Now comes Albert Samaha, a first-time author, with “Never Ran, Never Will.” Whether deliberately or by coincidence, he has set himself an especially daunting task, because his book about two seasons with a youth football team takes place in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, just down Linden Boulevard from Telander’s Flatbush, and considers in almost identical ways how sports impacts the lives of young, nonwhite, often at-risk players. Does a game like football offer lifesaving discipline, fatherly coaches and means to a scholarship? Or is it just a cruel chimera, holding out the allure of an elusive pro career? And, to add a very current concern, is the risk of a head injury at a tender age worth the potential rewards of stardom?
In plumbing these profound questions, Samaha immerses himself with the Mo Better Jaguars for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Even though the Jaguars’ three teams extend only from ages 7 to 13, existential consequences hang over their efforts. The team’s head coach, Chris Legree, who was motivated to found the Jaguars by his participation in the Million Man March, has sent four players into the N.F.L., others to college scholarships at top-rung football schools like Syracuse, and dozens to scholarships at elite private high schools like Poly Prep. But despite his ardent, paternal efforts, which Samaha captures vividly, Legree has also watched about 30 former players end up in prison. One of Legree’s best players ever was shot dead at age 19.
As Legree tells one player who shows signs of choosing the street over the gridiron: “You ain’t the first guy. I’ve been around guys like you a lot of years and I know the signs. I’m always worried about you getting hooked up with the wrong people. You could get out of it and get on the right track, but you gotta be honest with me and I got to know what you want. Some guys don’t wanna be helped. The coaches, they were looking for you the other day. Because I think you got a future. You got a chance. But no one wants to deal with problems. Courts, cops, gangs, stealing, drugs.”
A former college football player who now reports on criminal justice for BuzzFeed, Samaha brings empathy and scrutiny to his reporting. But his book suffers from structural problems and an inexplicable lapse in ethical judgment when it comes to identifying his characters. Sadly, these problems all could have been rectified with a firmer editing hand.
The 2014 season supplies the core of the book’s drama, yet Samaha devotes the first 70-plus pages to the essentially ephemeral 2013 games. Some of his finest character portraits of coaches and parents turn up only toward the book’s end. It’s also hard to understand why Samaha uses only partial names or nicknames for all of the players — even though, in a recent essay for The Times, he was perfectly capable of fully identifying several of the Jaguars and even using their photographs.