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‘VICE World of Sports’ kicks off second season in Miami’s Liberty City

Episode one explores why that area produces so many NFL stars

“If you think the football is better in Texas or California, you’re wrong. Plain and simple.”

Those are the words of J.T. Wilcox, a journalist and radio host in Miami, describing exactly how potent South Florida is as a gridiron hotbed. The area, one of many around the state referred to colloquially as “speed pockets” in the recruiting world, turns out NFL players at a dizzying rate and has for generations.

But as the premiere episode of VICE World of Sports explores, that’s not just because of coaching and interest. For many kids in Miami, it’s the only way out. Hosted by Selema Masekela, the show’s theme for the new season, “Rivals,” focuses on the stories beyond the field that affect the communities where they occur. The series will take you from Montana to Argentina, but to start things, it’s focused on not just Miami, but a specific part of town called Liberty City.

Teddy Bridgewater, Antonio Brown and Devonta Freeman are some names you might recognize who’ve come out of the storied program that Luther Campbell (yes, that one) started some years back. He’s still a pillar of the youth sports community, a role he took on after his days as a musician and free speech advocate were done. In his role as Coach Luke, he explains the harsh realities that still exist in his hometown.

“Football in the inner city is like a rite to passage,” the former 2 Live Crew frontman explained. “The competitive level starts at 4 years old. When you think about what they do in China with gymnastics at 4 years old and the pick of the litter. Major universities, they’re going to come down here and they’re going to look for the players. That’s why when you see college football, a lot of these kids are being offered scholarships in the eighth grade.”

The show is shot in typical VICE form. A lot of drones and follow cam shots, with a stylized look that more closely approaches a music video than a news program. And considering that some of these ‘hoods are exactly the places we’ve seen in many videos, it makes sense. And the realities are no less grim, from a storyline standpoint, either.

The episode follows the stories of Atlanta Falcons running back Freeman, and the tragic tale of King Carter, a 6-year-old Liberty City Warriors football player who was killed by a stray bullet intended for someone else while he played outside. The shooter was just a kid himself, 17. Carter was honored with a neighborhood walk and balloon release on the anniversary of his murder.

Freeman, who also played for Liberty City, was one of the ones who made it. Before becoming a star at Florida State before the NFL, he was the oldest of six kids who was effectively the head of his household. He took odd jobs all over the neighborhood, including one at a morgue, that a football coach ran, just as a way to keep his family’s needs met. The parallels to the story of Carter, who used to bring $22 to every practice so he could buy his whole team ice cream afterward, are heartbreaking. Carter didn’t make it. A couple of weeks ago, Freeman was in the Super Bowl.

The emotional nadir of the episode comes when Carter’s father describes how he found his son after he was shot. The story is so poignant that Masekela himself sheds a tear while listening to him. “Growing up in Miami, everybody think they gonna make the league,” Freeman says. “But at the same time, middle of the day, we playing football, a shootout will start.”

The class of the show comes in the footage of the simple theatrics of the youth football culture in Miami itself. It’s known as a big-money business underground for betting, but at its core, it’s still family fun. Shots of kids yelling at each other in dueling pep rallies and cheerleaders facing off remind you why it’s such an important space for so many children. The smallest kids on the field are known as “diaper boys,” which has to make you smile.

Ultimately, though, the concentration of talent in Liberty City makes their story unique. But the tales of lives cut short by gun violence, lack of opportunity and drug-infested neighborhoods happen all over the country. What’s remarkable is how much hope football provides for kids who’ve seen it work for others.

“You saw the swag? That wasn’t manufactured by a marketing firm,” Campbell says. “That’s just Liberty City. I don’t be surprised when our kids are successful in the NFL, at all. Because living in Liberty City, that’s a challenge itself.”

During a ride-along with the Miami police department, Masekela ventures out at night to get a glimpse at what life is like for those trying to keep people safe. Officer Daniel Macombe points out the high number of bullet holes from high-powered rifles that riddle fences in the neighborhood. But he understands full well that football is more than just a sport. It’s something to do, which is half the battle.

“We gotta make cool living again,” Macombe says. “We gotta make it cool to go out and want better. [The] police department has realized that the football programs, they work. Kids need to know it’s OK to win.”

If the rest of this series is anything like the premiere, VICE and Masekela have a winner on their hands, too.

Clinton Yates is a tastemaker at The Undefeated. He likes rap, rock, reggae, R&B, and remixes โ€” in that order.