Unoccupied electric scooters certainly wouldn’t have dotted the sidewalks. All the upscale restaurants on the water hadn’t yet emerged. Would there have been solar panels? No way. Not in the Southwest D.C. where Michael Locksley grew up.

A dichotomy between socioeconomic classes always existed in this neighborhood. Public housing complexes sat blocks away from luxury waterfront apartments, just as they do now. But Nationals Park and Audi Field, both less than half a mile from Locksley’s childhood home, have catalyzed the already occurring gentrification of Southwest Washington. So how much has changed here? Locksley repeats the question and laughs.

He stands on the field where he first played football for the Boys & Girls Club, back when he and the others shuffled through all the positions. Even the grass, Locksley says, seems better than before.

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As Locksley explains the neighborhood he remembers compared with the one that exists now, a man on a bicycle rides up to him. It’s a childhood friend, so the two hug and briefly reconnect.

“I saw you on TV, man!” the visitor said to Maryland’s new head football coach.

“You look the same, bro!” said Locksley, 49. “Sheesh!”

That sparks a new topic: This community is tightknit. Everything and everyone feels connected. The kids whose lives centered on activities at the Boys & Girls Club have grown into adults, and many still live in Southwest.

“A lot of people have a tough time getting out,” Locksley said. “It wasn't easy or normal to get out of here.”

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But as the high school version of Locksley developed into a promising football player, he kept taking the next logical step — first to play for Towson, then to coach. He rose through the ranks, all the way to the top job at Maryland. When the university introduced Locksley nine months ago, the coach focused on his roots. That’s what made this job attractive and meaningful to him. After a pep band created some fanfare and Locksley stepped to the podium, he mentioned growing up in a single-parent home and how the Boys & Girls Club helped raise him.

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Lawrence Brown stood listening on the turf inside Cole Field House, long ago the basketball arena where he would hang out with Locksley, his childhood best friend. Speaking from the stage, Locksley shared the CliffsNotes version of his past. To most, the man in a suit came to Maryland as a highly successful assistant from Alabama with the added bonus of ties to the Washington area, the right fit to rebuild the program.

“A lot of people, they just see the finished product now,” Brown said. “They don't know what it took for him to get to where he's at.”

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Security in sports

At the No. 4 Police Boys & Girls Club, football bled into basketball and into baseball, with soccer, tennis, boxing — just about any sport — sprinkled throughout. That’s where Locksley and his peers headed after school every day until about 8 p.m. School, sports and the club were all intertwined. They piled into a light blue van that shuttled to various parts of the city for games year-round. In the summers, the days started earlier, filled with camps and field trips for the younger kids, while Willie Borden, the director of the club, helped the older ones find jobs.

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Borden saw himself as an extension of the kids’ parents. Locksley calls the retired police officer one of the most influential people in his childhood. Borden ensured kids made it home safely, and he would buy them shoes or a meal. Even the kids who grew up to be “hardened, big-time criminals,” Locksley said, “when they went in the Boys & Girls Club, they took their hat off. They didn’t use profanity.” That’s the discipline Borden instilled. Those who broke club rules weren’t allowed back for a couple of days, the worst punishment, considering the club served as a focal point in the lives of all the kids.

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Locksley played in a nighttime basketball summer league for teenagers and adults. From the court, they could see the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument lit up, as well as a high-rise known for drug deals and violent crime. Even as youngsters, Locksley said, the neighborhood kids understood what surrounded them. They would see people they looked up to sent to jail. The Boys & Girls Club — and the man known to everyone as Mr. Borden — helped keep them away.

“He was outstanding at keeping us busy,” Brown said. “And he showed us that he really loved us.”

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When Locksley recalls the day his childhood hit a turning point, he isn’t sure what time of year it was. It definitely wasn’t winter, because he remembers walking home from school on a bright day. He saw his mom crying on the five steps that led to their home. All the family’s belongings had been moved to the parking lot.

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The family lived in a middle-class townhouse, but Locksley’s parents split when he was in about fifth grade. His mom had been a homemaker and then started taking odd jobs to provide for Locksley, his two older brothers and a younger sister. After they were evicted, the siblings separated, living with various relatives until the end of the school year. Locksley’s mom brought them back together when they moved into public housing in Southeast Washington, a 10-minute drive from their previous home on the other side of the Anacostia River.

By the time Locksley reached about 14, he became the man of the house. Both of his older brothers, Bryant and Eric, have spent most of their adult lives in prison, mainly by way of trouble that started with selling drugs. Locksley isn’t justifying what they did; there are other ways to make money. But the family needed financial help, and people can become products of their environments. Bryant now lives in the D.C. area after his recent release from prison, while Eric is still jailed in California.

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Locksley never let his focus drift. He cared about school and loved sports. He wouldn’t have time to get into trouble even if he had wanted, Borden said. Locksley would visit his brothers in jail, and they encouraged him to stay out of the streets. Kids might learn about prison through movies, but Locksley saw the gates and the guns firsthand. It felt real.

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After Locksley finished junior high, he headed to Ballou High, starred on the football team, continued to help out at home and eventually earned a scholarship. Locksley would go on to establish himself as a coach, but even then, he dealt with the pain of losing his son in 2017 and his mother this spring.

“The average person,” Brown said after he collected himself from crying, “they would have folded.”

A way out and back

But, no, Locksley didn’t fold. The kid who once doodled football plays in his school notes arrived at Towson as a lanky defensive back. The staff jokingly called him Manute, a nod to Manute Bol, the tall and skinny NBA player. Gordy Combs, the defensive coordinator at the time, assigned Locksley a double-digit jersey number so he would look bigger on the field. It wasn’t hard to spot the leaders on the team, Combs said. During meals, Locksley’s table never had an empty seat.

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In the same way Boys & Girls Club football turned into high school ball and then into a college career, coaching seemed like the natural next step for Locksley when it became clear he wouldn’t make it to the NFL. After his senior season, Towson’s head coach, Phil Albert, retired. Combs moved into the top job and hired Locksley to coach defensive backs. There was no interview, just a question from Combs: “You want to coach the secondary?”

The transition came easily. As a free safety, Locksley led the defense and earned the respect of his teammates. He spent just one year coaching at Towson and then began his climb, including two stints at Maryland and a tumultuous first head-coaching tenure at New Mexico, eventually landing at Alabama and earning the 2018 Broyles Award, given to the top assistant in college football.

Locksley made his name as a coach who excels in recruiting, but to those who know him best, it’s almost a disservice to simplify his strengths to that. It’s not just recruiting. It’s the way he bridges gaps between people and connects, the way he understands the circumstances some of these players come from.

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“Why do people trust him?” said Jay Robinson, who coached Locksley’s position group at Towson. “Because he’s a man of his word. He says he’s going to do something for you, he’s going to support you, [and] he makes every effort to do that.”

Locksley describes walking into homes to convince athletes to play for his school as deja vu. Maybe there’s a single mom who’s trying to get home in time for the meeting after a long day. Some of the apartments look like the one he lived in.

“It's a very familiar place for me,” said Locksley, whose high school coach led him through his recruiting process.

Locksley now lives in the suburbs in a home with a pool and a basketball court. When he introduces himself around Southwest, he says he’s the head coach at Maryland but that he’s from here.

The Boys & Girls Club shut down years ago. But a recreation center has emerged in its place, and one of Locksley’s childhood friends works there.

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While wandering through Lansburgh Park, a couple of blocks from the field where he first played, Locksley looks at a large grassy area. It’s the perfect location for a Boys & Girls Club. He always said he would build one if he made enough money. You could level the ground and create a football field. There would be room for a gym, too.

It would be tricky, though, and head football coaches aren’t known for having ample spare time for projects. Brown calls this one of Locksley’s “best-kept secrets,” but he also realizes the coach has some ambitions to work toward at Maryland first.

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