Donnell Hamilton remembers his godfather — who doubled as his football coach — telling him, “I know you’re not gonna let this big boy push you down.”
Hamilton was a 6-year-old playing football with the 9-year-olds. He once faced off with the biggest kid on the opposing team — and ran into him as hard as he could.
“I fell down and snot was coming out of my nose. So I mean, from there, I just loved football,” he said with a laugh. “I just love the competition. I love being physical.”
Hamilton had a promising future ahead of him — in both football and life. But he got involved with the wrong crowd as a teenager, struggled in school and ended up forfeiting many opportunities.
Research suggests people with higher education levels tend to live longer, healthier lives. But African American children in low-income communities face obstacles to education and all of its benefits. Many children growing up today in Hamilton’s neighborhood — Butler-Tarkington in Indianapolis’ near northside — have parents who are incarcerated. They know people who have been hurt or killed by gun violence, Hamilton said.
Leveling the playing field for them will take serious investment. And Hamilton is eager to do his part.
At age 42, Hamilton is looking to football to help kids in his community stay in school — and out of trouble.
“It takes a little love, a lot of prayer, and it takes people ... in your corner,” Hamilton said.
Missed opportunities — and a second chance
If you ask Hamilton now to describe the sport, he says: “Football is life.” And it’s not hard to see why.
Hamilton played football in middle school and high school and received multiple statewide accolades. He held the record for most interceptions in a season for decades and served as the team captain. His coaches and teammates expected that he’d be a college football player and go on to play in the NFL.
But during his teen years and young adult life, Hamilton got into trouble with the law for issues involving drugs and guns. In his senior year, he got kicked out of school — and off the football team — and served time in jail.
“I felt like football was over. I felt like school was over,” he said. “I felt like, man, forget it. I'm gonna be out here in the streets.”
He still managed to get a scholarship to Western Kentucky University to study business through a program where college coaches scout high school players. But after almost two years of college ball, he wound up in prison again.
Hamilton never got the chance to become the pro football player he once aspired to be.
But for him the ultimate do-over is the Indy Steelers — a youth football team that he began coaching more than a decade ago.
Becoming a father was the turning point for Hamilton. “It definitely changed my life,” he said. And it made him determined to do better for the next generation.
Hamilton said he has put on weight over the years and still experiences pain in his knee where he’d been shot at age 17. So he doesn’t play football himself anymore.
But several days a week, for hours at a time, Hamilton is out on the field at Tarkington Park with a group of about 100 kids who know him as Coach Nell.
“I get my kicks out of coaching, watching, critiquing, and just putting back what I've learned and what I know back into the youngsters,” he said.
‘It’s more than just football’
The soundtrack to the group’s practice is Hamilton yelling, parents cheering and the bell from the towering North United Methodist Church ringing across the street.
It’s a community affair and that’s how Hamilton wants it to be.
Besides the tackles, runs and throws, Hamilton also arranges for guest speakers to talk with the kids, to help them feel inspired, focused and hopeful.
During practice on a recent Saturday afternoon, the kids sat in a circle around high schooler Joseph Jefferson, Jr. He plays football at Pike High School now, but he trained on this same field with Hamilton when he was younger. He’s already received multiple offers for college scholarships.
Hamilton asked Jefferson to meet with the kids and show them what a young man a few years older than them can achieve if he keeps his focus and priorities straight.
“It's more than just football because unfortunately, football does not last forever,” Jefferson said to the kids as they squinted, looking up at him on that sunny day. “Education is really important. You go to college, you major in something and after football you can pursue [a] career and make your own money.”
Jefferson said anything is possible if they put in the work, stay in school and make wise choices.
There is no shortage of challenges in this neighborhood, Hamilton said, especially for naturally rebellious and curious teenage boys.
Six years ago, the team lost fellow player De’Shaun Swanson when a stray bullet entered the boy's house near the park. He was 10 years old.
It was not the first time the young Steelers players have dealt with the devastating impact of gun violence.
“Every kid here has been touched by gun violence one way or the other,” Hamilton said. “It feels like it’s normal to them. That’s just wrong.”
In addition to the toll of gun violence, the community has suffered from lack of access to quality education. This issue affects Black children more than their White peers.
Black and Brown students in Indianapolis lack access to quality schooling across all age groups, according to a new report commissioned by the Indiana University School of Public Health. Only 7 percent of schools in Indianapolis neighborhoods with mostly Black and Brown families are performing above the state’s average, compared to 47 percent of the schools located in White neighborhoods. More than 70 percent of Black and Brown children are enrolled in low-performing schools.
The situation in Indianapolis mirrors national trends. And it matters because research shows education is linked to life expectancy.
The latest study on life expectancy in Indianapolis by SAVI and the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI found that educational attainment is one of the factors most able to predict the life expectancy of a community.
Put another way: people in communities with lower education levels can expect to live shorter lives.
Mentoring kids on and off the field
Tyree, 15, recently graduated from the Indy Steelers and still comes to the park on practice days to hang out with friends and Hamilton.
He said Hamilton taught him so much more than how to score a touchdown. (Side Effects has agreed to not use Tyree’s last name, since he's worried about getting into trouble with kids at his school).
“Coach Nell taught me football,” Tyree said. “He also taught me some life skills — that not everything needs to be in violence, and that you can solve anything just by talking. He taught me that you need to work and you don't need to spend your money on everything that you see.”
Hamilton and the Steelers were a much-needed outlet that kept Tyree occupied when school was not a welcoming place. Football also kept him from engaging in some illegal activities that other students were involved in, he said
“They would run off and go steal at the store or something. But at that time I was at practice with Hamilton,” Tyree said.
Families in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood told Side Effects that crime, crumbling schools and poverty are pervasive. And that causes stress and a sense of hopelessness, which could lead people to make bad choices, especially during their formative years.
According to a report by the Sentencing Project, one in three Black men born in 2001 can expect to be incarcerated in his lifetime — compared to one in 17 White men. Similarly, one in 18 Black women born in 2001 can expect to be incarcerated in her lifetime — compared to one in 111 White women.
Bias in policing is exacerbating the discrepancy, according to a number of reports. But the socioeconomic conditions of the Black community also contribute to this stark disparity in incarceration. And that could have lifelong effects on these men and women’s career prospects and quality of life.
Hamilton knows all about that from his days as a young teenager, when bad choices changed the course of his life.
His goal in coaching is not to get kids to the NFL — though he wouldn’t mind if they landed there. He wants to set them up for a better life.
“Football teaches you so many lessons in life,” he said. “It teaches you perseverance, it teaches you how to deal with adversity, teaches you how to handle your emotions, you know what I mean? It teaches you to be a part of a team.”
This story was produced by WFYI’s Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health, and is part of a reporting fellowship sponsored by the Association of Health Care Journalists and supported by The Commonwealth Fund. Follow Farah on Twitter: @Farah_Yousrym