On a warm and sunny March evening, little ones gleefully chased each other at Tarkington Park while just weeks into their 2019 spring season, the Indy Steelers youth football league ran drills.
Ball security. Blocking and tackling. Stance and movement. High knees. And the dreaded field sprints. Over and over again they sprinted until about 6 p.m., when at least 14 gunshots reverberated near the crowded basketball court.
The shots — near the intersection of 40th and Illinois streets — sent these young football players scrambling as coaches frantically tried to shield and get them to hover on the ground. Screaming parents desperately searched for their children, terrified for their safety.
Fortunately this time, all 70 of them, were.
“The park was so crowded — any child at any time playing in the park could have been hit,” said Allison Luthe, executive director of the Martin Luther King Community Center, which is located adjacent to the recreation area.
“The what-ifs are really scary,” she said. “We have a lot of incidents where I feel like we’re one or two steps away from a tragedy like that.”
Too often too many of these boys on the Indy Steelers football team experience such trauma. For Kevin Jr. and Antonio and Tyree, three players who have been on the team now for three years, the sound of gunshots is sadly the norm — sometimes with tragic endings.
Most of the players also navigate a world entrenched in poverty; some don’t know when their next meal is coming or where they might lay their heads at night. Though most of them range in age from 7 to 14, they have already attended far too many funerals for teammates, siblings and parents.
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“They are adults with adult experiences in little kid bodies and they are just having to deal with a lot, whether it’s the death of a loved one or alcohol and drug addiction in their family or they’ve had to move a lot,” Luthe said. “Almost all of them know someone who’s been affected by gun violence.”
Yet these Indy Steelers players have a lifeline, a group of coaches and parents — particularly single dads — who are working overtime to make sure they have a fair shot at life. They are fostering an environment where these kids are encouraged to dream, to be hopeful, and to believe there is an alternative to a life on the streets.
There’s a spoken and unspoken investment in these kids: “We care about you. We want to help you. You are not alone. We love you. Let us help you.”
Yes, their coaches — Richard Donnell Hamilton, Isaiah Delaney, Reggie Martin, Chris Meriweather and Darryl Smith Sr. — like football. But to them, the Indy Steelers is far more than athletic competition. This team’s mission is to serve as a microcosm of the real world, a world where life isn’t always fair, where there will be wins and there will be losses.
The question and the challenge become how does one recover and ultimately take ownership of their destiny? What characteristics are needed to ensure that one doesn’t quit?
How hard are they willing to work?
Because, ultimately, a loss can become a win.
These coaches are raising these kids to believe they can succeed — that they must succeed — despite census figures that show nearly 90% of these students are eligible for free or reduced lunch at school and the median household income in Butler-Tarkington where many of them live is $31,999.
Because of these harsh circumstances buried behind the grim statistics that are these kids constant state of reality, the coaches purposely keep them on the field and busy all year.
For nearly two years, IndyStar photojournalist Mykal McEldowney and I have followed the Indy Steelers. We’ve been embedded with the players and their families at practices and games; inside their homes; at funerals; and at birthday parties and cookouts.
Because these kids and their families matter; because their future in our community matters. Because there are far too many kids gunned down each year; 25% of Indianapolis’s 215 criminal homicides in 2020 were victims under 21. And because there are far too many misguided critics willing to insinuate on social media that African Americans are only concerned about protesting violence when the perpetrator is a white police officer yet ignore the deadly turmoil otherwise.
“What about Black-on-Black crime? Why aren’t you protesting about that?”
They are. It’s a silent protest, not one of words but of action. Because these folks are working hard to change the fabric of Indianapolis for their kids and for the lives of the next generation.
And not with football, but because of it.
Here is the story behind what I consider Indianapolis’s grittiest urban football team. They call themselves the Hit Squad.
The 8U Indy Steelers had been grinding it out all fall, and on Oct. 28, 2018, they played in the championship game against the City Colts. It remained scoreless for what felt like an eternity, so head coach Richard Donnell Hamilton had been stalking the sidelines at Frederick Douglass Park, screaming defensive plays.
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It was chilly, but I felt a sweaty nervousness for the players. I’m invested in these boys, too. And after four quarters and two overtimes, they were getting tired.
They were losing focus.
In a flash, an opponent picked up a fumble and punched it into the end zone. It all happened so quickly, but as we watched him run, it seemed to be in slow motion. The Indy Steelers lost in double overtime. They shook hands with the opposing team, walked off the field and some of them burst into tears.
Hamilton, Coach Nell to the players, stood for a moment assessing the body language of his squad before immediately gathering them into a huddle. He looked each of them in the eyes as they sank to their knees, some hiding their tears behind their helmets.
“This is just one that we missed,” he told them, his voice cracking with emotion. “Keep working hard. This is what it takes. I’m proud of y’all. You worked hard. Keep your head up. Thank you for the effort. We’ll learn from this. As coach, y’all gave me a wonderful opportunity. Thank you so much for the fight you gave today. This was the best football I’ve seen — the best football by far.”
Hamilton’s words relayed an essential message. They were crushed by the defeat, but they needed to hear how proud they made their coaches and parents. They needed to hear their worth and the benefits of hard work. They needed affirmation.
Hamilton, 41, was born and raised in Butler-Tarkington, the near north side neighborhood where the Indy Steelers play. Since 2005, he has served as coach, mentor, father, big brother, uncle and teacher to the hundreds of boys — and one girl — who have come through the program. Though the team accepts players from neighboring areas — Crown Hill, Mapleton-Fall Creek and Meridian Kessler — the Steelers are part of the heart and soul of Butler-Tarkington.
Hamilton knows the challenges these boys face, the dangers lurking from bullets, errant or intended, or the often-enticing drug trade. He’s lived it.
Hamilton, a football standout at Bishop Chatard High School, earned an athletic scholarship to Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green after graduating from Broad Ripple High School in 1997. He had dreams of going pro. Instead, he mixed with the wrong crowd and made bad choices. While captain of the Hilltoppers, he was arrested for running guns and drugs. He was kicked off the team, lost his scholarship and served time in prison.
When he returned home in 2005, Hamilton needed to find a way to redeem himself. He started working construction with his uncle. At the time, he also had three boys, ages 4, 5 and 8. He wanted to introduce them to the game he still loved. So he and three other fathers started an informal coaching crew, gathering their sons to run drills at Tab Recreation, which is affiliated with Tabernacle Presbyterian Church located in neighboring Mapleton-Fall Creek. As more parents and players became interested, the Indy Steelers was born.
Hundreds of Hoosiers have been Steelers. Some have gone on to have successful high school and college football careers, including two of Hamilton’s sons. Yet Hamilton sees himself in every single boy he has coached.
He sees their potential — to either succeed or get caught up in the wrong lifestyle — in his players, and he is determined to intervene now, to steer them toward a better life and even more importantly, to set high expectations.
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“He can say to them ‘I’ve been you before, I’ve walked this path. Here’s where it ends; here’s where it could go’ — that makes such a huge difference to these kids,” said Lacey Nix, 39, an Indy Steelers team mom whose two sons play and her husband coaches. “His kids are grown, yet he’s still out there. It’s a lot of sacrifice and I’m sure it’s hard on his family but he still does it.”
Even at age 7, De’Shaun Swanson was ferocious on the football field. Speedy and sneaky, he knew how to evade and score long before he truly understood the fundamentals of the game. He had fun on the gridiron, but he loved when the team traveled the Midwest to play in regional competitions. He would gather his snacks and pile onto the bus or van, ready for an adventure. He always wanted to be around friends and family.
He considered the Steelers both.
De’Shaun and his immediate family had just arrived at a memorial service for an elderly family friend when his young life was snuffed out on Sept. 19, 2015. The 10-year-old known as “Lil Man” never had the opportunity to become a man. De’Shaun was just inside the door of the home on Graceland Avenue — not far from the team’s practice field — when shots were fired at the house from a vehicle. De’Shaun’s mother yelled for her children to take cover and when the hail of bullets stopped, she saw that her youngest son had been shot along with three other individuals.
“At first, he just looked at me,” Shannon Swanson told IndyStar just days after the incident that claimed her baby’s life. “And when I finally seen the wound, I just took my jacket off, and I put my hand over the wound.”
She yelled for someone to call 911 and begged for another woman to help her apply pressure to Deshaun’s injuries. She performed CPR. An ambulance rushed the boy to Riley Hospital for Children. But De’Shaun, a fourth-grader at Stonybrook Intermediate Academy, died. His little body just could not survive the trauma.
De’Shaun played running back and defensive tackle with the Steelers for three years, but he had dreams of becoming a basketball player. He was dreaming big; dreaming the impossible. He was called “Lil Man” for a reason. He was small for his age, but those big brown eyes and his spunky spirit erased what he lacked in stature.
“He was probably the littlest guy on the field with the biggest heart,” Hamilton said about De’Shaun. “It crushed us.”
I attended De’Shaun’s funeral. I had been working at IndyStar for less than three months and was unfamiliar with the Steelers’ legacy. But I noticed as many of his teammates filed into the church, wearing their black and gold football jerseys. I couldn’t take my eyes off them as they walked to De’Shaun’s tiny, blue casket. It led me to write this as part of my column: “I kept wondering what was going through their minds, how they were dealing with the trauma of losing a schoolmate, a teammate, a friend.” I cried for De’Shaun that day. I cried for his immediate family and his football family. I cried for Indianapolis.
“His memory certainly lives on,” team mom Nix said. “Each of the kids there has a story about him or a story about his life and you realize with De’Shaun, right down the street from the park, that’s a reality for these kids and that’s what I think normalizes it. They see that stuff, what is the solution?”
Luthe, director of the MLK Center, had just been on the job for only a couple of months when De’Shaun died. The center serves as the headquarters for the team; most of their off-the-field activities take place there, including tutoring, mentoring programs and team celebrations. It’s a partnership that is helping shape the neighborhood and the kids who even now still grieve and talk about De’Shaun almost daily.
“We’ve encouraged his mom to stay connected and to get his siblings into programming and into counseling to just keep them engaged so that they don’t isolate,” Luthe said. “We all acknowledge it and we all talk about it so that kids don’t have to suffer like they’re the only ones who are sad, and that it’s OK to be sad and it’s OK to miss him.”
Butler-Tarkington, the neighborhood where De’Shaun was killed and where the Steelers play, became ground zero for community-based policing in response to De’Shaun’s death and soaring homicides overall. Indy’s Ten Point Coalition, a faith-based organization that aims to curb gun violence among young Black men, began nightly patrols and other intervention strategies there.
Because of that effort, in part, the neighborhood was homicide free from 2016-2019. A fatal stabbing last July on the same street where De’Shaun was shot, broke the streak. On the fifth anniversary of De’Shaun’s death, city leaders and federal officials announced an award of up to $25,000 for information about his murder. No arrests have been made.
Every year, the Steelers host a football classic in honor of De’Shaun. In between games, they gather to release balloons, watching in silence as Lil Man’s dreams and future — colorful and bright — float skyward and disappear. Red, yellow, blue and green spheres of hope and promise carried by the wind. Eventually deflated.
“Life is short, shorter than you think,” Coach Darryl Smith Sr. said during the 2019 De’Shaun Swanson Classic. “Each day we have to make the right decisions. Get a hobby and a job title. Rest in peace, De’Shaun.”
“People say I’m fat.”
“Everybody says I’m ghetto.”
“I don’t know what I like about myself.”
“I’m feeling so good I’m not on the street anymore. I’ve been happy this whole week.”
It’s a dreary spring Wednesday evening in 2019 when about a dozen Indy Steelers players gather in the common area on the second floor of the MLK Center to participate in a mentoring program called Kingish. The team doesn’t practice on Wednesdays, so they use this time twice a month to bond and have frank discussions about their worries. Download sessions is the hipper term they use for the program. It’s a safe, comfortable space to open up to one another and to the adults who help guide them on the field and more importantly, off.
On this April evening, the topic was self-esteem — having confidence in your worth.
Takkara Delaney is a mother of four boys, ages 2 to 14, and serves as a Steelers team mom. Her three oldest boys are Steelers players. She is also raising her 17-year-old nephew who was experiencing abuse in his home. She calls him her son, too. Delaney cofounded Kingish along with her sons who serve as board members, to help teach teens how to transition to respectable young men and women in society. Many of the Steelers participate, but so do other children who live in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood and access services at MLK.
“They’re not kings yet, but they are becoming kings,” Delaney often says about why the group is named Kingish. “It is our non-profit organization that we started just based on being in the neighborhood and realizing there was a lot of trauma going on with the kids.”
Delaney, mother to Dai, 17; Tyree, 14; Tyler, 13; Tyson, 10; and Tytus, 2, facilitates the conversation by sharing her own story.
Growing up in Chicago, she was the self-described short, fat kid with dark skin who wore glasses. She thought she was ugly. She thought she was worthless. So much of what she pours into the Steelers players is the support she wanted as an awkward teen. She gives them things to think about — the importance of education and character building — but also pushes them to take control of their happiness. Delaney, 33, has a way of connecting — part mom, part big sister, part aunt — and it was magical to watch her convince a group of tough football players to stand in front of a mirror daily and give themselves positive affirmations.
“What do you like about yourself? she asked them. “Be your own cheerleader. How you view yourself is how other people view you.”
Two weeks later, on May 1, 2019, the team was in a social media tailspin after a group of students, including Steelers players, were caught talking negatively about another student on an Instagram post. The student’s mother complained to school officials and coaches about the perceived cyberbullying. The discussion changed in real time to address the pressing matter, centered on how important it is to avoid participating in such hurtful activities, but also how each player must not allow bullying to happen in the first place.
“Words hurt sometimes more than getting hit,” Delaney told the team. “Be aware of how somebody else might feel. You don’t know how certain words affect other people. Wounds will heal; the pain from words is a pain not easily healed.”
After the cyberbullying incident was addressed, each participant shared personal and heartbreaking stories about themselves. So many of them centered around violence, loss and grief.
One player said his cousin was killed at a party when he was 11. Another acknowledged he had been running with the wrong crowds, but was trying to get on the right path and back in school because he feared for his safety. A coach, Chris Meriweather, shared that his 19-year-old son was killed in 2016 over a dice game. Another player said even though he was an infant, he feels a strange connection to an uncle who was fatally shot.
“I only get to see pictures,” he said of his uncle.
In these moments, the coaches — the same ones who preach toughness on the field — offer softened shoulders to these players who need an emotional landing pad. The barriers break down, trust builds, truths are exposed, and hearts become vulnerable. It’s such a special shift to witness; a growing bond and lifetime support system.
Friends. Brothers. Confidants.
“The coaches shake their hand every day and ask them how they’re doing, how’s school going,” team mom Takkara Delaney said about the Indy Steelers coaches. “To have encouraging words means so much to those kids. I think a lot of them were looking for someone to just care.”
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Kevin Rhodes Jr. locked his eyes on the casket holding his mother. He had just entered Stuart Mortuary Chapel on Illinois Street. He let out a long wail followed by a burst of them. His legs refused to propel him. He sank into the nearest chair, head down, sobbing.
Jannie Elizabeth Rhodes died on Feb. 24, 2019 after overdosing on fentanyl. She was 40 years old. Her friends and family swayed and clapped to her favorite song as it piped through crackling speakers. Kevin Jr. stared straight ahead. Indy Steelers coaches attended the March 7 funeral, as did teammates and parents of teammates. As they walked to view Jannie Rhodes’s body, some rubbed Kevin’s head, patted his shoulders or stood him up for a hug.
And hold on…
Kevin Jr., 12, and his younger sister, Ke’Asia, 10, loved their mother. They saw her often, but they didn’t live with her. She was an addict and was court-ordered to sign their custody over to their father, Kevin Rhodes Sr. And while he had settled into being a single parent, Kevin Rhodes wanted his children to be close to their mother. She wasn’t supposed to die.
“We talk about her all the time,” said Rhodes, 55. “When they see little red birds they say, ‘There goes Momma. She’s watching over us.'”
Kevin Rhodes Sr. and Robert O’Neil have become good buddies. Both of their sons play for the Steelers and they are parents navigating fatherhood alone. Similar to Rhodes, O’Neil’s former wife has substance abuse issues. She sees the kids — Antonio, 12; Mary, 10; Adriane, 8; and Angel, 5 — when it suits her.
“We’ve seen this immersion of single dads,” Nix said. “We have at least 10 dads who are raising their kids on their own; the mothers aren’t involved at all. Some of them are older and they are taking care of three or four kids that are very, very young. It’s a new dynamic in the neighborhood.”
O’Neil, 59, an Army and Navy veteran, would never say anything negative about the mother of his children. He just does what’s necessary to keep them fed and clothed, including a stint at the VA Hospital where he worked from 11 p.m. to 7:30 a.m. stripping and waxing floors while juggling unreliable overnight babysitters.
“I don’t get any sleep,” he said. “You gotta do what you gotta do. I just make it work. Every day I wake up I know there’s someone out there worse than me. As long as I bring them up right, teach them right from wrong, teach them to not be followers, we’ll be alright. I tell them to not stress about things; to be a kid and stay a kid. Don’t worry about adult stuff. Continue to go play.”
Antonio, known on the field as Mouthpiece because he constantly loses his, plays the role of big brother to three sisters with grace. His father says his involvement with the Steelers for the last three years has helped him mature and break out of his shell. He was the first born and a momma’s boy. Team moms and coaches help fill some of the void now.
“These dads wake up every day and take on the role that you see a mom traditionally do,” Nix said. “They are not just getting their kids ready for school, but you see them doing their daughters’ hair. One of the dads learned to braid, just so his daughter wouldn’t be embarrassed when she goes to school. They’re going to work, getting them to practice and also trying to be a shoulder to lean on.”
In May 2018, near the corner of West 16th Street and North Tibbs Avenue, on a patch of grass near a bus stop, Rheyshaun Roberts, 21, was shot in the back of the head after a dispute in the drive-thru line at a nearby McDonald’s. A customer was upset over an order.
Roberts, who was working at the fast-food restaurant less than a mile from Indianapolis Motor Speedway to earn money for a car and college, was on break when the aggrieved customer returned with a gun. Roberts became another statistic, a life taken, another unsolved homicide.
His brother, Jay Roberts, now 15, worked through some of his staggering grief on the gridiron. Jay idolized his big brother. He recalls how at age 3 and 4, while Rheyshaun was at football practice, he was on the field pretending to play, too. Jay tried out for the Steelers just two weeks before his brother was killed. At the time, he had no idea how much the camaraderie would mean to him.
His teammates have carried him for a while and continue to lift him up even though he has aged out of the program and is playing high school football at Cardinal Ritter. Jay calls them his “instant family.” When he needed to talk about Rheyshaun, they were there. When he needed help processing his loss, they were there. When he wanted to hide in the house buried in sorrow, they scooped him up for roller skating, movies and sleep overs.
“Every time it gets hard, we don’t scatter — we all just come together as one,” Jay told me. “And I think everybody is each other’s backbone at some point. Everybody is a support system. If you ever need something you can go to coach — Coach Reggie, Coach Nell, etc. — if you ever need help.”
But their coaches struggle, too. They hurt when their players hurt. And it’s sometimes difficult for them to explain the violence these kids experience, even as they do everything to protect them. When bullets fly just yards from where the Steelers practice, coaches are forced into difficult and devastating conversations.
“When you hear gunshots your natural reaction is to run,” Hamilton said. “So trying to explain it to an 8- or 9-year old kid, ‘We don’t want you to run. You have to get down. You’ve got to get down, drop down and see where the shots are coming from.’ It’s not something you want to explain to a kid.”
It has been an honor to spend time with this close-knit community. I’ve watched as these boys have morphed into young men. I worry about them; I dream for them. They shouldn’t have to live in a city, in a world where their existence includes what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call adverse childhood experiences, including systemic, generational poverty; violence; neglect; physical abuse; household substance use; and parental abandonment or incarceration. These are unimaginable obstacles and the deck is often stacked against the underprivileged, particularly children.
“Everybody in central Indiana should care about the kids in this neighborhood,” Luthe of the MLK center said. “They want to ride their bike and go swimming. They want a dog, or they want a cat. They want to play at the splash park and be safe and not have to think about being safe.”
They want and deserve a fair chance at life. They want and deserve equal footing.
Parents describe the changes they see in their children after becoming a part of the Steelers family. They become leaders. More confident. More tolerant. More mature. More responsible. Happier. Free.
I saw that, too.
I also now see hope. I see light. I see a deep commitment from parents and coaches who are determined to change the narrative for Indianapolis’ young, Black men. So often when we hear of youths who spiral into criminal activity, the same questions are asked: “Why is there no outrage from the Black community?” or “Where were the parents?”
Here are the answers: There is tremendous fury and sorrow throughout Black Indianapolis. And many of their parents are right there, just as white families are, often furious and sorrowful, but doing the best they can.
The Indy Steelers is the village for these kids. And in a way, it’s clearly a village for the coaches, too, who volunteer and sacrifice their time for a common goal: to touch the life of each child; to offer them a haven filled with love and football.
“This is the group of kids that everyone counted out. This is the group of kids that people thought wasn’t going to make it,” Delaney said. “The heart and soul of that team is caring about those kids. It’s not just the sport. The sport is the reason we probably get together, but the reason we stay together is because there’s a love and a bond there that can’t be broken.”
I share the stories of Indy Steelers players because these young men (and young lady) are important. I share the story of the adults who push this team in ways that have nothing to do with football because they are trying to change the world. They are the embodiment of courage and community.
I will never forget them.
To support the Indy Steelers, please buy some popcorn.
Corrections & Clarifications: A previous version of this story misstated the location of the 201shooting. It occurred near the intersection of Illinois & 40th streets.
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Suzette Hackney, national columnist for USA TODAY, started this project while working at IndyStar. She can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @suzyscribe.