Several years ago Malcolm Gladwell predicted football, “a sport about as safe as running one’s head into a concrete wall,” would become segregated culturally.

He insinuates, as the Atlantic puts it, “those who do continue playing in college and beyond tend to be from the inner city or rural areas of dire poverty. Some of these young men may play for the love of the game; many surely do so because they have been offered no better path to success.”

He received a ton of flack for his opinions, by the way.

Families with options are opting out of football for their children, or forcing big changes in certain districts, as the concussion scare escalates.

Here in Dallas, we met a group of children and coaches for whom football offers one of few escapes from poverty; encountered coaches who say football saved their lives as youths; and saw, in real time, how the game can defer young men from crime, gangs, drugs and other temptations all teens face.

The cost, of course, could be brain damage from getting knocked around so.

Not everyone agrees, of course. And Popular Science reports we have no solid evidence concerning sport-specific risk.

Some food for thought: Here’s how little-guy football is improving lives in lower-income, black neighborhoods of Dallas.

But might these adorable, tough-as-nails tykes pay with their cognition as they grow? If science doesn’t have a specific answer, I cannot purport to, but it’s time we do some thinking on the subject.

Take Hamilton Park, for instance.

Hamilton Park Legacy players. The neighborhood has two youth football teams. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

In 2014, vague reports surfaced about the fatal shooting of a Hamilton Park man. Violent crimes in Hamilton Park don’t typically make front-page news; several are reported each year.

But the slaying of Gregory Callahan struck a nerve in the community. Callahan, a Lake Highlands High School graduate, was an integral part of the neighborhood. He was one of 12 coaches of the Hamilton Park Bobcats youth football team. A father and husband, he and his wife took nightly walks around the neighborhood, say friends — he had a lot of them and a few friendly rivals.

Losing Coach Greg was like losing a father to some Hamilton Park children, says Bobcats coach and president Tevar Watson.

Photo by Rasy Ran.

“A lot of these boys, their fathers and big brothers are out of the picture, sometimes in prison. Greg played a large role in these kids’ lives. And our kids go through so much. The loss is massive,” Watson says.

Both Watson and Rasheed Aziz, who coaches a rival Hamilton Park youth football organization called Legacy, spend most weekday nights working with little leaguers. But they took off the Tuesday following Callahan’s death to speak at a town hall meeting at Hamilton Park’s Willie B. Johnson Recreation Center. A flier posted at Forest Lane and Schroeder advertised a discussion about “making Hamilton Park a safer, healthier community” but the assembly was in response to the Callahan murder, for which a neighborhood juvenile was arrested.

At the meeting, coaches Watson and Aziz sit side-by-side, though they are adversaries — Aziz broke from the Bobcats years ago to form Legacy. Affiliates of the respective teams compete not only for wins but also for resources in a financially wanting environment.

But as they separately take the podium and address about 200 neighbors and a few city officials, it’s clear they share similar feelings.

Both are angry about what happened to Callahan. And both blame themselves and the community for allowing violence to permeate the neighborhood.

“We let the neighborhood become the ’hood,” Aziz says. “We take the neighbor out of the neighborhood. We sat back and allowed this to happen.”

Both grew up in Hamilton Park and have watched crime increase over the years, and they agree a change for the better must start with the youth.

“I am talking about kids under 15,” Watson says. “Over 15, they have their minds made up. We have to reach the young.”

And both believe in the healing power of sports, so much so that each dedicates a large portion of his life to youth football, which each believes is a key component in repairing this hurting neighborhood.

1968 Hamilton Park

Hamilton Park is located southeast of the Central Expressway/I-635 interchange, north of Forest Lane. Sections of Hamilton Park feed into Lake Highlands High School. Hamilton Park Elementary School, a Richardson ISD magnet school, serves students from Lake Highlands and other RISD neighborhoods.

The Hamilton Park subdivision was designed in 1954 as a black neighborhood with an elementary, junior high and high school, former District 10 Councilman Alan Walne said in a past Advocate interview. But the high school was shuttered as part of the desegregation effort in the 1970s.

“In my opinion, when they split them up, it was one of the worst things that could happen to them,” Walne said. “The buses drove up and started taking them off to Lake Highlands High School — they said ‘we’re going to split you all up’ — which is unfortunate because, you talk about a sense of community, they had it.”

“When I was a kid going down the wrong path, football saved my life.”—Trevor Watson, coach

The change, he said, began to tear at the tight community bonds.

Another former District 10 Councilman, Bill Blaydes, has said that the neighborhood experienced changes over the years that led to problems.

“Families and professionals lived in the original Hamilton Park, raised their children, and when the children grew up, they moved away to other parts of Dallas in many cases … but today you have a neighborhood in which the seniors are dying, the children are spread out, and now the majority of Hamilton Park is for lease … which equals less sense of ownership and pride in the neighborhood.”

Photo by Rasy Ran.

At the time of integration, there were a couple of little league football teams in Hamilton Park. Many years ago, Watson says, the various teams merged into one, the Bobcats, which is also the Hamilton Park school mascot.

Little league football provided a distraction for youngsters tempted by examples of deviancy in a disenfranchised neighborhood and a skill to keep them motivated through high school and college, Watson says. Plus, he adds, “When I was a kid going down the wrong path, football saved my life.”

Until about four years ago, when Aziz started Legacy, the Bobcats were the only Hamilton Park team. Aziz has been an organizer since his high school days, he says, when he started a Richardson ISD chapter of BASU (Brothers and Sisters United), an African American advocacy organization. He says students from Hillcrest, Richardson, Berkner and Lake Highlands high schools attended the meetings. “It was a big deal then,” he says. He’d been on a bad path until a girl and the movie Malcolm X made him want to do better.

“One day, thank God, someone told me I was great … it changed everything.” —Rasheed Aziz

“The girl, she cared about my grades and was going to cut me loose because I didn’t. I promised her I’d do better, and I did,” he says. “As for Malcolm X, I saw he was a bad guy who turned around and did something good. That motivated me. I learned that you could be cool by doing good things.”

Aziz’s father, who he says was in and out of jail all his life, was murdered. A few years ago, his aunt was gunned down by her estranged husband in a Greenville Avenue church parking lot. “I’ve seen death. I was bitter as a kid. I was mad at the world, mad at my dad. I was out here doing dumb stuff. Then one day, thank God, someone told me I was great … it changed everything.”

Aziz does not know or share many details about the juvenile arrested for the Callahan murder (at time of publication, Dallas Police had not filled an open-records request for incident reports and 911 calls). Aziz says he knows the accused, who he says is a Hamilton Park teen whose family has a troubled reputation. “They almost seem cursed — this is a family whose name always comes up — generation after generation. In a way I want to reach out to them and help them. It has to suck being a kid from a family like this, knowing the reality is — you’re probably not going to make it.”

The Legacy Youth Sports organization will provide positive alternatives — to involvement in gangs or drugs, for example — for kids caught in negative cycles, Aziz says. Legacy is now a subcommittee of the nonprofit Hamilton Park Historic Preservation Foundation, and Aziz’s plans for the organization are ambitious. He says he hopes to broaden the reach of youth activities for ailing neighborhoods. The program, which is open to youth from Dallas and Richardson, offers football, cheerleading, track and basketball. Unlike the Bobcats, Legacy is not rooted in a specific religion (part of the Bobcats’ mission is to “bring the kids to Christ,” Watson says). Aziz says he wants Legacy kids from different cultural or religious backgrounds to feel comfortable. “I’m not one to force religion on people,” he says. He eventually hopes to include non-sports activities — the arts, he says, and educational branches.

Rasheed Aziz coaches Legacy. Photo by Rasy Ran

“Honestly, this is bigger than football,” Aziz says. Indeed, the Hamilton Park teams each yearn to beat the other on the football field, but mentorship and the provision of positive choices are fundamental goals shared by the coaches.

“We [the two football teams] are competing,” Aziz says, “but we are competing for good things for our kids. That is not bad.”

Hamilton Park benefits from having a distinct identity and, despite its problems, a heightened sense of pride compared with Lake Highlands’ other high-crime areas, such as high-density apartment communities. Blaydes says the neighborhood’s park and recreation center located along the White Rock Trail is a “true jewel” and “very much a part of the fabric of Lake Highlands.”

Nowhere is the neighborhood’s potential more evident than at a scrimmage between the Bobcats and Legacy, which took place a few nights after the town hall meeting.

Hundreds of people swarm Hamilton Park Elementary School’s athletic field — multiple football scrimmages are in progress. Coaches are bellowing. Moms are selling concessions. Little girls on a cheer squad are chanting. The playground is teeming with tots. Kids too young or too old for little league have their own games underway. At first blush, it looks like an ultra-positive community gathering.

But the event belies some of the neighborhood’s heartache. For one, Coach Greg’s boisterous voice is missing.

“Everything has changed,” Watson says. “He was the mouth you would hear. The other coaches are out there yelling, but to us, there is a great silence.”

Aziz says it is beautiful that both teams are here together, providing a step toward strengthening the community.

“It took a lot of hard work to get this together. This is the first time we’ve all been together. This is what it’s all about,” he says, adding that, “This is the kind of thing Greg would have wanted to see.”

Unfortunately, Watson says, the turnout that night isn’t typical.

“Everything has changed. [Greg] was the mouth you would hear. The other coaches are out there yelling, but to us, there is a great silence.”—Watson, on death of Greg Callahan

“Yes, everyone wants to see the Bobcats play Legacy,” he says. But in general, turnout to family-friendly events in the neighborhood is low. “When there is a block party … with drinking and smoking, there are a thousand people there. When we have family day at the park, the football families are the only ones who show up.”

Both the Bobcats and Legacy make sports affordable for every family. Both teams enjoy sponsorships and outside help — Aqib Talib of the Denver Broncos, a Berkner grad, bought $5,000 worth of helmets for the Bobcats, Watson says, and his boss at a mortgage lending business recently helped pay for a player who couldn’t afford registration. The Bobcats also are sponsored by a foundation organized by Wade Smith, a tackle for the Houston Texans. But Watson says he would like to see more participation — more players and more support from the community.

This echoes sentiments expressed by Aziz at the town hall meeting. If we want to stop the cycles of violence, he told the group, residents and local business owners must support, with their money and time, programs that benefit the next generation. We can’t take for granted, Aziz says, that troubled youth “should know better,” as the phrase goes. “Sometimes they do not know better, and we need to teach them better.”

More than just football coaches, Aziz and Watson — and the 25 or so other men and women who volunteer their time to little league and cheerleading — believe they are working on the root problems of a troubled community by giving disadvantaged children a chance to break negative cycles.

Playing little league sports doesn’t guarantee the players won’t eventually turn to drugs and crime. “There are guys I played with who are in prison now,” Watson says. But it does show players there is another way.

“If all you want to do is hold hands and pray while misguided folks grab guns and prey, you are giving a pass to those that feel [murder] is acceptable.”—Aziz, on taking action

Greg Callahan’s death sent a shock wave through the Hamilton Park community, but will it spark true change, or will people forget about it in a few weeks?

“My hope, my goal, is that we turn it around,” Watson says.

Aziz says he will be “furious” if no action is taken to “honor Greg’s life.”

Aside from supporting youth sports, what are some of the immediate changes these community activists hope to see? Both say changing the vernacular is an essential start.

“We need to stop bragging about the bad,” Watson says. Aziz says that he hears people “bragging about HP being the ’hood, but when someone dies, all of a sudden it’s like: ‘community’.”

Watson says the entire community needs to pray for positive change.

Aziz says prayer is fine, but that without action and follow-through, it “equals another missed opportunity.” In a written message to his Hamilton Park neighbors on social media, he expounds: “… if all you want to do is hold hands and pray while misguided folks grab guns and prey, you are giving a pass to those that feel [murder] is acceptable.”