Coach Rick, a brute of a man, leaned his head down until he was just inches from the small boy's face. Poor grades had already led the coach to suspend Robert from his Muni League football team. Now, Robert had sassed his sixth-grade teacher.
"This is the same crap we went through last year," coach Rick said quietly as the two stood in Robert's homeroom class. "You want to work your way back, it starts in the classroom. You want to even smell the inside of a football helmet again, you'd better start doing what you need to do."
Reporter James Sweeney witnessed that moment while reporting "A Season on the Hill," a series published in The Plain Dealer in 2004. He followed the East Cleveland Chiefs, an 11-and-12-year-old team, through its 2003 season. I was his editor.
I've been fortunate enough, thanks to some outstanding journalists in Akron and Cleveland, to work on three Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper stories. But I've never been prouder of any project than that season with the Chiefs.
The three-day series had nothing to do with whether the Chiefs won their league championship. They didn't. It was about the impact that men like Rick Wilcox had on these boys, especially in a poor city like East Cleveland. The coaches teach them more than football. They teach them about life.
The series also captured some unexpected drama. Halfway through, we learned that Wilcox, a firefighter fearing layoffs in cash-strapped East Cleveland, was considering a job in Atlanta. But after months of training for the firefighter test, he arrived in Georgia, thought about the Chiefs and, Sweeney wrote, "thought about the boys he hadn't met yet, the ones who would be on his team next season and who they might turn to if he weren't there." He skipped the test and "flew home to his boys."
Seven years later, Wilcox has no regrets. He has been promoted to captain in the East Cleveland Fire Department. He has opened a small restaurant, Mama Joyce's Soul Food Café, in Cleveland Heights. And he is the freshman football coach at Cleveland Heights High, where his son Ricky Wilcox III is an outstanding tailback and linebacker and a top college prospect.
Best of all, he has watched the players from that Chiefs team grow into fine young men.
"We're still like family," he says.
A couple of players from that team got into minor trouble, he noted, but found their way out. "The big thing is that they're all thinking about college."
High school sports fans will recognize some of their names.
Shane Wynn, the effervescent star of the 2003 Chiefs, is one of the most highly recruited football players in Ohio, an all-purpose back for Glenville High. This season, in a game televised on ESPN, he returned a kickoff for a touchdown, igniting a comeback victory.
Tony Longino, the Chiefs' top defensive player, was traumatized during the 2003 season. His older brother was convicted in connection with the murder of a drug dealer. The body was discovered in the trunk of a burning car near the Chiefs' home field. Wilcox provided a shoulder for Tony to lean on.
Now Tony is one of the area's top linebackers, a star at Shaw High School in East Cleveland. Former Chiefs Ronald McCloud and William Woods are also standouts at Shaw. College teams are recruiting all three.
Cody Martin, the Chiefs' quarterback, is a 6-foot-7 Cleveland Heights High senior and one of Ohio's best basketball players. Dearius "Meaty" Smith, the smallest Chief, was the biggest talker. He's developed a local reputation as a hip-hop DJ.
As for Robert, the sixth-grader who drew the wrath of coach Rick, Wilcox reinstated him after his grades improved. Now a senior, Robert Small is one of the area's most prolific quarterbacks. He passed for more than 20 touchdowns as a junior at Shaw and another 19 this year. He's also an improving student.
"He's our leader," Shaw coach Rodney Brown says.
Robert hasn't forgotten that morning in 2003 when Wilcox visited his classroom. He still has the yellow clippings of the series hanging on his bedroom wall.
"Coach Rick was trying to show me that grades and being smart are more important than football ... that playing this game is a privilege," Robert says. "He always pushed us to do better — to shoot for the stars — and not just in football."
Nothing pleases Wilcox more than to know his lessons haven't been forgotten. You can hear his pride as he talks about Robert and all the Roberts he's encountered before and since.
"That's why we do it," he says. "Not just me, all the coaches. The hours we spend — in the wind, the rain, the cold — not getting paid a cent. But when you see these kids grow up like that, — that's what makes it all worthwhile."