John Hay's football field is dying.
Sandwiched between a sparkling new high-rise apartment building in mid-construction, the ultra-modernist Cleveland School for the Arts and a recently renovated John Hay High School, the field is a blight, like a pothole on an otherwise freshly paved street. Each blade of grass is a varying shade of yellow by early August. By September, the middle of the field is an oval of dirt and pebbles, with each player's cleats grinding it up like a thousand tiny rototillers. A razorblade is found at mid-field one afternoon, halting practice until it's disposed of. The team's quarterback admits a hesitancy to throw the ball near the sidelines, lest his receivers slip and fall on the sidewalk that tightly encircles the field. "It's the toughest, hardest practice field you could ever play football on," says Raymone Warren, a defensive lineman for the Hornets.
Despite practicing on what more closely resembles the moon's topography than an earthbound expanse of turf, John Hay — a magnet school nestled between Carnegie and Martin Luther King Boulevard in Cleveland that plays its football in the Senate League — has been wildly successful. Though often dwarfed by the gridiron supernova that is Glenville, the Hornets have posted just two losing seasons since the program started fielding a varsity team in 2009. They boast an 59-36 record since then, making the playoffs for the very first time in 2012, then again the following year.
While winning has become a common descriptor of John Hay, so too has loss.
In 2009, Brandon Young, a defensive lineman for the Hornets, was struck during a drive-by as he and his younger brother were walking home from a store on East 186th Street. He died in the hospital a week later. Donte McRae, a former John Hay quarterback, died in Columbus in 2012 when the car in which he was riding shotgun swerved off the road, flipped over and crashed into a tree.
Then, on July 6 of this year, there was Mike Chappman. Set to begin his senior season as John Hay's starting quarterback, he was hanging with a friend near Wade Park by Ansel Road and Kenmore Avenue in Hough, just across MLK Jr. Drive from the Cleveland VA Hospital, when a gray SUV sped by and opened fire. Chappman was hit in the torso and right arm, and, in a terrifying bout of déjà vu for the school, would succumb to his wounds in the hospital two weeks later.
Now, instead of designing an offense around what coaches refer to as one of the most talented rosters they've ever had, the Hornets are left attempting to process the death of a 17-year-old kid. Grief counselors are brought in to address the team, making themselves available for one-on-one conversations. Players ask permission to skip practice to corral their emotions. The regular season looms, beckoning a football team that surely isn't ready for its arrival.
"They'll never forget this year," says Rodney Decipeda, John Hay's head coach. "We are in the fire."
Decipeda is getting worried. It's late August, his team's first preseason scrimmage is in a week, and he's already dealing with players no-showing practice, grade issues for some of the guys, and a growing malaise that's forced him to boot out a couple of his seniors from practice in an attempt to send a message. He's been leaning on guys like Raymone Warren, quarterback Tyrese Benson, running back Jalen Boyd and wide receiver Javaughn Williams, all seniors, to set the tone for the season. But it hasn't happened yet.
"Someone said it was like this last year," Decipeda says. "I don't remember it being like this last year. There's an overall lackadaisical mentality that's not gonna fly. Once they get smacked in the mouth, we'll see what happens."
Decipeda, who also teaches science at the high school, has been at the helm of John Hay's football team since it returned, brought over from an assistant coaching position at Lincoln-West. Forty-three years old and of Filipino descent, Decipeda is short and compact, with a patch of jet black hair clinging tightly to his scalp and a pair of glasses balancing on his nose. He patrols his practices with a sort of nervous energy, his head constantly in motion as he barks out offensive plays he wants run on that particular day. He's stoic without being intimidating, and rarely yells. While some assistant coaches take turns screeching in the type of football-speak that would feel at home in an episode of Last Chance U — "If you're not ready, you're going to get your ass handed to you!" — Decipeda prefers to lead with a more subdued voice.
But right now, he isn't getting through to his players, and it's eating away at him.
"I'm not sure resilience is a word I'd use to describe our squad right now," Decipeda says. "But you've gotta move forward. You've gotta man up. You never forget, but you've gotta move forward."
John Hay's mission statement is to "rescue boys and transform them into men of excellence who live for the benefits of others," and Decipeda takes those words to heart as if they were tattooed across his chest. If he's not describing his players as plants incubating in a greenhouse, he's referring to them as chess pieces, each one needing to be prodded and pushed in their own specific direction for a specific purpose. He's a walking rolodex of neatly repeatable phrases of pocketbook wisdom — "Leadership is influence;" "Character isn't a switch that you flip" — that might come off as cliched or cheesy from someone who doesn't deliver them so earnestly. Decipeda believes in the power of football as if it were the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit wrapped into a single, stitched-cowhide reliquary.
But the unpredictability of death, both its occurrence and the ensuing ripple effect, is a fissure in the safe haven of structure that football usually provides. When Brandon Young died in 2009, two of his best friends on the team recall having absolutely no idea how to deal with it.
"Once we got the call that he'd passed, it changed everything," says Tyree Goins, who played wide receiver and running back for John Hay from 2009 to 2011. "Practices were kind of down; no one could really focus. We were young and still in high school and didn't know how to deal with it."
Tavonne Jolly, now a team manager for John Hay who was close with both Young and Chappman, felt like he was living out the worst day of his life all over again when he heard about Chappman's death in July.
"I hate that [his teammates] had to go through [losing Mike]," Jolly says. "I didn't have anybody to tell me how to cope with the situation. I was 17, you're in high school. You think you're invincible. I had never seen this coming."
Jolly also sees death's effect taking hold on this year's team in the same way it did eight years ago.
"A lot of practices, they come out and they're emotionless," he says. "They don't really have an edge. Mike Chappman was an alpha, so he'd be the one to come and get everyone hyped at practice. But now that he's not there, nobody else has that attitude or that edge."
Early on, Decipeda and Jolly's concerns would prove to be prophetic. The Hornets not only drop both scrimmages, but do so in lethargic and uninspiring fashion. The team's funk bleeds into the regular season, as the Hornets are dominated in their opener versus Orange, 35-6, then hang close with Brush the following week until a litany of late mistakes cost them the game, dropping them to 0-2. The offense is a mess, and Decipeda yanks starting quarterback Tyrese Benson, after a half against Orange, in favor of Javaughn Williams, the team's star wide receiver, who hasn't played the position since his Muny League days. That doesn't work either. Benson is eventually inserted back under center, but the Hornets score just seven points in a loss to Clearview in week 3; then, after a bye week, they are engulfed 53-14 by Glenville.
The Hornets are 0-4, players are grumbling about the play-calling, and the wound that Chappman's death opened continues to fester.
Javaughn Williams and Tyrese Benson were born on the same day.
The two came up together, landing on John Hay's football team as freshman. Benson, the physically imposing but soft-spoken quarterback. Williams, the fluid and ultra-talented wide receiver. They describe themselves as "inseparable," both as key cogs in the Hornets' offensive machine and as two teenagers navigating high school.
In 2015, when Benson and Williams were sophomores, the Hornets were practicing on a field across the street from Chappman's house. Chappman had been playing Muny League football while attending Ginn Academy. But by 10th grade, he told his mother, Neicey Bryant, that he wanted to join a team where he could "shine on his own," instead of joining a stacked roster at Glenville. The Hornets, an overlooked and underrated Senate League school, offered a situation where Chappman could make a name for himself.
"I went over there to talk to the coaches, and I told them I have a son that's been playing since he was 6 years old and he's very good," Neicey Bryant says. "We walked across the field, and I introduced him. And he ended up playing for John Hay."
Benson and Williams clicked instantly with their newest addition. Chappman caught passes from Benson on the Hornets' JV team, and the two strengthened their aerial attack as members of the varsity scout team offense. As the 2017 season approached, Benson salivated over the thought of having Chappman on one side and Williams on the other as he dropped back to pass. Off the field, Chappman was a goofball, the perfect complementary foil to Benson and Williams' serious demeanor.
"Chappman was my right hand man," Benson says. "I knew what he was going to do before he did. No one could stop us together."
Williams, who will attend Kent State next year on an athletic scholarship, remains haunted by the bullets that put a stop to their plans and Chappman's life.
While the rest of the Hornets were on the practice field, Chappman was working his job at a local rec center, something he did to help support his family. After getting off work at 3:30 p.m., he headed home. A few hours later, his mother asked him to go to the store, and it was on that walk that Chappman ran into a friend, Dwayne McCully.
At 6:37 p.m., multiple shots were fired toward the boys out of a car, according to the police report. McCully was struck in the left arm, and would be released from the hospital after being treated that same day. Chappman, who had his back to the vehicle, was hit in the arm and torso near his spine. He lay on his back on the ground until EMS arrived and transported him to the hospital.
At the time of the shooting, John Hay's practice was still going on.
"I kind of felt like it was my fault," Williams says. "I could've asked him to come to practice that day, and he wouldn't have even been where he was at. I was just crushed."
Boyd echoes Williams' pain.
"I could've done a better job of trying to get more in contact with him, and tell him to get to practice and come more often," Boyd says.
Benson has lost people close to him before — his uncle to a stroke and his aunt to cancer — but that was when he was only 8 years old and didn't fully understand the concept of loss. When Chappman died, he was overwhelmed.
"It hit me more because I understand what's happening," he says. "Once I got home (from Chappman's funeral), I fell to my knees and just couldn't really move."
Brandon Kelly is the Hornets' ferocious cornerback. Though undersized, he plays the game with the intensity of a cheetah stalking a gazelle. On multiple occasions at practice, he'd streak toward a wide receiver, lower his shoulder, and send him sprawling into another dimension with the type of force that shouldn't be physically or scientifically possible from someone his size. But he wasn't always as self-assured.
"I was a freshman playing varsity last season," Kelly says. "I remember this one play against Rhodes. I had gotten beat by like 20 yards. I'm just chasing [the receiver] at this point. Mike came over top and made the interception. If he hadn't made that pick, I wouldn't be playing varsity."
Chappman not only kept Kelly from possibly getting cut, but he saved the young defensive back from his own fears, molding him from a timid freshman into John Hay's leader as a sophomore.
"When you see those big guys in pads, and you're a freshman, and teams know you're a freshman, they're going to pick on you," Kelly says. "Someone's gotta be there to keep your head up, and that's what he did."
Chappman was the glue of the Hornets' roster. He was also described by those who knew him best as a quick-witted soul who had jokes for days. Benson said Chappman would crack on his deep baritone, saying he sounded exactly like Terrelle Pryor. Even in his final days, as he lay bedridden and paralyzed in the hospital, Chappman found time to clown on his friends.
"The first time I went to see him, I didn't know how bad it was," Warren says. "I thought he was going to be all right, and then they told me he was going to be paralyzed. I was about to cry, and he instantly started cracking on me like, 'Oh you soft! You about to cry?'"
It's those moments in the hospital that Chappman's teammates speak about with the most reverence. They'd sit with him and talk about nothing but football, reminiscing over the final game of their 2016 season, when Chappman made an interception to seal the Senate League championship, and watching film of other top high school football programs around the country.
"We'd always talk about him staying up, and not thinking about the negative," Williams says. "Staying mentally prepared for what he had to go through to get better. We wouldn't talk about how he knew he couldn't play."
One morning, Chappman called Williams from the hospital with a request. He wanted his best friend to wear his number, No. 10, for the 2017 season. He also asked Williams if he wanted to wear his shoulder pads, too. Chappman wanted to feel like a part of him would be on the field every Friday, even if he couldn't be there physically. Williams obliged.
"At first I was like, 'Why? You're going to be cool, you're coming back,'" Williams says. "And he said, 'I just want you to wear them for me.'"
As Chappman lay in his hospital bed, he day-dreamed of walking again, even telling those who would listen that he'd eventually get back to playing football. Chappman's life revolved around sports, and when the temperature dropped and the football season ended, he'd find his way to the rec center to play basketball. Otherwise, he was cooped up in his house, kicking it with his two sisters, according to his mother, who described her son as a "mama's boy" and a "homebody." The thought of never being able to walk again never once crossed Chappman's mind during his time in the hospital.
"Me not walking, I don't think about that," Chappman told Fox 8 during his hospital stay. "I know I'm going to walk again."
But as Chappman envisioned a healthy future, a piece of the bullet that remained lodged in his torso, too dangerous for surgeons to remove, started to travel. One day, Chappman started to get some feeling back in his legs. He was ecstatic, but it turned out just to be a cruel trick the bullet was playing on his nervous system, moving off one nerve only to press up against another soon after. One morning, Chappman suddenly started coughing up blood. On July 23, he was dead.
When Williams talks about that day, he takes a deep breath before speaking. There's a pain in his voice that fills up every inch of the room, and the connection between two teenagers who dreamt of playing football and taking over the world together is as real as if Chappman were sitting right there next to him.
"It just hurt knowing that he had a purpose in life, and he wanted to be something," Williams says, before taking another extended pause. "How that got took from him, that hurt me. Everything would've been okay because he did something with his life. He could've really been something. Nowadays, not everybody has a positive plan for themselves. And he was a person that did. He just wanted to play football and do right by his family."
A GoFundMe account originally set up to help pay for Chappman's rehabilitation and medical expenses had to be used instead for burial costs. At a vigil for his death, more than 200 people showed up to pay their respects to a kid who touched countless people in the brief time he was alive.
"He brought us together," Warren says. "He just made you feel better. You could talk to him about anything, and he'd be real with you."
John Hay is a magnet school, requiring an interview process and a certain GPA for its students to be admitted, but the realities of the world outside those tan walls can be bleak. 2016 was Cleveland's deadliest year on record, ending with 136 homicides, according to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's office. There are swaths of the city that players do their best to stay away from, even though their homes or homes of relatives may rest just a block or so away. The intersection of Ansel and Kenmore is one of those areas.
"It was devastating for me to endure this pain that my son ended up dying the way that I didn't want him to die," his mother Neicey Bryant says. "I tried to keep him out of the streets. That's why he played sports. I didn't want him running the streets because I knew what type of area I was in, and a lot of violence was going on. When my kids walk out the door, I always pray. Especially with Michael being a young black male."
It's not the first time one of Bryant's children have been hit by a stray bullet. In 2010, her daughter was hit by a bullet that came speeding through the wall of her home. Her injuries were minor, but the shock of it caused Bryant to move her family to the neighborhood they're in now in hopes of a safer environment for her children.
Chappman apologized to his mother in the hospital for straying into an area he knew was off-limits. He told friends that something felt off that day, and that he knew he shouldn't have deviated from his route to the store. But he dismissed that churning in his gut. He was in high school, and he was, as Jolly says, invincible.
"When I was in school, it wasn't a lot of gun violence going on. There might be fights, but it was never gun violence," team manager Tavonne Jolly says. "But now I definitely worry. I tell (all the players), control what you can control. But you can't help where you grew up, or where you live."
Things slowly started to change after the Glenville game. Though the final score depicted a complete dismantling of his squad, Benson says it was the first time since he had been there that the Hornets put up points of any sort against Ted Ginn Sr.'s Tarblooders. The Hornets' schedule softened, too, as the team began in-conference play in the Senate League. After downing John Marshall for their first win of the season, the Hornets dropped a close game to Rhodes before rattling off three straight wins to close the regular season, putting up 55, 43 and 64 points, respectively, and tallying a record of 4-5.
Then, the district decided to award John Hay a win in place of its bye week, a mea culpa of sorts for the scheduling mishap that led to its existence in the first place. The Hornets were scheduled to play Collinwood in Week 4, but Collinwood had double-booked opponents the week prior, scheduling both Rocky River and Brunswick at the same time. Collinwood elected to honor its commitment to Rocky River, which upset Brunswick, who threatened to charge the Senate for the game until they came to an agreement to take on John Hay in Week 4 instead. This threw Decepida into a rage, as Brunswick is a Division 1 school with 105 players on its roster. After complaints from both Decipeda and multiple John Hay parents, the district relented, granting the Hornets the bye week instead of what would probably have been an automatic loss.
“I tried to keep him out of the streets. That’s why he played sports. I didn’t want him running the streets because I knew what type of area I was in, and a lot of violence was going on.” — Neicey Bryant
Suddenly, the Hornets were 5-5, sitting in third place in the Senate. With Glenville once again owning the best record in the Senate, vaulting them into the Division 1 high school playoffs, it left the Hornets and second-place Rhodes to duel it out on Nov. 4 for what's referred to as the Senate championship, a rematch of their thrilling Week 6 matchup.
The game was an almost too-perfect representation of the Hornets' season. After scoring a touchdown on the game's first play from scrimmage, John Hay regressed to the mess it'd been for most of the early parts of the season. Defensive penalties kept Rhodes' drives alive well past their expiration date. At one point, the Hornets fumbled on four straight offensive drives. They had no business being in the game at all, and yet, thanks to a handful of defensive stands, there they were.
As the fourth quarter wound down, the Hornets, down three, faced a 3rd and 16 from their own 18-yard line. If John Hay was unable to pick up the first down, the game was essentially over. Things looked bleak. Then Javaughn Williams happened.
Benson took the snap, faked to his running back, then rolled out to his right. With two Rhodes defenders barreling toward him unblocked, Benson had no choice but to catapult the ball in the air, getting hit as it left his hands. Williams was running a post-corner route, and got double-teamed off the snap. By the time he stopped and looked for the ball at the 45, he was triple-teamed by Rhodes defenders. He leapt into the air, his arms extended up above the defenders directly in front and behind him, briefly morphed into Calvin Johnson, and somehow came down with the rock.
"I definitely blacked out," Williams says with a laugh. "I don't know what happened. I just went up and came down."
"Once I threw the ball, I got sandwiched, so the pass wasn't as good as it was supposed to be," says Benson. "But I kept looking at Javaughn as I was going to the ground, and I saw him catch it and fall down on his back with the ball in his hands. And I just said, 'Thank you.'"
Two plays later, Boyd took a hand-off and sped into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. 20-16, Hornets. Remember the Titans couldn't have scripted a better ending.
Afterward, as the team bounced around the field in jubilation, they hoisted their Senate League championship trophy skyward.
"We held it up so Mike could touch it," Benson says. "That game was a gift to Mike."
Coach Decipeda is taking stock of what he calls the hardest season he's ever been through. He bemoans some of the early losses, and posits how different the season could have been had the Hornets just beaten Rhodes and Clearview, games he thinks they should have won. But as the weather cools, so too has some of his belief in his own football scripture.
"This senior class hasn't developed as much as past classes, and our season reflects that," he says. "And it's caused me to reflect on the structure of my program. I'm determined to have a weekly leadership seminar. I'm reading a book on how to connect and motivate (this generation of kids). If we don't change as coaches and mentors, we're going to lose them."
Chappman's death not only removed a playmaker from the Hornets' lineup, but it became a black hole that enveloped the joy that usually comes with playing high school football.
"Sometimes people embellish a person's life after they pass," Decipeda says. "I did not anticipate Mike being the keystone of our team this year. But Mike was a guy who made you remember why you loved this game. He loved his teammates. He loved playing for John Hay."
“Mike is always on our mind. He’s there with us even though he wasn’t there with us.”— Tyrese Benson
For the players, it was impossible to ignore Chappman's absence during the season. From pregame moments of silence to various reporters dropping by to do stories on his death, Chappman was never far away.
"I ain't cried about it since the day (Mike died), but it always has me feeling sad," says Williams, who admits he thinks about his friend constantly.
There hasn't been much progress in finding Chappman's killer or killers, at least not publicly. (Calls to detectives were not returned.) The Cleveland police department released a video of the car that carried out the drive-by, but that hasn't led to any arrests. All his mother has heard is that they're continuing to "build a case." Cleveland is one of the worst cities when it comes to actually solving homicides, having solved just 41 percent of the 71 killings that took place through August of this year, according to mayor Frank Jackson. That close rate pales in comparison with the 61 percent of homicides solved nationally, according to FBI stats.
"It's way worse than when I was growing up," Neicey Bryant says of the violence in Cleveland. "The parents in the community have to start coming together to raise these kids as a village again."
Meanwhile, life goes on at John Hay. Williams is anxious to arrive at Kent State, and wants to bulk up. Benson is putting the finishing touches on his highlight reel to send to college coaches. Warren wants to play at the University of Akron and study marketing. Boyd has dreams of juking defenders at Bowling Green. Kelly, who will be a junior next season, has already toured six college campuses. They all have goals, just like Chappman did, hoping to use their athletic abilities to propel them off that half-dirt field and onto the pristinely tended fields of college football programs.
Both Decipeda and Jolly worry about the seniors who will be leaving the cover of their protective wings. "I lay awake at night thinking about kids that have graduated and where they might be at," Decipeda says, and what will happen when football is no longer a part of their lives." If football is a refuge, it's a temporary one for the vast majority of players who suit up for Friday night lights but never play again.
"I didn't have that guidance when I was playing," says Jolly. "So I tell them make sure you know what you're going to school for. Make sure you know it's bigger than football. Live for yourself, and make yourself happy."
Chappman won't get to make those choices. But as they did all season, culminating in their team rallying cry of "Do it for 10," his football family will take his memory with them wherever they end up in life.
"Mike is always on our mind. He's there with us even though he wasn't there with us," Benson says. "If the game is 11-on-11, it's really 12-on-11, because we have Mike playing the game with us."