Tall clouds gather in the distance, and Brice Brown turns right to point his truck toward the worst of it.
“Summertime in New Orleans,” he says, though on steamy weekend evenings there’s more to worry about than some here-and-gone storm. It’s the last Friday before school starts at Edna Karr High, where Brown has led the football team to the past two Class 4A state championships, and he has been here long enough and immersed himself in enough players’ lives to learn this much: These are the times when bad things happen.
Last weekend, one of Brown’s wide receivers ran away from home. An offensive lineman spent a night on his front porch after a fight with his father. A sophomore disappeared for 48 hours.
But that’s not why he’s out here an hour after practice ended, patrolling the streets with the steering wheel in one hand and his iPhone in the other. Last year, there were 589 shootings in New Orleans, and six days ago — on a night just like this — two people fired into a crowd: three dead, seven wounded. Eight days from now, a 15-year-old boy will be fatally shot two miles from Edna Karr.
“Every time we get an update: shooting in Central City,” Brown, 33, says. “Shooting in Uptown. Shooting in New Orleans East. Shooting in Algiers.”
As the sun sets, he dials a player to ask about his weekend plans. Then another to ask if he ate dinner. Another to ask what size shirt he wears. Brown is really calling to hear each player’s voice, to make sure he made it home, to find out if he’s alive or dead.
“We’ve got kids who live in these areas,” Brown says, “who are trying to make it.”
He opens the contact for Ronnie Jackson, the Cougars’ 18-year-old running back and perhaps the greatest challenge of the coach’s life, and a moment later the phone is ringing, ringing, ringing, and when it goes to voice mail, Brown can’t help but think the worst.
‘I wasn’t called for X’s and O’s’
By the end of 2016, there had been 486 shootings in New Orleans, and victims ranged from largely anonymous to well-known.
Former NFL running back Joe McKnight was shot to death in December at a nondescript intersection in the Terrytown neighborhood. Will Smith, the retired defensive end for the New Orleans Saints, died in April after being shot in the ritzy Lower Garden District.
The final seven months of 2016 were especially bloody, with 390 people being shot, according to data collected by New Orleans-based crime analyst Jeff Asher. Particularly alarming is the consistency of shootings in the nation’s 49th-largest city — New Orleans is one of nine U.S. cities with at least 100 murders in each of the past 49 years, though it’s the only one of those with fewer than 600,000 residents — and that shots can ring out seemingly at any time, in any part of town.
On a steamy Friday in June 2016, a 23-year-old played pickup basketball with friends, told his mother he loved her and made his way to a gas station in Algiers.
Tollette George, whom most everyone called “Tonka,” had returned home after graduating from Alcorn State University seven weeks earlier. Tonka had played wide receiver for the Braves, and during ambitious moments he would vow to someday suit up for the Saints. When he was being realistic, he’d tell friends he wanted to coach at Edna Karr, his alma mater, and be a symbol for young people: If Tonka could make it, they could, too.
But that Friday in Algiers, the sound of gunfire filled the air, and so eventually did ringing phones. Brown picked up to hear a voice urging him to get to the gas station because Tonka, the quarterback who had led Edna Karr to the 2010 state title game, was dead.
Brown arrived around midnight, police tape holding back onlookers, including Tonka’s shell-shocked mother and uncle. Rhonda George knew it was her son behind the partition, but she kept calling his phone anyway, praying he would answer.
The coach tried to console them, and in time they’d come back to the same question: Why? Like 65 percent of murders in New Orleans between 2010 and 2017, Tonka’s has not resulted in an arrest.
He was bright, talented and ambitious, and Rhonda would come to believe that’s partly why her only son died. Tonka’s uncle, Brannon Getridge, believed his nephew made one mistake: He returned to a place where life has seemingly been devalued amid a wave of gunfire.
“I tried telling Tonka,” Getridge says, “ ‘Don’t come back to this city.’ ”
Tonka’s death “changed the way I view football,” Brown says now, and it wound up being the young man’s death, not his life, that made him a symbol at Edna Karr.
As the months and seasons passed, Brown pondered his own future. Even if he spent decades winning championships, would he be a success? No, he decided, and so he made a promise to himself: Whatever it took, no matter the financial or personal cost, he would not allow another bullet to take one of his players.
“I wasn’t called for X’s and O’s,” Brown says. “Our call is to save them.”
‘I always used to fail the test’
A phone rings in a bedroom in Algiers, and a young man issues an annoyed smile when he sees the display: “CoachBrice.” He knows he’d better answer.
“Where you at?” Brown asks.
“At the house,” says Ronnie Jackson, Edna Karr’s talented running back, who will play college football if Brown can keep him on track — and alive — for 10 more months.
“Is your phone on silent again?”
Ronnie sighs. Every day with this. A while earlier, Brown called and Ronnie was making dinner or was taking a shower or . . . whatever it was, he wasn’t tethered to his phone, and so it went to voice mail.
“You’re still — you’re bad with this phone,” Brown says, and he asks about Ronnie’s grandmother. What if she calls? How about his girlfriend? Brown bets Ronnie answers then.
The young man squirms before barking, finally, into his phone.
“You think you’re the only one, Coach?”
“Mm-hmm,” Brown says, the outburst apparently what he was going for.
In a few minutes, the coach will deliver chicken fingers to Ronnie so there’s one fewer reason to leave Grandma Darlene’s house. It’s also a way to check on him, to remind him Big Brother Brice is watching. While Ronnie will spend the evening playing video games with a teammate, his free hours weren’t always spent so innocently.
A few miles from where he now lives stands the first house Ronnie ever broke into. He was 8 years old then, his friends feeding him through a window because he was small enough to fit. He opened the locked door, and he and his friends grabbed as many electronic devices as possible, Ronnie says, and the older boys would use part of their bounty to buy him a new outfit.
He laughs at the memory now: the fear he felt in those first moments inside, the excitement when they finished, the relief when he ran away and the sirens faded.
“It’s crazy how I can remember all this,” he says, and as he grew, so did the memories and the stakes.
Two cousins would be shot to death, their names now tattooed on Ronnie’s back, and he can picture the way an uncle’s midsection looked after two bullets were removed from it. At family reunions, Ronnie noticed how few males attended; he’d describe a departed relative by how many Christmases he’d missed.
His mother would sometimes suggest the males in their family had a curse on them, though to her Ronnie was different. “I didn’t have no problems,” Lisa Jackson now says, and this is comical to Ronnie, too, because of how little his mother knows about his childhood.
He’d skip school to start fights or smoke marijuana, and when a youth coach told him he was destined for prison or an early grave, Ronnie figured the man was probably right. He stormed off the field that day, the first of many times he quit a team, and back then coaches just let him keep walking.
“I ain’t never had coaches,” he says now, “that really hold on.”
When he reached Edna Karr, Ronnie brought his helmet to Brown’s office and announced he had better things to do than ride the bench. So the coach ordered him into the lineup just to watch him fail. Later, when Ronnie blew off practice to smoke with old friends, Brown sent an assistant coach to drag him back to practice. When Ronnie told Brown he was quitting the team to enroll in trucking school, the coach ordered him out of his office.
When he came back, meekly asking for another chance, Brown again told him to get out. This went on for a while, and one day Brown told him to leave and Ronnie refused. This, he told his coach, was his team, too. He wasn’t going anywhere.
Brown’s face relaxed. Finally, the kid got it.
“He was testing me,” Ronnie says. “I used to always fail the test.”
It has taken all this, Brown says, for the young player to learn to stand his ground rather than run away.
“He has become a fighter,” the coach says, “not a quitter.”
‘All it takes is a little push’
Brown knows how to mix it up, too, and in his lifelong war against the streets, he has learned to fight dirty.
After a recent practice, he told players that leaving a mess in the locker room might compel coaches to present them with dirty jerseys for their first game. Maybe they’d forget to clean the water bottles. Last year, after players complained about spaghetti for a pregame meal, Brown served them ham sandwiches and water. Sometimes he’ll burst into a team meeting, drop five boxes of drug tests on a table and then walk out.
“Sometimes I’m full of” it, he says. “But you’ve got to make them uncomfortable.”
Brown says that’s just the language here, and when he met Ronnie years ago during an in-school suspension, the coach couldn’t get him to stop talking. So he threw a dictionary at him. Only a paperback, Brown points out.
They eventually talked, forming a fateful but volatile bond, and occasionally traded threats. Other times they found commonality in being the only sons of single mothers or in complexities they usually kept buried. Brown was as admitted control freak, the only person capable of saving these kids, and if Ronnie was a natural leader — on the field or organizing his eighth-grade class to cheat on an assessment test — he was a terrible follower.
Brown recognized that, so last year he elevated Ronnie to team captain. At practices, he leads stretches, adjusts teammates’ positioning, is the fastest to drills when they need an example and the slowest when they need to be herded. Brown, a mad social scientist with a scraggly beard and whistle, issues jersey numbers based on his ranking of players’ importance to the program. Ronnie wears No. 2, and if it drives him crazy that he’ll never be No. 1, that’s precisely the point.
“I worry about Ronnie more than others because he’s been to the dark side before,” Brown says. “And all it takes is a little push.”
He is, for better or worse, Brown’s defining project: frustrating and charming, a past that makes you want to give up and a free-spirited charisma that won’t let you — and in those ways, isn’t he just like Guy Henderson?
Nearly two decades ago, Brown and Henderson grew up on these streets and found themselves playing together at Edna Karr. Henderson was the Cougars’ quarterback, Brown the offensive lineman who protected him. They forged a friendship based not only on similarities — among them is that both of their fathers were murdered — but their differences. Brown was the responsible one, his focus always on the future; Henderson preferred to take risks. They were teammates again at Grambling, and if Brown was determined to stay gone, Henderson knew he’d make his way back to New Orleans.
Eventually they both did, and Brown shelved his dreams of coaching the Saints when he accepted an internship at Edna Karr. The months turned to years, and Brown climbed the coaching ladder while Henderson was drawn to the shadows. They still spoke often, and Brown learned that if Henderson didn’t answer the first time he called, he’d always pick up the second time.
Three years ago, the men texted about Henderson joining the team’s coaching staff. Brown’s old friend knew the game and could speak the players’ language, but the truth is the coach was trying to throw one more block for his old quarterback. They agreed to grab lunch and discuss the future, but Henderson — typical — never called to confirm.
Brown was in his truck when the text arrived: Henderson was dead, shot in his car at 4 in the afternoon. Brown couldn’t believe it. He called Henderson not once but twice, their longtime code, but it just rang and rang.
Another funeral, another casket to carry, another symbol for his players at Edna Karr. But as time passed, the coach’s grief hardened into regret.
“If we had met,” he says now, “would that still have happened?”
He pauses and then sighs.
“We probably could’ve done more.”
Another pause. Another sigh.
“Ronnie reminds me so much of him.”
‘That’s not how the real world works’
They filter into Ronnie’s room, four generations of relatives and, because his sister Jasmine is six months pregnant, a fifth on the way.
Sunday is about shrimp pasta and conversation, and nearly 20 family members have found their way to Grandma Darlene’s. Ronnie has been pushed to the edge of his bed as they discuss their favorite topic: his future.
“You have come a long way, baby,” Lisa, his mother, says.
“You’re going to be really something,” great-grandmother Suzie says.
“He’s the only one that made it,” sister Kijha says.
Ronnie smiles at the attention, but he is the keeper of many secrets. As far as he has come, occasionally the old muscle memory still fires. Ronnie again quit the football team last year, peeling off his jersey and pads following a disappointing game, and he has wondered aloud whether he’s cut out for college. He knows he’s supposed to answer the phone when Brown calls — the coach has explained, time after time, what an unanswered call means to him — but Ronnie is a teenager, and sometimes he’s in no mood for a lecture.
“So it’s kind of like you want to be bothered when you want to be bothered?” Brown asked him recently.
“See, that’s not how the real world works.”
Ronnie doesn’t get into much of that with his family, and it’s easier for them to focus unimpeded on him somehow altering the family’s trajectory. So he didn’t tell them about the man who recently brandished a gun at Ronnie and a friend. Or how often Brown has to lock the gates surrounding the Edna Karr practice field because of a nearby active shooter. He certainly didn’t tell them about the block party last year near Tulane University. That was the night, Brown now says, about 30 Edna Karr players were gathered and someone sprayed bullets into the crowd. “They’re shooting,” was the text message Brown recalls getting, and of course when he called Ronnie it went straight to voice mail.
Brown didn’t learn Ronnie was still alive until hours later. After becoming separated from his teammates, Ronnie says, he ran into a hallway and through a door, and in the median he saw a body. He ran again, lying on the ground behind a vehicle until the shooting stopped and he heard the voice of an Edna Karr assistant coach, who was working security at the party, urging him into his car.
That night, Ronnie decided parties were no longer a good idea. Neither was walking most anywhere, accepting rides from anyone but close friends, talking to fans at road games, celebrating after touchdowns, lingering on the field after wins, going anywhere after dark.
“You got to hide,” he says, and it is around this time that Grandma Darlene, back and forth from the kitchen, enters the room.
Though she knows some of her grandson’s secrets, she nonetheless believes this is a time for honesty.
“These little boys are so jealous of him because he’s doing good, they’ll kill him,” she says.
“Just to see him not make it?” Jasmine asks.
“Because they don’t want to see him make it,” Darlene says.
Still at the foot of his bed, Ronnie nods.
“In New Orleans,” he says, “they don’t care if you run the ball good. They don’t care nothing about that.”
The conversation pivots to what should come next. As his senior year begins, Ronnie has scholarship offers to play football from four colleges, as far away as Kentucky and Kansas.
If Ronnie is a success, his mother says, he’ll have a responsibility to return and offer inspiration to the neighborhood, the school, the city. But Ronnie says that was Tonka’s plan, too, and look what happened.
“Everybody down here is so prideful,” Jasmine says.
“Crabs in a bucket,” Darlene says.
‘It’s always the next kid’
Brown is back in his truck, returning from a weekend trip. The miles pass, and quicker than Brown ever imagined, so have the years.
Nearly a decade ago, he gave up his goal of coaching in the NFL. But after going 38-6 in his first three seasons as a head coach, more and more he asks himself the same question: Could he coach college football? Last year, he says, the coach of a Power Five school asked him to consider joining his staff — something of a liaison to high schools in the Southeast, Brown says. He gathered players to share his decision: He would be leaving Edna Karr.
One by one, the hands went up. Who’s going to bring me something to eat? Who’s going to buy my school shirts? Who’s going to be here when I need somebody to talk to?
Then Ronnie spoke up: “You can’t [freaking] leave,” he told Brown, and for once it was Ronnie who wouldn’t let him quit.
And so, guilt prevailing over ambition, Brown stayed. The Cougars went 14-1, won another state title, and for one more year, no players died. Brown spent another series of months calling them, worrying when they don’t answer that he’ll be summoned to another crime scene, trying to convince them the only path to survival and happiness is to not just leave New Orleans but to stay away. And it’s not lost on him that the coach saying that was once a young man who got out, then came back. Now he can’t leave.
“I’m pushing them out to save their life, and I keep staying,” says Brown, who lives less than three miles from the house where he grew up.
This is no badge of honor, not to him, but he has realized that following the deaths of Guy Henderson and Tonka George, he is motivated not by what he hopes will happen but instead what he hopes will not. Maybe he has just lived here too long. Just because Brown kept his players alive last year doesn’t mean he will this year. Just because one challenge ends doesn’t mean there won’t be another behind it. Just because Ronnie answered the phone yesterday doesn’t mean he will today.
“I don’t think my job can ever be done with him,” Brown says. “I think he’s one of those kids that he’s attached to me probably for life.”
He keeps driving, the New Orleans skyline cutting into the horizon.
“There’ll be a new Ronnie. It’s always the next kid,” he says. “The next one and the next one and the next one.”
Brown is ruminating now, going a long time without speaking.
“I’m damned,” he eventually says, “and that’s just the truth.”
He directs the truck up the highway, his destination somewhere ahead, and with the sun setting he passes the area of town where shots interrupted last year’s block party. It reminds Brown there’s something he needs to do, and the momentary feeling of purpose has brightened his mood.
“We’ve just got to keep striving for the now,” he says, reaching into the center console for his phone.
He glances at the display, his thumb scrolling and pressing the contact labeled “Ronnie 2,” and he rests his arm on the steering wheel and takes a breath as the phone begins to ring.