Displaced athletes find solace in football

EARTH CITY, Mo. – As the team captain and left tackle of the McCluer North High football team, Marquis Prophete has no shortage of protective instinct.

Prophete has to block for his quarterback every day from his position, and in his role as captain, he does his best to look out for his fellow team members on and off the field.

But with tensions at a boiling point in the Ferguson, Missouri, area after the killing of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, Prophete has been left feeling like so many others over the past week and a half: helpless.

Prophete’s respite, along with that of so many other kids attending McCluer North, McCluer and McCluer South-Berkeley High, can be found on a football field or a track or any other outlet where the words unrest, looting, shooting and rioting have no place.

With the Ferguson-Florissant school district closed right now, finding that solace hasn’t been easy. Prophete and his teammates have taken to practicing at a park two miles from the school.

But on Wednesday, the St. Louis Rams found a way to provide the closest thing they can to an escape from the tension and emotion found in Ferguson.

“My sister, Marie, she works at the Shoe Carnival that got hit twice,” Prophete said. “Every day, I’m worried that she’s going to get hurt. So coming out here, football just lets us all get together and get away from all of that. I don’t have to worry about me getting hurt or my family. I can just come out here with my teammates, and we can play football.”

In football, we can all find a common ground, an escape from some of the harsher realities of day-to-day life. We’ve seen it many times before, such as in New Orleans when the Saints returned to the Superdome for the first time after Hurricane Katrina.

From the outside, Ferguson might seem like a community divided, but there are plenty of examples of how it has come together in the face of sadness.

After searching for a place to practice while the school district is closed, McCluer North coach Courtland Griffin settled on Wedgewood Park, located about two miles from the school and five miles from Ferguson.

The park is no football field, but it’s a reasonable approximation and provides enough space to get some work done. On the first day his team practiced there, a neighbor stopped Griffin to ask what was going on.

When Griffin told him his team was about to begin football practice, the man nodded and went back in his house. When he returned, he’d brought his hose from his house and turned it on full blast so the team could take water breaks as needed.

“He immediately went to helping,” Griffin said. “He’s not the only one -- the community has really stepped up. That’s what it’s all about. These kids are innocent. This is not their doing. They’re just trying to live life normal.”

That sense of normality might seem so far away, but it’s easy to see it on the football field. It was clearly visible Wednesday afternoon in watching the teams from McCluer North and McCluer bond with the Rams.

It was a football team helping another football team. Two teams speaking the language shared by all in the fraternity, regardless of age or level of experience.

“We are fortunate that we can provide an opportunity for these young high school athletes to get away,” Fisher said. “There’s no better game than high school football, and we didn’t want them to be denied this opportunity, so we invited them over as our guests. It looked like they had a lot of fun.”

It was evident as the McCluer North chants drew in Rams linebackers Ray-Ray Armstrong, Alec Ogletree and Daren Bates. It was evident when Rams coach Jeff Fisher addressed the McCluer team before practice, though the players didn’t pay much attention because they were star-struck by the players walking behind him.

And it was evident as the teams came together in a huddle and broke it down with a chant of "1, 2, 3, Ferguson!"

“We are praying that things will be right soon enough,” Griffin said. “This isn’t the first tragedy that we’ve seen. We know it will be over, and when it is, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. It’s always going to get better. After the rain comes the sunshine.”

For one afternoon, at least, the sun shined brightly on a few football teams just getting together and having a fun, normal day.