By the looks of the shiny silver bleachers and new turf paint, one wouldn’t have guessed all the troubles the Braves faced to make it to their first homecoming game on their new field. But after a period of disrepair and two years of renovations, Bartram Field is now open for their home games.
Their season’s late-August prior home game, the field’s debut, took place in a downpour head coach Jim Chapman called a “monsoon.” Following that, the team’s other games were scrapped due to storms and COVID-19 cases. So, ahead of their Oct. 9 homecoming game against Martin Luther King High School Cougars, the Braves’ coaches just wanted two things: healthy bodies and better weather.
“I just hope we can play the game,” Chapman, who is also the school’s athletic director, said. “ … I just want to be able to have these kids play football. That’s it, they’ve worked so hard and that’s the only thing I care about right now.”
Getting here has been no small feat. And there’s a lot on the line.
“It’s supposed to be big,” said line coach Robert Thomas, sitting at practice on a slightly-drizzly and overcast Tuesday before homecoming. “It’s supposed to be a big game, and definitely a win we need to keep on going and try to get some wins going into the playoffs.”
Besides redemption for missed field time, John Bartram High School’s homecoming game is a celebration of the deep lineage of the team’s football players, alumni, and fans in Southwest Philadelphia.
It was a busy day, filled with small milestones. The game saw the return of Bartram’s Wall of Fame tradition, honoring notable alumni and important people to the school, drew decades worth of football fans and school supporters back to the field for Bartram Football and coaches, players, and fans also took a moment to remember those the team lost.
Here’s how the day went down.
Arriving at Bartram Field with a cloudy day forecast, coaches set up a table behind the locker room and laid out bags of bread, cold turkey slices, bananas, and granola bars. They began an assembly line, packing 100 lunch bags for the day’s players, while other coaches grilled hot turkey sandwiches for the Braves’ breakfast.
Meanwhile, on Bartram Field, an adult soccer team is practicing until 11 a.m. The field, at 58th Street and Elmwood Avenue, is nine blocks from Bartram High School, near 67th Street and Elmwood Avenue. The school’s field has always been here, but underwent renovations to get a new turf, track and a giant set of bleachers.
The Braves’ players leisurely arrive, hanging out in sweatshirts and sweatpants in the locker room and near the field’s fence.
Myles Dubose, a senior running back, grabbed one of the first hot turkey sandwiches ready.
“I’m grateful,” he said. “I’m alive, seeing my teammates.”
Dubose is confident. It’s his first homecoming experience, and he thinks the team can improve from previous games.
“I feel that we can do better, we’re not at our full potential right now,” Dubose said.
Most of the Braves have arrived and are eating sandwiches, throwing footballs, and hanging outside the locker room. Others have arrived to help set up concession and merchandise tables.
“I like the food,” said Joshua Gallashaw, a senior wide receiver throwing a tennis ball against the locker room. “I like coming here and getting my morning started up with my friends, my teammates. We can set up, just get comfortable with each other. You see them throwing the ball, everybody’s getting comfortable with each other so when the game comes, we’re locked in.”
The team’s 2020 season was postponed to this past spring due to COVID-19 complications. With the regular 2021 season beginning months later, there has been little off time.
During the summer, two Braves coaches and a player died unexpectedly in separate incidents. The deaths are still raw among the players and absences are still felt on the field.
“We took a lot of losses in the summertime,” Gallashaw said. “A lot of hardship we had to overcome, we’ve lost a couple of people.”
Then, in the early fall, the team suffered disruptions with COVID-19 cases among players and a 10-day quarantine.
“I feel like we started off good, then after the COVID thing we had to quarantine,” Gallashaw said. “It got a little shaky but I feel like we’re back on track now.”
Shortly after the hour, Chapman yelled for the team to be ready in 15 minutes, pants and jerseys on.
A speaker system is set up outside the locker room, playing Busta Rhymes and Meek Mill songs. The team, now in black jerseys, does warm-ups on the turf and throws footballs.
Joining them on the field is Dominic Jernigan, father to Symir McKoy, a junior guard and linebacker, and Leon Sampson, a sophomore guard. Jernigan, dancing behind the goal post, is a 2010 alumni who played on the team. He’s a computer specialist at Bartram and says he attends every football practice to watch his sons.
“I see how they warm-up and see what’s going on and how they’re progressing in the game,” Jernigan said. “So I talk to the coaches, talk to the players, see what they’re doing to get right with it on the field.”
Off the field, a bus with the Martin Luther King Cougars is outside, and spectators are rolling in. It’s still cloudy, but a bright, fall day. People are buying shirts and sweatshirts from the Bartram apparel tents.
Knesset Klein, known as Kenny Twyne in high school, has been here for a half-hour. An alumnus of the class of 1974, he’s here to see Ron Corson, his former football coach who’s being honored at the halftime Wall of Fame ceremony.
Klein was a running back and played all four years at Bartram. He was voted most popular senior male and best dressed on senior day, he said. Today, he’s a therapist and prison rights advocate who works in Kensington and visits regularly with his teammates and Corson.
“We all still stay together,” Klein said.
Lamont Thompson, the special teams coach whom the other coaches call the Braves’ “spiritual leader,” is leaning against the locker room wall. It’s the first game he’s been able to make it to this season due to his work schedules. He feels the team is in a good place because he’s seeing more discipline from the players. He feels something good is going to happen.
“You see the players going through the motions and doing everything that needs to be done,” Thompson said. “You’re going to see something great.”
More and more of the day’s crowd is packing in and sitting in the bleachers.
Referees are on the field setting up and five minutes before the game, the Braves run out of the locker room and go on the field together.
Prompted by a sound system announcement, the team, along with the crowd, link arms for a moment of silence for the coaches and player the community lost ahead of the season. Direct sunlight pierces through the clouds, and everyone bows their head for a few seconds.
The Braves and the Cougars line up for kickoff, and at 1 o’clock, the game begins.
It’s the first quarter, and the Braves are already up 14-0. Latecomers fill the bleachers and cheers can be heard from the sideline.
Latoya Bolden is hanging over the fence, cheering on her son, Nassir Bolden, a senior defensive back and wide receiver. She hopes the team stays motivated, whatever happens. The team’s coaches help with that, she said.
“They’re very good motivators for them, they’re mentors, not just coaches,” she added. “It is a family team out here. It’s not just football.”
Further down the bleachers, family and friends are cheering on players Anthony Kruah and Titus Kruah. The supporters are holding up signs and a few are wearing customized sweatshirts they made with the players’ names on them. It’s full sun now, and the Braves are up 22-0.
“Let’s go defense, let’s go!,” Comfort Kruah and Gweselyn Tardey chant.
On the sideline, it feels like the most energy Thompson’s seen from the players and coaches recently, he said.
The second quarter is counting down and nearby, Bartram’s assistant principal, Julian Graham, and Pennsylvania State Rep. Jordan Harris, a 2002 alumnus, are setting up for the halftime’s Wall of Fame ceremony. The weather is kind of cloudy again, and a slight sprinkle starts, but doesn’t last.
Halftime begins. The Braves lead, 28-0.
On the track between the field sideline and the bleachers, the Wall of Fame ceremony begins.
At one end, Graham and Harris are set up with a microphone and a set of plaques. At the other end, the wall’s inductees are lined up with groups of their family members, teammates, and friends, ready to walk down the track once their name is called.
There’s nine inductees, including former Bartram athletic coaches, a school secretary, alumni, and people important to the school. They’ll join a list of other Bartram “Wall of Famers,” like Harris, Graham, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Joe Bryant, Erik Williams, Earl Monroe, Jannie Blackwell and others who have their plaques hung up in a hallway at Bartram.
One of the day’s inductees is Thomas, who’s been coaching at Bartram for 17 years. The team notified him of the induction at practice two weeks ago, reading a letter and pouring water on him. He’s an alumni of the school and team who played from 1988 to 1992, and now coaches his son on the team, Shaun Thomas, a center.
“I thought you had to make it to the NFL or be a superstar to be on the wall,” he said. “And I guess I just did enough for my community, I mean, I’ve been coaching for almost 17 years and I’ve sent way over about 100, 200 kids to college. I get my satisfaction out of that, just coming and helping them learn how to adapt to life and adapt to their surroundings.”
The father and son walked down were given a poster board, balloons, and hugs at the end. Coach Thomas had tears in his eyes, held his plaque and fist up, and yelled “Go Braves!”
“I feel like he earned it,” Shaun Thomas said. “Yeah, he did all the things he was supposed to do.”
The game resumes, and Bartram is up 34-0 throughout the third and the fourth quarter. Every time the Braves are near the end zone, crowds start jumping. There’s people in the bleachers, spread out to the fence down to the gate. With 24 seconds left on the game clock, everyone starts screaming. Once the buzzer goes off, they do it again. Louder.
After lining up to shake hands with the Cougars, the Braves run from the center of the field around the goal post in a victory lap, the coaches greet their families, and people begin to clear out the bleachers.
The team groups together and begins mimic-dancing a coach, hunching down with their arms spread out like wings, and moving from side to side as one. Eventually, they put their arms down and begin sprinting at each other, coaches and team jumping up and down together. They pour water on coach Thomas as a last Wall of Fame congratulations.
In a team huddle, players kneel and several coaches address them with congratulations, a bit of critique, and words of affirmation.
“This is your sanctuary,” assistant defensive coordinator Kevin Reeder, a 2005 alumnus told the team.
Later, Reeder explained the significance.
“This is their sanctuary, this is a place to come to their peace, release their stress, being able to do what they want to do and have no consequences,” Reeder said later. “As far as playing football, release their pain, you know what I’m saying?”
“A lot of these kids go through a lot of trauma living in the Southwest area, and so we try to give these kids a place to be able to free their mind, free their spirits, and be able to beat themselves.”
“That’s why there are so many personalities on this one team, there’s no egos. A lot of personalities, a low ego. This is a family and we try to let them know their sanctuary is a place for them to be able to be themselves to the best of their abilities.”
At the end of the huddle, Chapman congratulates the team, telling them they’re “rolling” now, and advises them to rest and take care over the weekend ahead of a 10 a.m. practice on Monday.
“We just kept preaching to them to keep getting better,” Chapman said afterward. “Keep working hard, it’s going to come, it’s going to come at a time when you don’t expect and then today was kind of that day.”
The team shuffled into the locker room, and crowds gathered outside of it, as school safety officials tried to shuffle them out of the field.
“The crowd had a lot to do with the win,” said Titus Kruah, a senior safety and wide receiver.
Zhiyjay Louineus, a senior wide receiver, agreed. Before the game, Louineus was excited to see many of his friends who graduated from the team and went to college watch him play on the new field.
“It was a beautiful win, I’m excited to win, enjoy my weekend, my Saturday, ice up and get ready for Monday,” Louineus said.
Leaving the locker room, tables of hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, green beans, and chicken were waiting for the team on the field. Outside the gate, fans were ordering from a water ice truck and there were plans for an after-party at Carlette’s Hideaway, a soul food restaurant and sports bar operated by Phillp Melton, a Bartram alumnus honored at the Wall of Fame ceremony.
Dubose stood on the field, holding a hot dog, with pink paint under his eyes. He said the game gave his team a boost of confidence, but he wants them to stay humble.
“It put my whole team on the map,” Dubose said. “At the end of it all, it’s not just one individual, we all do it.”
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