hung on his bedroom door. But sleep transformed into vivid nightmares about stray bullets swirling around him.

He started to run away from cars with tinted windows.

“I was always playful, but I’m not like that no more,” Zay said. “I probably got like that when people started dying in my family.”

Zay was mourning more than his loved ones. He grieved for his own future, too. And Kevin knew that. The coach had made sure to spend extra time with Zay, giving him rides almost daily, calling him to make sure he was awake in time for virtual school, and inviting him into his apartment for a week in April.

“There are a few of y’all I’m expecting to grow up this year,” Kevin had said at the end of practice that day in April, looking at Zay. “Don’t let me down. Don’t let yourselves down.”

Zay nodded.

‘The other side of this’

Born and raised in Southeast Washington, coach Kevin McGill uses football to steer his players away from the city's gun violence. (Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

A year after the Metro Bengals buried one of their own, the boys, who now played for the Ridge Road Titans, followed their coach across a field, as they always do. This time, the grass was decorated not with goal lines but with headstones.

They stopped at a grave surrounded by teddy bears, fresh flowers, and balloons shaped like footballs and the number 3.

“Davon Thomas McNeal #3,” the stone read. “Baby Day Day.”

Kevin stood beside the grass that sprouted atop the burial site.

“It’s been a whole year, man,” Kevin said to his player underground. “It seems like yesterday we was all practicing.”

Kevin had last seen Davon three days before he died, when he had given the 11-year-old a ride home from practice with Zay. Davon sat in the front seat.

A year later, dark bags hung beneath Kevin’s eyes and two pins with Davon’s face adorned his chest.

He shuffled around the grass in his Crocs, with Zay a couple feet to his left. No one spoke. The “03” balloons blew in the wind.

“I lost a lot of my friends when I grew up,” Kevin said. “But I didn’t start to lose them until I was 16.”

He wiped his eyes and continued: “I know I’m on y’all. I’m going to stay on y’all because you aren’t going to be on the other side of this.”

Zay squatted next to Kevin and buried his head into his knees.

Kevin stood up, walked toward the Black Knight and wrote “LL3 Black Knight” — Long Live 3 — in chalk on the sidewalk. One of his players wrote behind him, “Forever 3.”

“Next time I come here, I’m going to write a whole paragraph in chalk,” Zay mumbled.

Kevin quietly made his way back over to the grave. He crumpled to the ground.

Six minutes passed with his players quietly looking on before he rose and wiped his tears.

“You guys grab each other,” Kevin said.

They stood in a team huddle, similar to how they have gathered at practices, at games, and at the funeral of their slain teammate.

“Let them hear Davon’s voice, oh God, when they are ready to give up, when they are ready to do something negative,” Kevin prayed. “I am asking that we will never have to experience a loss like this again.”

They turned around together and walked toward the Black Knight.

About this story

Story editing by Lynh Bui. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Video by Hadley Green and Amber Ferguson. Copy editing by Anne Kenderdine. Design by J.C. Reed.