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Barriers between St. Petersburg police and teens break down on football field

ST. PETERSBURG

The cops had the Rockets right where they wanted them.

Muscles bulging under black sleeveless jerseys, the St. Petersburg police officers on the Green Machine team were dominating in the first half.

Then, a glimmer of hope for the Rockets.

Ja'kevia "Kevie" Muhammad, a 5-foot-3, 17-year-old dynamo from Dixie Hollins High School, snatches a Green Machine pass out of the air. The police give chase and catch her before she can score.

Muhammad jogs to the sideline. Her teammates give her high-fives. One cracks a joke.

"You got to run from the police without any consequences," he says, and members of both teams laugh.

• • •

The police would go on to win the game 26-14, but the scoreboard at Saturday morning's first Gridiron Family Fun Day at the 31st Street Sports Complex told only part of the story.

The event brought together five teams: one each from the St. Petersburg police and fire departments, and three comprised of players ranging from elementary to college age.

Community activist Lisa Wheeler-Brown organized the friendly competition with her late son in mind.

Cabretti Jalil Wheeler, 21, and his friend Kyle Lynn Ellis, 24, were fatally shot at a Lealman warehouse in 2008. One man was convicted last year and sentenced to life in prison, but a second suspect has not been caught.

After the murders, Wheeler-Brown became an outspoken critic of the "no-snitching" culture. She is convinced someone knows something that could crack the case, but the code of silence persists.

Building bonds on the football field, she said, is a way to chip away at that wall between residents and police.

"We just have to keep trying to change the mindset," she said. "My son didn't die in vain."

Wheeler-Brown is right to be hopeful, said police Lt. Paul McWade. Before Saturday, the department's team had twice played the Wildwood Dream Team, made up of south St. Petersburg teens from the city's Teen Arts, Sports and Cultural Opportunities program.

"At first they're a little nervous around us, but once they figure out we're just like they are, they open up and we open up," McWade said.

Since then, McWade and other officers have seen Wildwood Dream Team players in school or on patrol. There's a flash of recognition and usually a bit of boasting from Dream Team members. They beat the police team both times.

Emmanuel "Stew" Stewart, 19, played in both those victories and on Saturday.

"It really does break down barriers," Stewart said. "Coming out here to get to know each other is just a good idea."

But will it help convince people to speak up against their friends and neighbors if they commit a crime?

Maybe, said 17-year-old Dream Team player Cyrus Webster.

"If people stand up, we'll have a better community," he said. "There won't be so much violence and so much trouble, and we won't have to deal with stuff like that."

• • •

The Dream Team and the Green Machine met in Saturday's final game.

Final score: 26 to 7, Dream Team.

The teams slapped hands and then the victors, their bragging rights bolstered, hoisted their trophy.

Detective Brett McKean knows what to expect the next time he encounters his rivals.

"Of course you're going to talk a little trash," McKean said, "but it's all in good fun."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter @tmarrerotimes.

Barriers between St. Petersburg police and teens break down on football field 04/26/14 [Last modified: Saturday, April 26, 2014 10:50pm]
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