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'Last Chance U' is Hardly a Last Chance

Poet Langston Hughes asked, "What happens to a dream deferred?" How does a person respond upon the realization that their driving passion could be taken away, halted or hindered in any way? What are the consequences of those actions? What did your environment shape your dreams to be?

Early while live streaming Part 2 of Last Chance U’s fourth season, I realized Bobby Bruce would be forced to answer those very questions.

Bobby starred in the previous season but has a tumultuous home life, overcoming legal challenges in the offseason. When the Independence (Community College) Pirates head coach Jason Brown was asked why Bobby returned to the team following his arrest, Brown's response was to the point.

"I love you," he said, "I want to see you not die and go to jail."

Bobby was asked to move from linebacker to safety. He’s too small to play linebacker at the Division I level and his coaches know that. Bobby's reality: his only shot at Division I football will be at safety. What is also Bobby's reality, however: he's not good enough to play safety in junior college. He was a force of impact as a linebacker, a liability as a safety.

He later tells his English instructor Latonya Pinkard that while he saw her in the stands enjoying the game, he didn't have a good time. When Ms. Pinkard said she had been looking for him, Bobby responded bluntly, glancing at her before his eyes found the ground: "Sideline. Where the sorry people at."

It's a stark contrast to his sack celebrations of the season before, or the raw emotion he displays when his girlfriend tells him he’s going to be a father. But right now, all that matters is football. Bobby's dream is being deferred. Will it dry up? Will it wither? Will it stink? Will it crust over? Or… will it explode?

The pressure mounts after another practice where Bobby doesn't get any reps. He's caught on camera stealing $250 from a dorm. In Coach Brown's retelling of events, he drops this gem: "...the bottom line is, if they wanted to go to college to get a degree and play football, they'd never do dumb shit like that."

Boom. Dream… Exploded.

Coach Brown has a point, but Bobby felt like his future was slipping away faster with each missed practice rep. If he's not playing, he doesn't matter.

As a 5’8" sophomore, Markiese King starred on South Oak Cliff High School’s varsity team. His work on the field garnered him an offer from Louisville and interest from schools like Texas, Texas Tech, TCU and others - until his work off the field made him ineligible for Division I. His mother put it like this: "As long as football season was going on, I never heard Markiese's grades weren't good. But as soon as football season was over, they calling me like ‘Markiese didn't do this, Markiese didn't do that'. But when he was playing football it was all okay, as long as y'all get a win."

All season, Markiese promises he'll get his school work done and constantly reiterates how he's going to graduate. All Markiese has to do, he says, "is graduate, and take care of Momma on Sundays".

With graduation already in danger, the prospect became bleaker in the fourth game, when Markiese received his third concussion of the young season. He laid motionless and non-responsive for a while, then popped up and lied to the trainer to pass the concussion testing. He was dead one second, rejuvenated the next.

After the loss - during which he takes another hit to the head - Markiese has to be separated from the rest of the team for an extended period after he and his teammates had a verbal spat that turned physical. Markiese said he remembered none of the ten-or-so minute ordeal.

Earlier in the episode, he recounted his first high school playoff experience. "I broke my ankle. Coach was like, ‘Shit, sorry Markiese. You can't be hurt. You got another leg. So the next game I went and I had popped some pain pills. Two 1600 milligram Ibuprofens and a Percocet. I taped my ankle on the inside and the outside, and I played. After that, I felt like I could play with anything."

It's impossible not to look to the "adults in the room" after examining these stories beyond the surface. How can high school coaches send a kid with a broken ankle back on the field in good conscience?

This season, the cameras showed Brown questioning his player's masculinity and sexuality. When he wasn't doing that, he was "drinkin' his yac and smokin his stick" while either scoffing at or agreeing with his Twitter mentions. The documentary mostly showed Coach Brown to be offensive and aggressive, and always just about an inch away from crossing the line.

The most egregious instance was chasing down and threatening Coach Jeff Sims of Garden City Community College after a loss. Coach Brown chases Coach Sims down the field shouting swears and threats while simultaneously yelling at his players to avoid the fray and the trouble that comes with it. This is the man supposedly leading young men on the brink back to safety.

If you look at Coach Brown's Twitter, you'll see nothing but retweeted messages of support from his former players. He's sent 221 players to Division I and 22 to the NFL, he said in a recent interview. I'm sure Coach Brown has redeeming qualities, but the cameras showed enough to where it shouldn't matter.

After Coach Brown was caught sending a text to a German player on his team calling himself "his new Hitler", the documentary cut to Coach Sims - Brown's rival throughout the two seasons. He says "We're working with the dudes that nobody else wants to work with." Brown intimates the same throughout the show.

When did football become a perverse "No Child Left Behind", replacing academic success with the broken bodies of young men, while chasing the most unlikely of dreams - even if everything goes right? When a person has survived on the margins for long enough, it feels like living. What happens when that margin gets slimmer? When that grade doesn't get changed? When you lose a step? Get hurt? Get benched? Get cut?

Why don't we expect more of these incredibly talented human beings? How did we get here?

How do players like Kailen Davis feel like writing a 20-page paper is akin to "writing a Harry Potter book"? He struggles throughout the season to complete the paper. When he turns it in at the end of the semester, the camera is sure to focus on a particular sentence on the page that begins, "He be messing…" while the professor is typing "profanity is not generally accepted in academic work" as a footnote. She picks at a few more things, remarks that the general content of the paper is good and he receives a passing grade. As far as Last Chance U is concerned, Kailen is a success story.

Kailen says his dream is to play defensive end in the NFL. One of the game's young stars, Myles Garrett, was touted as a top-3 talent in the 2017 NFL Draft. If he slipped, pundits said it would likely be due to his love of piano and art. How can that be considered a negative in his draft evaluations? Why is being "too smart" considered a bad thing in this game?

Conversely, what happens to a man who's value in society has been measured in touchdowns and tackles, when he can no longer run and hit? What happens to their concussed brains and broken bones? Why did we fail them so badly, to where they think this is the only option? Are they right? Are their coaches sabotaging any chance of success from the start?

What happens to their dream deferred?

Bobby Bruce got a job and moved home to take care of his infant son and his mother.

Markiese King was cut from the team after his room smelled like weed, despite his vehement denial of involvement. He's currently ineligible to play Division I college football.

Bobby and Markiese both have countless opportunities in front of them, even if they never lace up a cleat again. Hopefully, they realize it, even if some around them don't see it.

In the meantime, I'll continue waiting on my dream deferred: when we as a society will see how warped our new normal is. Broken and bruised just like their bodies and brains from year after year and football season after season. Or, when we will start to care.

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