Longform Philly

Month: July, 2015

Yard by Yard

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Steve Esack | The Morning Call | November 2009

In one arm, John McDowell clutches a stack of papers. On his shoulder dangles a satchel brimming with his laptop, playbooks and the high expectations he has carried from the West Coast.

McDowell, Dieruff High School’s new head football coach, follows Rich Ocelus, the quarterback coach he hired over the phone and just met face to face. They walk down an outside ramp on Washington Street to a basement door and wend their way through windowless corridors into a dingy weight room.

The football office is up five small steps, deep in the belly of Dieruff.

Ocelus flicks on the lights.

“All right, we got the dungeon,” McDowell says through chuckles.

Before him, illuminated by five dangling strobes, is a room time forgot.

Staples, chicken wire and studs hold the exterior wall together. On the gray floor is a red carpet remnant, stained black with God knows what.

A lab table, ripped aqua blue love seat and tattered beige couch hold the carpet down.

A blanket of dust pervades, like the ghosts of Dieruff’s past glory days.

“All right, all right, we’ll clean it up, we’ll clean it up,” McDowell says. “This is my desk, I’m calling it.”

In the weeks that follow this June 22 day, McDowell will throw out the carpet and the couch after discovering an animal — he hopes it was a cat — had been living inside.

It would be the easiest piece of housecleaning he would do.

The Allentown School District did not hire McDowell just to be Dieruff’s coach. It hired him to rebuild a football tradition in a school district and city weighed down by poverty and crime.

Between the school’s founding in 1959 and 1989, Dieruff was a football powerhouse, producing 20 winning seasons and five championships in the old East Penn Conference.

The school regularly turned out Division I football recruits like Ross Moore and John Smurda who went to Ohio State, and the Atiyeh brothers, George (Louisiana State) and Dennis (University of Pittsburgh).

And, of course, there is Andre Reed, who surpassed them all with a thoroughbred’s work ethic that took him from Dieruff to Kutztown University, then on to a 16-year NFL career as a wide receiver who caught passes in four Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s.

But since 1990, Dieruff has won just 58 of 201 games. It’s been even worse over the last eight school years: just 17 wins and 75 losses.

The Dieruff players — the serious ones, anyway — know the lousy records have turned them into weekly jokes in their own hallways, opponents’ locker rooms, newspaper columns and near-empty stadiums.

“It’s frustrating,” said senior defensive back Lazarus “Laz” Ramos, 18. “People don’t realize we actually try.”

It’s the same story at Allen High School in the city’s West End. There, second-year coach Chris Kinane has won one game.

But Allen has always been considered a basketball school. Football belonged to Dieruff.

When the last coach quit in March and with Dieruff in the midst of a $30.7 million construction makeover that includes new athletic amenities, Principal Jim Moniz and Athletic Director Tim Geiger figured it was time to try to fix football, too.

The only way to restore Husky pride was to find a coach willing to rebuild the football program from the bottom up.

It meant linking Dieruff’s playbook and expectations to a fledgling middle school football program and a struggling freshman team.

It also meant the new coach had to be willing to make weekend inroads into the city’s independent youth football leagues, which remain a fertile ground for young athletes but, like Dieruff, suffer from a lack of parental support.

“What needs to be fixed can’t be done in Weeks 1 through 10,” Geiger says. “It’s too hard.”

But they think they’ve found that winning coach in McDowell, whose last coaching stint was at a high school in the suburbs of Sacramento, Calif., with so much panache that upperclassmen drive BMWs, and some of his students were the children of NBA Sacramento Kings basketball players.

McDowell, Dieruff’s fifth coach in a decade, thinks he can resurrect the school’s football legacy.

“I’m just a big believer in you make the big time where you’re at regardless of what you’ve got,” he says.

Writer bio: Steve Esack, a native of Northeast Philadelphia and graduate of Temple University, served as an Inquirer suburban correspondent for two years before moving to the Allentown Morning Call in 2002. For this series the Scripps Howard Foundation awarded him the prestigious Ernie Pyle Award for human interest writing in 2010.

Continue reading the “Yard by Yard” series: Parts 1 2 3 4 5

King Tutt

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Steve Lopez | The Philadelphia Inquirer | July 1987

GREG TUTT IS WALKING through a neighborhood that is going nowhere and taking everybody with it.

He walks past a corner house with broken windows, where four dudes sit on a porch in front of an open door. Inside the house, trash is ankle-deep. A car rounds the corner recklessly enough to have nailed anybody who might have been crossing, and one of the occupants makes a contribution to the collection of trash on the streets. Even after the car is out of sight, the trash is still skidding along on the pavement, looking for a pothole the way a golf ball looks for the cup.

Greg Tutt plans to leave one day for Jersey, as soon as he becomes a millionaire. As he walks through the streets, everyone who sees him either waves, calls his name or comes up and shakes his hand.

Tutt is 20 years old. His thighs and forearms don’t go with the rest of his body, looking like spare parts from a tank that were slapped onto a Rabbit. His gaptoothed smile works a conspiracy with butterscotch eyes to make you feel like you know him. You probably never heard of him, but in the Strawberry Mansion section of North Philadelphia, he is Greg “King” Tutt, a celebrity.

Some days, Tutt gets one of those radios the size of a kitchen appliance and walks two blocks to 33d and Berks, a frayed edge of Fairmount Park. The kids start coming when they see that. Two kids, five kids, seven.

“Tutt’s in the park,” they say.

Tutt puts the radio on a concrete bench, pipes it up, and the song from Rocky echoes down the street, bouncing off the walls of shells and boarded-up homes in a neighborhood where the music isn’t a corny cliche, but the theme song of a recurring dream. It echoes all the way into Augie’s Gym in South Philadelphia, into Champ’s Camp in North Philadelphia, and Jimmy Toppi’s Blue Horizon on Broad Street, where boxing is what it was before it got all glitzed up in casinos – a dogfight in a dark and dingy pocket of a hard city.

Now there are 10 kids, 15, 20 watching “King” Tutt. He starts shadowboxing in time with the music, and 30 kids are watching the 155-pound junior middleweight – who averages about $750 a match and fights maybe eight times a year – on his way to becoming a millionaire.

Greg Tutt has won 12 fights and lost three. He is one of between 100 and 200 kids fighting professionally in Philadelphia, and every one wants to be the next Sugar Ray Leonard. They all have two things in common. Each knows the odds are one in a million. And each thinks he’s the one.

It’s not a bad time to take a shot at it in Philadelphia. Local promoter Russell Peltz says live boxing shows are making something of a comeback. A lot of the action had been sucked away by the casino cities, but the sport is suffering from overexposure in those places now. Peltz says Atlantic City had 153 fight shows in 1985, 80 in 1986 and, at the current rate, will have 60 this year.

Peltz has a contract with USA Cable Network to televise one fight card each month from the Blue Horizon. Kids like Tutt, some of whom live in ramshackle houses and work side jobs to cover boxing expenses – Tutt works in manager Ray Murphy’s men’s clothing store – are seen in as many as 400,000 or 500,000 living rooms.

Peltz says maybe 10 percent of Philadelphia’s fighters earn $15,000 a year. Tutt is just one of the rabbits nibbling at the pot, although boxing people think he’s above-average. He may make it, he may not.

From the comfort of a middle-class couch, you can find something socially repugnant about a kid thinking that his ticket out of hard times is to refine the art of pummeling another man. Greg Tutt and his colleagues don’t usually sit in the comfort of a middle-class couch.

“Have you ever been to the houses?” Peltz asks. “I’ve been in their living rooms and seen holes in the floor so you can see the basements. . . . Even if it gets them out of the ghetto for only two or three years, it’s still better as far as I’m concerned than not ever having the chance. . . . Are you going to tell me we have an equal education system? That kids at Ben Franklin High get the same education as the kids at Lower Merion High School?”

Elmer Smith, boxing writer for the Daily News and a local fight fan for 30 years, says you can’t generalize about boxers and where they come from.

“A lot fewer of the successful fighters these days come from backgrounds of abject poverty, and there’s little to suggest that abject poverty is a good spawning ground for athletic excellence,” Smith says. “But I agree with Russell that there is still a chance to make money. They fought for free (as amateurs), so why not” fight for money?

To hear Tutt explain his career choice, coming out of North Philly and going into professional boxing is like a kid coming out of Silicon Valley and going into computer science. “You double-park your car in this neighborhood, hot as it is these days, somebody’ll jump out and want to fight you,” Tutt says.

His family moved from the other side of Broad Street about six years ago, and Tutt, a scrawny 14, got into some fights.

“They used to punch him, and he’d come in here to tell me, and I’d send him back out there,” says his mother, Carolyn Tutt. “I told him if you don’t learn to hit back, they’ll always pick on you. ” It was the same for Tutt’s younger sister, Latonya. “She had to fight just about every girl on the block before they accepted her,” Mom says.

Carolyn Tutt was in Kiddie City one day and saw some Sugar Ray boxing gloves. She brought them home to Greg, who went to work on a punching bag in his basement. One day a neighbor saw Greg running through the streets throwing punches at the wind.

“You want to be a boxer? ” Monte Carter asked.

“Sure,” Tutt said.

“Be at Augie’s Gym this afternoon.”

“All the way cross town?”

“You want to be a fighter, be there at 3.”

Carter, a longtime respected trainer who has been Tutt’s mentor from that first day, figures that in a year or so, all the training – several hours a day – is going to pay off. Tutt had his first professional fight three years ago, but is still considered young. His father, James, would rather Greg find a job in which nobody swings at you. But he goes to his fights along with Carolyn, who holds Greg’s 3-year-old daughter, Temperance, in her lap at ringside.

Last fall there was a classic bout at the Blue Horizon, a 1,200-seat arena in which the canvas is like a microscope slide, and spectators examine the sparring specimens from a balcony that circles the ring. You can hear the punches, see the jet streams of sweat. On the first floor, you can feel the thunder of a heavy punch. On Nov. 11, the ring corralled Greg “King” Tutt and Sidney “Sinbad” Outlaw, also of North Philly. Street-wagering had gone on for weeks and continued into the arena. Tutt and Outlaw themselves had sold tickets to friends, and the house was packed with fans who were on one side or the other, nobody in the middle.

It was a brawl that put screaming spectators on their feet, shaking termites out of the rafters. When it was over, Temperance was hoisted into the ring, and Tutt strutted around with her on his shoulders. The ring announcer called them two great sportsmen and said it was the fight of the year. Everyone awaited the call.

In a close but unanimous decision – Tutt. He called his grandmother right away because he knows she doesn’t approve of this and sits at home every time he fights, praying he doesn’t get hurt.

Tutt won another unanimous decision in June, a $1,000 payday. After fees, splits for manager Ray Murphy, trainer Monte Carter and cut man Billy Haywood, Tutt cleared $650. He gave $100 to his mother, bought summer clothes for Temperance, bought himself some tennis shoes and shorts, and put the rest, what was left of it, in the bank.

There was a time when he would take money and try to double it in a street- corner game of craps. Back when he was young. “Now, I would never gamble money I got hit in the head for.”

If he makes it, Tutt wants a house in Jersey, a boxing gym in his name and a sporting goods store. Temperance would go to private school.

“I would say quite frankly that I don’t see Greg moving into the highest echelons of boxing on the strength of what I’ve seen so far,” says Elmer Smith, who thinks Tutt has good boxing skills but lacks a big punch. “But he is no different than several fighters who did not look any more promising in early stages of their careers, and later became very big.”

Tutt sees the opening. It gets wider when he drops onto the craggy pavement at the break of day for pushups, Philadelphia crumbling all around him, sunlight angling in from someplace else.

Writer bio: Steve Lopez was a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1986 to 1997. Lopez, generally considered one of the best writers in city newspaper history, joined the Los Angeles Times as a columnist in 2001. He was awarded the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in 2004, and was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2011.

Head in a Box

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Pete Dexter | Philadelphia Daily News | 1981

The boss’s name is Tony Scarduzio, and Tuesday afternoon he goes out on the job with Jose Colon. Just to keep his hand in. “To make sure that things are being done to my specifications,” he says.

Jose Colon is a parking-meter repairman. Somebody gets drunk in Camden and runs over a parking meter because he put a dime in and didn’t get any bubble gum, Jose fixes that too.

It doesn’t matter to Jose, he likes his job. “You don’t have to go to school or nothing, and it’s very enjoyable,” he said.

So Jose and Tony are out on the truck, going up Broadway, when they come to a broken parking meter. It’s broken in a way that they can only fix back at the shop, so Jose gets out a wrench to replace the head. While he is doing that, though, he happens to notice a white paper sack leaning against the stem.

“It’s a nice paper sack,” he said later, “got a label on it from some store on Germantown Avenue in Philly. It looks almost new, you know, a real nice paper sack, and somebody stapled it up. So I pick up the sack and it looks to me like there’s a coconut in there. I say, ‘Hey, Tony, we better look inside. I think we found a coconut.'”

Tony shrugs, and Jose opens it carefully, not wanting to damage a real nice paper sack, and looks inside. Tony waits, Jose just stares inside the sack. “Hey, Tony,” he says after a minute, “there’s a head inside this paper sack.”

“A what?”

“It’s not a coconut, Tony. It’s a head.” And Jose sees that his boss doesn’t believe him, so he reaches in the sack and pulls the head out. A human skull. The jaw bone is missing and so are the teeth, but outside of that it is perfect. “It’s not a coconut,” Jose says again.

Tony says, “Oh my God!” and as soon as they fix the parking meter, they take the head over to Juvenile Division, where Tony has a friend who is a detective.

Tony and Jose go into the detective’s office and put the sack in his hands. “I think I found Jimmy Hoffa,” Tony says. The detective smiles and looks inside.

Then he stops smiling.

“I can’t do anything about this,” he says. “You better take it over to the administration building.” And he hands the almost-new white paper sack with the head inside back to Tony, who gives it to Jose, and tells him to carry it over there.

On the way over, Jose stops to see his friend Kevin McKeel, who is also a supervisor for the city, and tells him to look inside the sack. Kevin does. “Surprised, huh?” Jose says.

And then he walks it the rest of the way to the police administration building, and has a short talk with the detectives’ receptionist. “I bring in the bag and say, ‘I found a head in the street,'” Jose says. “She says, ‘This is serious. Do you really want me to go get a detective and tell him you got a head?'”

“I tell her I’m not joking. I say, ‘You want to look inside?’ She don’t want to, but another woman comes out of the office and she wants to look inside. I don’t know who she was, she didn’t say nothing after she looked. She just went back where she came from.”

The receptionist, meanwhile, has located Sgt. Albert Handy, who comes out and takes the sack from Jose and checks inside, and then thanks him for bringing it over.

Sgt. Handy puts a tag on the skull and gives it to a detective to take over to the coroner’s office in Cherry Hill. “We can’t do anything about it here,” he would say later.

So the detective drives the skull over to Jerry Healy, who is an investigator, and Jerry Healy puts another tag on it and sends it to Newark. “There was nothing we could do about it here,” his wife would say later. Jerry was out collecting a body and couldn’t be reached for comment.

And so, as the day ended, Jose was back at work in the street. Tony had gone back to work in his office. The skull was on a bus for Newark, and Sgt. Handy was working on new cases. “A man brings in a skull in a paper sack,” Handy said. “It’s nothing to stop work for.” Sgt. Handy has been with the department fourteen years.

“Hey,” he said, “this is Camden.”

Writer bio: Pete Dexter, winner of the National Book Award for his novel “Paris Trout,” is also generally considered one of the best writers in city newspaper history. He wrote for the Daily News, mostly as a columnist, for 12 years.

The Face of a Fugitive

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Lane DeGregory | St. Petersburg Times | April 2003

The reckoning came on a Saturday night in September, in a first-floor room of a cheap motel beside the bus station in Dover, Del.

The fugitive was slumped on the bed, chain-smoking Marlboros. As worn out as the mattress.

The lights were off. The TV was on. He was waiting in dread for the show to start. He had seen the preview. He knew he would be on this episode.

He was trying to decide what to do.

That morning, in Philadelphia, he had bought a sleeping bag and a two-man tent. He told his roommates that he was going camping. He got on a Greyhound and rode until dark. Climbed off at Dover and checked into the motel. He asked for a room around back. Paid cash. He snapped his fingers to remind himself to sign the register right: Joe Brown.

For 15 months, he had been living with a dead man’s name.

He turned up the volume on the TV. The episode opened in a parking lot: “Tonight, we’re going after bad guys who use cars to kill,” host John Walsh said. The golden logo of America’s Most Wanted swallowed the screen. “And the chase is on for our first fugitive . . .”

He saw the crumpled car. He saw his mug shot. He heard John Walsh describe him as one of the country’s worst criminals.

He sat there, smoking on the edge of the bed, with the blue TV light shooting shadows across his blank face and his image staring him down from the screen, and he saw himself as 10-million Americans were seeing him: a hunted killer.

And he knew, finally, what he had to do.

Writer bio: Lane DeGregory has written for the Tampa Bay Times, formerly the St. Petersburg Times, for the last 15 years. Among the most decorated narrative journalists of our time, DeGregory was awarded the Ernie Pyle Award from the Scripps Howard Foundation for human interest writing in 2007, and the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2009.

Continue reading “The Face of a Fugitive”