And then, for a while, it felt like the killing had eased up.
“We were down to one, maybe two killed every year,” he said.
But this month? This month has been awful. Like back in the ’80s and ’90s, he said.
Last week, 11-year-old Karon Brown, one of the Tigers’ promising defensive ends this year, was shot in his Southeast Washington neighborhood after a beef between adults and kids battling over territory for their hustle — selling water and cookies to passersby.
The new crack wars are cookie wars?
And then on Sunday, Jamal Bandy, a 27-year-old assistant coach with the Tigers, was shot dead in a Southeast drive-by. No word on a motive or arrest in that case.
This has been a bloody year, with 96 homicides already recorded in the nation’s capital, 10 percent more than this time last year. Just seven years ago, there were only 88 homicides for all of 2012 — a milestone for the city.
“I don’t know what’s happening. In the ’80s and ’90s it was drugs. But this is just senseless, senseless killing,” said Zanders, who is 57 but said he feels ancient when he’s trying to understand the street lingo, the rules and the code of the kids around him today. “It’s like they act before thinking, like the reason cell in their brains has been removed. Almost supernatural.”
He’s been at this for more than 35 years, starting out as a boxing coach in the early 1980s, when the 234-unit Woodland Terrace housing project was one of the epicenters of the city’s violence epidemic.
The project was supposed to be senior-citizen housing when it was built in Southeast D.C. in the 1960s but was almost immediately filled with poor families with young children.
Zanders, who was born and raised in the area, has coached boxing, baseball and now football in the triangle of three neighborhoods that have been rivals for decades.
“I have a normal job, but I come here after my eight hours and then my wife and I work with these kids,” he said.
They run football plays, sure. But they’re also feeding the kids who are clearly underfed, talking to teachers if there’s trouble in school. He also gets his young players out of the city whenever he can.
This is how he helped broker a truce back in the day when Woodland Terrace, 30th Street and Congress Park were all beefing with one another.
“I’d take them all camping,” Zanders said. “Normally, we used to go to Deep Creek Lake or Lake Fairfax. They went to the water park, went fishing. They saw frogs, turtles, had a ball. They didn’t do all that ’hood stuff. We came back and the beef was over.”
Karon, the boy killed last week, went on the coach’s camping trip last year. But he stayed home this time and his brother, Quentin, went.
And now, Coach is wondering what he could have done differently. And he is, he admits, exhausted.
They were all in the computer lab of their rec center recently when Zanders, thinking of how tired his bones are getting and how many funerals he’s been too, said out loud, “Maybe this will be the last year I do this.”
“And the whole room went quiet,” he said. “And they all looked at me. And one of them said, ‘What’s going to happen to us if you stop?’ And right there, I knew I’m going to be doing this the rest of my life.”
There are rewards. He remembers that dad he’d never met before who jumped out of the car at the field and strode toward him, hand outstretched.
“He told me, ‘Thank you for everything you did for my son, all that time I couldn’t be there,’ ” Zanders said. “He was in jail. And I was the boy’s father figure all that time.”
Or that time he went into a bank and the manager, a huge goofy grin on his face, came bounding over to him: “Coach Steve!” It was one of his former players — a bank manager. “And his brother was a teller there.”
Or that time he took his mom to the hospital and one of the guys in scrubs — a forensic tech — was a former player, embracing his coach and thanking him for keeping him out of trouble. Or the two schoolteachers, the fireman, all those boys who played for the Tigers and grew into strong men in the community.
He’s lost substantial funding for his rec program and thinks that’s part of why he can’t reach more kids. The uniforms, field fees, travel fees — it’s all pricey in a neighborhood where parents have little extra cash to contribute.
And that’s a little bittersweet, considering his day job is at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where he is one of the techs who print out billions of dollars, moving sheets of money around all day.
Poverty is so often at the root of problems.
But Zanders also believes he’s seen an increase in the number of guns coming into the community from outside the District recently, and a nation still ignoring the problem of everyday urban gun violence.
Folks tell him gunrunners are showing up all around town with easily and legally purchased weapons from Virginia and North Carolina, selling them to D.C. folks at a markup.
“Back in my day, we fought, we lost, we became best friends,” he said. “We didn’t go get no guns and say ‘I’m going to kill him because he looked hard at me’ and come back and pop-pop-pop.”
Practice will start up for the Tigers again this weekend, after the vigils and funerals and all the anxiety. And Coach will have a lot of ground to cover this season, not just the playbook.
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