It was past 8 p.m. on a Tuesday, and the fields next to John S. Martinez School didn’t have any lights. Two dozen young men, mostly wearing shoulder pads and helmets, jogged to the center of the field. Most of them were in their 20s and 30s. They gathered around their head coach, Booker McJunkin, for the end-of-practice pep talk.
“Everything represents a system,” McJunkin said. “Once you understand that and you buy into that, you have no chance but to win.”
McJunkin was talking about a system of football plays that the team had been practicing in March and April. The team was less than a month away from their first preseason game —which takes place this Saturday, May 9—and the plays were far from perfect. People threw the ball to the wrong place or ran down the center when they should have run along the sidelines. The team will succeed, McJunkin said, only if the men put in enough work.
That lesson, he said, applies to more than just football.
“If you want money, if you want success, you gotta work for it,” McJunkin said. “All that other extra stuff you’re doing – smoking, drinking – put it off until he end of the season. Put it off for the rest of your fucking lives!”
McJunkin wore a letter jacket with lime green sleeves and a charcoal front. A snakehead with an open mouth spit out the team’s name: New Haven Venom. Above and below the logo, sewn-on green letters read: “Venom 4 Life” and “4 Life a Venom.”
The New Haven Venom is a football team. And it’s more than that – it’s something the men can belong to and be proud of. The roster fits up to 50 players, with five captains managing 10 players each. About 35 spots are filled.
Many of the players grew up fatherless, and many were unemployed before joining the team. A handful have been incarcerated. Some are currently behind bars.
Players describe the New Haven Venom as a “brotherhood” and a “family.” In this family, it’s clear that McJunkin is the father.
On Tuesday and Thursday nights and Saturday mornings, McJunkin coaches practices. He stands in the middle of the field as the team runs a play and manhandles the players when they get it wrong. Off the field, he write letters to parole officers and helps players create their resumes – anything they need to get back on their feet.
Football brings these men together. Their commitment to each other keeps them strong.
Bright Lights, Elm City
In New Haven, young kids can play for a Pop Warner team called the Steelers. Teenagers join their high school teams. But what happens when the stadium lights go out, the cheering stops, and the crowds disappear? Some of the men go on to play in college; most don’t. For the dispossessed and directionless, gangs and street life can sometimes provide a system that will give them a sense of self-worth and a tempting outlet for juvenile aggression. The glow of the stadium is replaced with the flashing of police-car lights. “The community that loved them now hates the sight of them,” said Dexter Girven.
Girven is president and CEO of the league to which the Venom belong.
The Venom is a member of the Big North East Football Federation Group, Incorporated (BNEFF), an umbrella organization of urban football teams with over 600 players on 15 teams in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Philadelphia. “Our purpose is to raise better men for society,” Girven said. The league live-streams their games online, runs a free all-star game for the players, and helps teams strategize about how to best engage players and the community. Girven said that McJunkin is a pioneer in terms of community engagement, going above and beyond what other teams are doing.
McJunkin is balancing this task with a full-time job and a part-time course load. He is an orthopedic technician at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and he’s taking two classes at Gateway Community College. On a typical night, he sleeps for two or three hours. And he’s 53 years old.
No matter how taxing his lifestyle, McJunkin doesn’t let it show.
“I just keep forging ahead,” McJunkin said. “That’s simply what a parent does.”
Booker in Brooklyn
Back in the 1970s, all the neighborhood kids knew McJunkin’s mother as “Aunt Pearl.” The neighborhood was a public housing project in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. The kids numbered in the hundreds – about 200 a year would stop by McJunkin’s 3-bedroom apartment. Some came for dinner. Others stayed the night. Three children of a heroin addict would stay for weeks on end. At the time, McJunkin didn’t ask any questions.
“The minute you stand up and you ask a question when somebody’s in need, you’re thinking about whether you should help them or not,” McJunkin said.
McJunkin lived in the projects during most of his teenage years. He shared a bedroom with five brothers, and his three sisters slept in another room. Their mother, who had a room to herself, worked at a factory that’s no longer in business. Sometimes she lived with a husband and sometimes not. McJunkin said he maintained a relationship with his father, who lived in Queens. “There was always some male figure there,” he said.
The family was poor, McJunkin said. He didn’t know it at the time.
“We had a home. We had a place to go to sleep. We had a place to wake up. We had food in our mouths,” McJunkin said. “You didn’t think of yourself as being poor because you always saw someone else in need.”
Meanwhile, McJunkin kept himself out of trouble by playing football. He loved the team and played running back in high school. He walked on to his college team and got a partial scholarship based on his performance at practice. He never graduated college. After his first year, his son fell terribly ill, and McJunkin left school to take care of him.
McJunkin tried out for a few NFL teams – the New York Jets and the Atlanta Falcons – but didn’t make the cut. So he played for a handful of minor league teams and then joined the Navy. After four years in the service, he was medically discharged. A few years later he moved to New York. In 1992, he started playing football again.
During practices, he started to notice something about his teammates – they were spending their time playing football, but they really needed help in other areas of life. Some of them never graduated high school. Others were unemployed. A football coach had their undivided attention. What if that coach could use this power to help the players turn their lives around?
Dissatisfied that none of the other teams were doing that, McJunkin founded his own, the New York City Lions. He was the team’s manager and coach. He also played on the team in whatever position was needed. The team won a championship game in its first year. McJunkin also scoured the classifieds page and photocopied job ads for his players, and he worked with them on their resumes.
The team changed hands and names over the next decade, and McJunkin eventually left. In 2006 he founded the New York Venom. The team’s focus, he said, was less on winning, more on personal development. “I took people that wanted to play and had problems,” McJunkin said. He didn’t say what the team’s record was its first year: “We didn’t win a lot of games.”
When McJunkin moved to New Haven in 2012 for a job at Yale-New Haven Hospital, he brought the idea of the Venom with him. A handful of players followed – they did not want to leave the team that had given them so much. On a good day, those players drive 45 minutes. But it can take up to two and a half hours.
Most players live closer; some walk or run to practice. That means they’re close to McJunkin’s apartment, which he opens to the team as his mother’s apartment was open when he was a child.
A Player Comes Home
A week after the inspirational speech at practice, Robert Covington, a Venom wide receiver and defensive end, came over to McJunkin’s apartment to fill out job applications. Covington has held just one full-time job – as a cashier and cook at a North Haven McDonald’s. At 23, he’s a convicted felon and a high school dropout. More often than not, he eats less than three meals a day, and it shows – he’s one of the lankiest players on the team. He usually wears his bushy hair in a ponytail.
McJunkin lives on the fourth floor of the Brewery Square apartment complex. He shares the apartment with his 24-year-old nephew, who is taking classes online at the University of Phoenix; a pet snake; and any of the Venom players who need a place to stay. McJunkin said that players often sleep over in the nights leading up to the games, and that they can come over for food whenever they want.
Covington came to McJunkin’s a handful of times in April. He’s living with friends in Dixwell and can’t apply to jobs there because their computer is broken, he said. His resume is saved on McJunkin’s computer; the two of them created it two years ago. It lists his job from last summer, his membership with the Venom, and his experience as a baseball umpire in New Haven. He doesn’t have any of the money he made from his job last summer. “I was blowin’ that shit on clothes and weed!” Covington said. Currently, Covington has about $250 stashed in a shoebox. He said he expects his income tax rebate from last summer will arrive soon.
A week before, he had a job interview at Chipotle downtown; he never heard back. He guesses the employer ran a background check and saw his criminal record. This wouldn’t be the first time. Covington said that he was close to being hired at Walmart five years ago, and then again last year. He got his work schedule and a salary offer, but said he was denied the job because of his criminal record.
In 2010, he was found guilty of conspiracy to commit larceny. One night, he picked up a bike off of the sidewalk a few yards past a bike shop that was in the process of being robbed by other people, he claimed; he didn’t know at the time that the bike was from that shop. He pleaded guilty in exchange for a lenient sentence – two years of probation instead of going to jail.
Covington was sitting in an alcove in McJunkin’s apartment, with a window overlooking the Quinnipiac River. He clicked through emails, opening up messages from websites like JobDiagnosis.com and joblur.com. He applied to a position at AMC Theatres, then went to the website of Arden House, an assisted-living facility in Hamden, and clicked on “Career Opportunities.” He applied for a maintenance assistant position, and indicated on the application that he had 10 years of experience as a maintenance helper.
“Yeah, I be lying,” Covington said at McJunkin’s apartment a few days later. Then he corrected himself: “I’ve been cleaning since I’ve been able to walk and talk. So that’s why I put ten years of experience.” He said that he’s been doing yard work, cleaning bathrooms, and mopping up floors, both where he’s lived and at local churches.
While Covington applied for jobs, McJunkin spoke on the phone with the coach of a New Haven youth football team about the difficulty McJunkin had been having securing practice space for the Venom. He later hung up the phone and showed Covington images of sports fields in the city. Currently, the Venom doesn’t have a field in New Haven where it can play home games. The team is practicing at the fields next to John S. Martinez School. McJunkin said that that the New Haven Department of Parks and Recreation granted him permission to practice there. But mayoral spokesman Laurence Grotheer said the Venom never applied for permission to practice anywhere this year. (For more information about tension between the Venom and the City, see the New Haven Register’s coverage here.)
Regardless, the Venom is seeking another space. Its current practice field isn’t actually a football field; it’s just a rectangle of grass with a soccer goal frame at each end. McJunkin is in the process of preparing the paperwork to apply for the use of the football field at Achievement First Amistad High School, a public charter school in Dixwell. There are other fields in the city that the team could use, McJunkin said, like the soccer fields at East Shore Park. He pulled up a photo of the field on his computer.
“It’s probably just too wide,” Covington said, looking at the aerial photo.
“You can fix that,” McJunkin said. “All you have to do is line the field.” He pointed to where the line would have to be drawn on the soccer field in order to make it the right width for football. But, he said, it was a moot point. McJunkin asserted that a parks department official “said he couldn’t give us the field because it’s a white area and they don’t want blacks overshadowing the area.” The official declined to comment .
“I’m really not understanding what’s with this black and white shit,” Covington said. “It’s 2015, like, who gives a fuck about skin color? Like, I’m really about to start punching these people in the face.”
“Relax,” McJunkin said. “You’re proving them right.”
On His Own?
“I dare my kid to say he’s gay,” Covington said to McJunkin, referring to hypothetical children he has yet to have. Covington had finished looking for jobs for the night, and was preparing a tuna fish sandwich in McJunkin’s kitchen. “I’m going to whoop his ass!”
“And why are you going to whoop him?” McJunkin said.
“’Cause, no!” Covington shouted. “That—no! I was not brought up like that, and you’re not going to be brought up like that. Hell no!”
“Do you know that you’re perpetuating everything that you hate?” McJunkin shouted back.
Their conversation had jumped from race relations to homophobia. “I hate getting on this topic,” McJunkin said, sounding like he was talking to himself as much as he was talking to Covington. “Respect them for who they are, and not who you want them to be,” McJunkin said. “Your parents wanted you to be a graduate and all that other stuff —“
“And did that happen?” Covington said. “Hell no!”
“The disrespect you give to your kid is because you didn’t get respected as an individual,” McJunkin said.
Later, McJunkin said, “No one’s going to listen to me if I’m not overtly honest and blunt. And that’s why I can speak the way I speak to these guys. A lot of people will bite their tongues because they think it’s politically correct not to say what you truly feel.”
McJunkin said that Covington had problems with trust when the two first met. Three years ago, McJunkin organized a football practice to recruit players to his fledgling team. Covington came to a week of practices, and then disappeared when he realized he couldn’t afford the $250 fee that McJunkin charges everyone to play. He delivered a message to McJunkin through his brother that he was sick. McJunkin saw through the lie and told Covington to keep coming, even if he couldn’t pay the fee. To this day, Covington has never paid any of his yearly fees.
Covington doesn’t trust his mother – he no longer speaks to her, and he moved out of her house when he was 15 years old to live with friends. He said that he was kicked out. His mother, Janice Lowndes, said that he left of his own accord. His father is “nothing special,” in his words. “He’s like a friend. He’s like one of my boys on the street.”
“I’ve been on my own since I was 15,” Covington said. “All I had was my best friends. I’ve been living with them.”
In a sense, Covington has never been completely “on his own.” The friends he lived with treated him like a brother, giving him meals and a place to sleep. Covington lived with the same friend for about seven years, and shared the house with six other siblings, all from different fathers.
Lowndes said she didn’t provide any regular financial support to Covington while he was living with his friends, but that she would give him money when he asked for it. Covington said that never happened. “Hell no,” he said. “I would have to beg to get something from that lady. And I still probably wouldn’t get it even if I begged.”
Even though Covington didn’t have a steady, reliable source of income, the football team was providing some structure for his life. After McJunkin forgave the league fee, Covington kept coming to practices. He broke his foot during the first game of his first season in 2013, so he couldn’t play, but he attended games and practices to watch and learn the plays. He also went to the New Haven Adult Education Center on Ella T Grasso Boulevard and got his GED.
Now Covington lives with a different set of friends – a mother and three children. He doesn’t have his own set of keys, but he said the mother is always home and lets him in whenever he wants. Sometimes he eats food cooked by the people he’s living with. Sometimes he buys food out. He gets money from his grandmother and sister. Once he said they give him $40 or $50 at a time; later he said it was more like $20.
He spends most of his days applying for jobs at the library, watching sports, and, in his words, “chilling” – thinking about life in general, and what he needs to do to “get on the right track.”
“This guy is only aspiring just for the bare essentials,” McJunkin said later. And even those are hard to come by – his own place, a job, and a steady source of food.
Out of His Own Pocket
“My sole purpose in doing what I’m doing is to make sure these guys understand that your opinion means nothing,” McJunkin said. “You have to show respect in order to gain respect.”
McJunkin tries to model this with his teammates. He treats them like adults, asking for a $250 fee to join the team in order to offset expenses and also foster a sense of commitment. He speaks with his players honestly and openly, and as a result they open up to him, telling him things they’ve told nobody else.
McJunkin thinks this is a good strategy, but it’s costly. McJunkin usually gets the league fee from about a dozen players, but he dances around saying exactly how many have paid so far. “A lot of the guys don’t want to work,” he said. For that very reason, he encourages the players to ask neighbors, friends, family, and local businesses to sponsor them.
Covington twice made plans to stand outside of Walmart in Hamden seeking sponsorships. He announced his plans at practice. Once he didn’t show up because he never called McJunkin to ask for a ride. The other time, he hung out in a sporting goods store across the street, and then left with friends to play flag football. He asked a neighbor to gather sponsorship money for him from her co-workers; he said that brought in $100. He hopes to have the $250 paid in full in the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, McJunkin is incurring expenses. Membership in the BNEFF is $1,000 a year. Liability insurance is $400 and required for the team to practice at Amistad. The uniforms cost $5,000 and haven’t arrived yet. Referees run $300 per game, and there are about 20 games including preseason and postseason. Then there’s medical insurance and travel expenses. McJunkin said it costs up to $20,000 to run the team for a year, and he recoups about $3,000 from players fees. The rest comes out of his pocket.
McJunkin finds ways to cut corners. During the team’s first year, the team drove to away games in U-Haul vans. “An empty van with no seats,” McJunkin said. The players and the pads rode together in the back.
McJunkin is also seeking money from the city. New Haven’s Director of Youth Development Jason Bartlett said the city allocated the Venom $10,000 last year out of the youth services budget; McJunkin said he hasn’t received the money. On April 7, McJunkin texted “Mayor Toni” to check up on the status of the money. She replied, “Working on it.” Bartlett said that the money should come through in the next couple of weeks.
Despite the delay, Bartlett said that he and Mayor Toni fully support the Venom. (Click here to read a story about her promise to help them, on the 2013 campaign trail.) “If we want a vibrant and safe city,” said Bartlett, “we need to consider that age bracket.” Although the Venom players are older than “youth,” they help out with events for young people around the city. Last year they staffed a Madden NFL tournament that Bartlett organized. This year, Bartlett said, they walked around Newhallville with other volunteers to talk to families about the importance of reading and inform them about services to improve literacy (our story here).
On a typical day McJunkin wakes up at 6 a.m. He works a full-time job at Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Long Wharf campus and then drives downtown for classes at Gateway Community College. He is enrolled in Computer Science 101 and English 200. On Mondays, he doesn’t get home until 10 p.m. Then there’s football business – planning practices, working on the playbook – not to mention helping team members and doing homework.
“I stayed up last night until 4 o’clock writing this paper,” McJunkin said one night after practice. The paper is about obesity in African-American children between the ages of 2 and 9. He said he’s rewritten the paper at least 15 times. One night, while Covington ate Ramen noodles at McJunkin’s apartment, the girlfriend of another player edited McJunkin’s paper abstract.
At practice on April 23, McJunkin called in the team 15 minutes early. The winds were whipping cold – the players had been complaining since the start of practice. He gave the usual end-of-practice pep talk: Study the playbook, get the league fees in, and stay focused.
One player protested: There was still good daylight left! Shouldn’t they be running plays? McJunkin let them keep practicing and walked back to his car. He got in and turned on the heat.
“They’re putting the work in and I’m sitting here because I’m freezing,” McJunkin said in his car. “That’s when you start to know they’re taking ownership of their lives.”