The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Beyond the Field: violence prevention, social justice and leadership through football

Valencia Peterson and KeShan Allen (third and fourth from left respectively) stand outside of City Hall with jerseys representing players that were victims of gun violence. PHOTO COURTESY OF VALENCIA PETERSON

In the past year, young people have been at the forefront of social justice movements across the U.S., acting as catalysts for change at local and national levels. Young Philadelphians have joined the fight against injustice as well. Over the course of the semester, The Hawk will feature profiles of Generation Z activists in and around Philadelphia who are working to create change in their communities. 

As talks of a canceled football season grew louder among administrators in The School District of Philadelphia last summer, KeShan Allen, a rising senior cornerback and wide receiver for the South Philadelphia High School Rams, knew football players like him across the city stood to lose more than a football season. 

They risked losing the motivation to continue going to school. They risked losing contact with their coaches who were also mentors. They risked losing an outlet from the violence surrounding them.

So, Allen and a contingency of high school football players from across Philadelphia went to City Hall in July to demonstrate what impact a canceled season would have on those who needed football the most. 

With a statue of Civil Rights activist Octavius Catto as his backdrop, along with four jerseys representing seven Philadelphia high school football players shot and killed in the last four years, Allen stepped in front of a cluster of microphones to speak about how, for so many student athletes in the city, sports are a lifesaver.  

“We wanted to say something about the price this season has cost, not just on us but for all student athletes in the city, especially in the inner-city, high-poverty communities,” Allen said. “In my speech I remember saying, ‘Our school district is not really the best school district, and a lot of people go to school just for sports.’ If it wasn’t for sports, a lot of people just wouldn’t be in school. They probably would have dropped out. And we don’t get the same support the suburbs or the Catholic schools get.”

A month later, Allen and the others who attended the demonstration were invited to District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office for a closed meeting to further discuss the consequences that pushing off the season, and thus leaving teenagers across the city with idle time, could have on the community.

Record surges in violence in Philadelphia disproportionately affect young Black men. In 2020 alone, there were 166 shooting victims aged 10-17, with 20 of them being fatal. Of those young victims, 77% were Black males.

“Growing up in Philly, you see people get shot like you see people blinking,” said Brandon Frierson, a senior defensive back and slot receiver for Olney Charter High School.

Allen and Frierson are part of Beyond the Field, a community-based initiative created last summer in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Run by a nonprofit, Open Door Abuse Awareness & Prevention (ODAAP), Beyond the Field stepped in to address the gun violence in the city by offering football players across Philadelphia an outlet to practice and work out in lieu of their canceled season. 

Founder and CEO of ODAAP, Valencia Peterson, affectionately known as “Coach V,” said filling the void was urgent. The players needed an escape from the violence around them that a COVID-19-induced pause on sports had robbed them of. So, Peterson devised a plan, doing what she has made a life of: reaching young men through football and welcoming them into her family. 

Peterson knew the stakes. On July 5, one of the high schools ODAAP works with, Frankford High School, lost a player, 15-year-old Angelo Walker, who was shot and killed while riding his bicycle outside of his home in the Overbrook section of Philadelphia. 

“As we spoke about stopping the gun violence and how kids were losing their lives, we realized there can be a direct correlation to having nothing to do and the gun violence now,” Peterson said.

Peterson hesitated to label what ODAAP does as a program, preferring to call it “doing life with people.” She said ODAAP focuses on teaching life lessons and building relationships with young people “by any means necessary.” Those means are often football, which Peterson coaches at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania.

“We work with young people wherever they are,” Peterson said. “It’s not so much ‘come to our program.’ It’s ‘ODAAP has inserted itself in your program.’ You don’t even know that you’re part of ODAAP. All [the young men] know is that this coach right here really cares about us and they created something for us to have a positive space.”

Community activism is core to Peterson’s teachings, and Allen said he took what he learned from Peterson to City Hall.

“Not just Beyond the Field, but sports in general, save a lot of kids, especially during high school,” Allen said. “In our environment, you got gun violence, you got poverty, you got minimum wage. And then there’s a lack of guidance. Sports definitely play a major role. For a lot of people, they learn more life lessons in sports than they learn with school.”

Beyond the Field hosted players on Tuesdays and Thursdays for two hours a day throughout the fall, giving players a chance to “get out of the house and be safe,” Peterson said. 

“No guns, just a safe space, family-friendly,” Peterson said. 

Frierson said Coach V was like a second mom to him and  that Beyond the Field generated tangible hope.

“Every day I came it was just nothing but good vibes,” Frierson said. “I feel like one of the things within our community that we don’t teach a lot of young men now is to really put more value on themselves. Beyond the Field taught me how to think from a perspective as a young man.”

Beyond the Field also hosted college coaches, offered a job resource and college fair, and used “teachable moments” to instill life lessons, Peterson said. 

The Philadelphia high school football season is tentatively scheduled to begin in March. PHOTO: RYAN MULLIGAN ’21/THE HAWK

The underlying theme in much of Peterson’s teaching has to do with building relationships and turning boys into men.

This resonated particularly with Zion Mason, a running back and linebacker at Penn Wood High School. Mason said what he has learned along the way are not lessons he will forget in the next few days or even the next few years. He will be able to apply them throughout his life.  

“I’ve actually been in situations where people were trying to peer pressure me into doing things where I was just like, ‘I wasn’t raised to do that,’” Mason said. “Not only that, but ODAAP helped me maintain that integrity that I had already. And it’s basically stopped me from doing things other people wanted me to do and peer pressure me to do.”

Mason, Frierson and Allen all pointed to peer pressure as a driving force behind the violence that surrounds them on a daily basis.

Frierson added the violence he sees around him doesn’t get the attention it should-from the media, or from people in the community. It has been normalized. 

“The only difference when you see people get shot in our neighborhood compared to where it’s like a bigger income, a more wealthy neighborhood, is that people over here don’t really make the news,” Frierson said. “Here, all they tell you is that so-and-so got shot, this-and-that, but nobody really does anything about it.”

Allen, who takes college courses at Parkway Center City Middle College while attending high school, plans to graduate high school not only with a diploma but also a college associate’s degree. He has done research on the systemic issues that plague communities of color. 

Allen outlined a number of barriers that he sees in his neighborhood, starting with education, which he said is “slim to none.” From there, factors like drugs, one-parent households and minimum wage jobs put kids his age and younger in a situation where they have to grow up quickly.

“A lot of people have to grow up early,” Allen said. “It’s like I got work, I got school and I have all of this messy stuff going on around me, surrounding me. There are a lot of barriers.”

Peterson said Allen, Frierson and Mason are already finding their footing as activists within their own communities, working to overcome and remove the barriers they have faced while also excelling on the football field.

“They are going to place themselves in a situation where they are influencers, and they’re going to speak up for what’s right. They are already starting to do it, seeking out social justice causes,” Peterson said.

The men all see themselves as role models for their peers and teammates. And they do not find their youth to be the barrier that other people see. Instead, they belong to a generation that will fight for justice and change, starting with their own communities. 

“Especially with the age that we’re at right now, it’s kind of a shock when people see us,” Frierson said. “They’re like ‘You know, you’re kind of different. You’re really mature.’ Even though that has an effect on us, we’re still going to do what we’re going to do as far as bettering our communities. It’s going to be a process and we’re going to have to take it step by step but I’m glad we have programs like Beyond the Field to help do that.”

Allen sees himself as a leading voice against injustice in a city plagued by it. He led the fight for a season during the summer, but he realizes that step is just one in a longer journey.

“I see myself as a role model for my family members, a role model for my teammates, a role model for some underclassmen,” Allen said. “If my name can go on to hold more weight, hopefully I’ll be a role model for the entire community, the whole Black community, the entire city.”

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