Last December, on a cold, sunny morning at Yankee Stadium, Bruce Eugene, the head football coach of the Grand Street Campus Wolves, took his players on a slow walk through the grounds to calm their nerves. Though they would soon be playing for the Public Schools Athletic League championship, this field, he assured them, was no different from their turf back in Brooklyn.
A few hours later, the Wolves had defeated the Erasmus Hall Dutchmen, 28-26, to claim the title. For Grand Street, the victory crowned an ambitious overhaul of the high school football team. In just four seasons, Eugene had managed to transform the once feckless program into an undefeated juggernaut.
That moment of triumph felt sadly distant on a recent fall afternoon as Grand Street squandered an early lead at home against Boys and Girls High School. Eugene fumed as he watched the Wolves commit one blunder after another: The quarterback was overthrowing his receivers, the safeties were lagging in coverage and the offensive line was getting steamrolled. All of his instructions seemed to go unheeded.
“Can anyone even hear me?” Eugene bellowed in exasperation.
In fact, no one could.
Early this season, Eugene, 34, was fired, after being charged with recruiting and enrollment violations. Banned from campus, he watches Grand Street home games through a chain-link fence, standing in a parking lot that borders the field. He uses walkie-talkies to communicate with the coaches, but so far it has been a fruitless exercise. Eugene is contesting his dismissal.
The Wolves have fallen into a state of turmoil, with their school locked in a series of disputes that involve race, ambition, funding and the politics of high school football.
The players feel they have become collateral damage, wondering if they can survive the loss of the man who made them champions.
“Coach Eugene was our rock,” Chris Mattocks, the starting quarterback, said. “At this point we’re just lost.”
There was a time, before the disciplinary hearings and protracted legal clashes, when Eugene’s career seemed to follow the arc of a mawkish sports movie. Raised by a single mother in a New Orleans housing project, Eugene never played organized football as a child. Black kids in the neighborhood mostly stuck to basketball, and those who chose football rarely got the chance to play quarterback.
In the summer before his sophomore year at Walter L. Cohen High School, Eugene was throwing a ball around with some friends on the football field. In an almost absurdly serendipitous moment, the school’s football coach, James Warren, stepped onto the turf just as Eugene heaved a 65-yard pass into the waiting arms of his receiver. “How would you like to play quarterback?” Warren asked.
Eugene quickly became a standout at Cohen High, setting the school record for most passing yards in a season. But college scouts balked at his dimensions. Standing 6 feet tall and weighing around 270 pounds, Eugene resembled an offensive lineman more than a quarterback, with broad hips and a generous paunch.
Still, he caught the attention of Doug Williams, a former Washington Redskin and the first black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Williams encouraged him to walk on at Grambling State, a historically black university in Louisiana, where he was head coach at the time.
“Bruce was a one-in-a-million quarterback,” Williams recalled recently. “I had all kinds of records at Grambling, and Bruce put them all to shame.”
At Grambling, Eugene became a nationally recognized star, earning the nickname the Round Mound of Touchdown. His commitment to football never flagged, even during his senior year, when Hurricane Katrina upended his life, prompting him to take in more than 15 friends and relatives, including his mother, sister and younger brother.
“I want to get the big money so bad,” he told Black Entertainment Television around this time, “not only for myself but for my mom and my family.”
But success in the NFL eluded Eugene. After going undrafted, he was signed by the New Orleans Saints, only to be released before the season opener. He bounced around the European Football League and in the lower rungs of the NFL before abandoning play entirely.
Still, Eugene clung to the notion of football as a means of personal uplift. Not a reliable path to wealth and stardom, perhaps, but a ladder to the middle class for young black men from families like his.
“College, travel, job opportunities — none of that would’ve been possible without football,” he said. “I wanted that for other boys who grew up like me.”
Eugene then turned to coaching, and eventually landed at Grand Street, in 2012. The school’s team at the time was undistinguished, its academics were lackluster, and it had an unenviable record of student crime. Football played in Brooklyn also inspires a fraction of the reverence it does in the South, where coaches can be as powerful as superintendents. But Eugene embraced the challenge.
He quickly began a wholesale reimagining of the team’s rules and operations, always with an eye toward college readiness, instituting a minimum grade percentage average of 80 and holding study halls after school. He developed a sophisticated college-style spread offense and assigned game film for his players to watch at home. Perhaps most significantly, Eugene hired a team of well-trained assistant coaches, almost all of them black men from Brooklyn who had played football in college. For the players, it was a revelation to learn from men whose backgrounds mirrored their own.
“The team rallied around Bruce like I’ve never seen before,” said Lincoln Jacobs, 24, an assistant coach who attended Grand Street while in high school. “He’s actually lived through the same struggles as these players — poverty, violence, a single mother — so they respect what he teaches.”
As word of Eugene’s coaching spread, Grand Street became an increasingly popular destination for top football prospects. Families from far-flung corners of the city sent their sons on hourslong daily commutes to East Williamsburg for the chance to work with him.
“We’re not thinking about the NFL; we just want a way out,” said Chandira Holman-Bey, whose son, Tafari Blackstock, travels more than 90 minutes from East Elmhurst, Queens, to attend Grand Street. “A lot of coaches talk a big game about college, but here’s a man who stays after school and literally tutors these boys.”
Ozzie Jiménez was dumbstruck by his son Joseph’s transformation. Almost as soon as he enrolled at Grand Street, Joseph began diving into his studies, practicing football with vigor and saying “sir” and “ma’am.” Next fall, he will soon be bound for Boston College, on an athletic scholarship.
“In our neighborhood, high school is usually when kids get caught up in drugs and gangs,” Jiménez, 56, said, “but Bruce set these boys on a different path.”
Last year, every senior on the team graduated and enrolled in college, many on scholarships, according to coaches at Grand Street. Citywide, only 53 percent of students graduated from high school and went on to pursue college and other degrees in 2014-15, the last year for which statistics are available.
For many families, Eugene provided far more than college preparation. Shakeba James, 38, has three sons playing football at Grand Street. For a long time she had been a single mother, and it was Eugene, she said, who so often stepped up for her sons when she could not, driving them home to Far Rockaway, Queens, buying them school supplies, even cooking them dinner. James’ oldest son, Jahquese Morris, 17, who suffers from emotional trauma, had been working toward an Individualized Education Program diploma, but Eugene urged him to set his sights higher.
“Bruce was a father figure when I didn’t have one,” said Jahquese, who is now on track to graduate with a standard degree in the spring. “He basically devoted his life to me and the team.”
After a difficult first season, the team made it to the playoffs in 2013, and to the semifinals the next year, before capturing the championship last winter. Eugene, the first African-American head football coach to win top honors in the league, was also named the high school coach of the year by the New York Jets.
But with the accolades came heightened scrutiny and soon a deluge of criticism. Opponents inveighed against every facet of Grand Street’s program: Their jerseys were too flashy, their fans too raucous; they ran up the score and showboated on the sidelines. Whenever Grand Street played games on the road, players and parents recalled, the team was met with boos.
Then there were the more substantive accusations. Early last season, Eugene was suspended for two games after holding a scrimmage that violated Public Schools Athletic League regulations. And rivals raised eyebrows at the transfer students he brought in, including quarterback Sharif Harris-Legree, from Fort Hamilton.
The antipathy toward Grand Street crested with the legal troubles of Rahmel Ashby, the team’s star running back. While free on bail after a 2014 attempted murder charge, Rahmel was arrested again in the fall of 2015 for gun possession. With no Department of Education stipulations preventing his participation, Grand Street allowed Rahmel to play, and he ran for 116 yards in the championship game.
Eugene faced widespread censure for the decision, and at the Empire Challenge, an annual high school all-star game between New York City and Long Island, he was passed over as head coach of the city’s team, a designation that traditionally goes to the league champion. A jury eventually cleared Rahmel of the attempted murder charges (the gun charges are still pending), but the detractors had already made their ruling: Grand Street was the league villain.
“People always hate the guys who are winning,” said Peter Gambardella, 41, the coach at Curtis High School, a perennial football powerhouse on Staten Island. “Bruce Eugene is a great coach, but he’s not from here, and he does things a little differently.”
The coaches at Grand Street saw something far more insidious.
“We’re the blackest team in the league,” Jacobs said. “It’s no surprise everyone hates us.”
Though there are plenty of black athletes playing football for public high school teams in New York, nearly all the coaches of its top teams are white, reflecting a widespread disparity throughout the sport.
Many players and coaches protested the attacks against their team, wearing shirts that read “Grand Street Lives Matter.” Eugene favored a black hoodie with the superlative “NY’s Most Hated.”
The team confronted its most contentious battle right on campus, where Eugene frequently clashed with William Jusino, the principal of Progress High School for Professional Careers, one of the three separate schools at Grand Street. (Students attending any of these schools may play for the football team.) Throughout the season Jusino rebuked the coach with a range of complaints, including excessive noise on the sidelines and poorly executed administrative tasks, Eugene said. Tensions mounted further when the school gave Eugene an “unsatisfactory” rating in a year-end review.
Many parents and assistant coaches believe the conflict between Eugene and Jusino springs from disagreements over the management of funds. With players paying $700 in dues each season, there is a sizable pot of money at stake.
The fraying relationship between the two unraveled when Jusino accused Eugene of recruiting a student from a high school on Long Island and enrolling him at Progress in the fall of 2014, using his own address in Brooklyn and claiming to be the boy’s uncle. In April 2015, Jusino informed the city’s Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation, which began a formal inquiry.
According to an August 2016 report, obtained by The New York Times, investigators trailed the student on multiple occasions last year and found that he lived on Long Island, with his mother.
Eugene said that the student was a close family friend who had moved in with him from September through November 2014, for guidance during a period of personal and academic trouble.
“All I did was help that boy through a tough time,” he said.
He admitted to investigators that he was not the student’s uncle and that the boy continued to attend Progress and play on the Grand Street team even after returning to Long Island. The Special Commissioner of Investigation recommended that Eugene be dismissed and barred from future employment within the school system.
“There are enrollment regulations in place to protect students, families and taxpayers, and we have clear procedures to address employees who do not follow them,” Toya Holness, an Education Department spokeswoman, said. Jusino declined to comment.
Even Eugene’s most ardent supporters acknowledge that the charges against him are significant, but the punishment, many say, seems unreasonably harsh in a league where coaches regularly flout recruiting statutes. Several parents interviewed said that coaches of opposing teams have tried to recruit their sons, and in 2005 the athletic league tightened its transfer rules because of widespread violations.
“Fake addresses, illegal transfers, it’s common practice,” said Courtney Pollins, 51, director of the Big Apple Youth Football Conference.
Samuel G. Freedman, author of “Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Game and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” and a columnist for The New York Times, called Eugene’s firing “selective,” noting a racial disparity in such punishments.
“Upper-middle-class white families looking for the best academic schools find a million ways to weasel around district lines and rules,” he said. “Struggling black families wanted similar opportunities from Bruce.”
For the parents of players, the details of Eugene’s transgressions are dwarfed by his importance as a mentor.
“Bruce is no angel, that much I know,” said Cheryl Wray, whose son Kordell is a senior at Grand Street. “But he did right by my son. That’s a man I want on my team.”
Wray, along with others close to the team, expressed a deep mistrust of Jusino. Some have recently accused him of misusing school funds. At a rally in September, dozens of players and parents called for Jusino to be fired. Education Department officials would not comment other than to confirm that there was a continuing investigation at Grand Street.
Amid the controversy, the team’s players have struggled to stay focused. They planned to sit out the first game of the season, before Eugene warned that such a move could jeopardize their chances at college. The former coach continues to fight for his reinstatement, but even he concedes that the team’s glory days are numbered.
“What we did at Grand Street will never be forgotten, but it’ll never happen again,” he said.
The team’s remaining coaches have doubts about returning next season. And many parents plan to pull their sons from Grand Street in favor of schools closer to home or with a better academic record.
For now, there is still football to be played. Before a recent home game against Midwood High School, Eugene lumbered to the front desk at Grand Street and requested access to the sidelines. All parties warily recorded video of the exchange for potential use in court, as an administrator rebuffed the coach.
The players gathered in the locker room, quiet save for the sound of cleats on linoleum. Eugene had taught them to recite the Lord’s Prayer before each game. So, as always, the team huddled together, knelt and prayed.