THE CARVER MOBB
New York City's street football league isn't the Super Bowl.
by Ivan Solotaroff
It's something much more important.
On the FDR Drive overpass by lower Manhattan's Houston Street, a group of men begins assembling an hour before nightfall one steamy Thursday in late June. Some come from security, construction, or livery jobs, others from long subway rides or carpools from the Bronx or Spanish Harlem. A few have brought wives and children.
Ranging in age from 19 to 51, short and wide to superbly conditioned, they seem a ragtag group, but for the cleats around their necks, the footballs a few carry, and the insults, bro-hugs and daps they exchange as their number swells to a dozen and they head into the Baruch Projects and its 75-year-old playground. More than 90 minutes of grueling calisthenics and sprints in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, it's clear this is an elite, disciplined group: These practices are every Tuesday and Thursday night it's not raining or snowing, 40-plus weeks a year. As twilight falls, passersby ogle the regimented testosterone on field, though not for long: The spectacle of men bonding to face the realities of barrio life is fairly common, and it rarely lasts.
These guys do, because they're Carver Mobb — the name from Spanish Harlem's George Washington Carver Projects, where the core half-dozen grew up in the 1970s. A team for 21 years, they've been the powerhouse of New York's half-dozen seven-on-seven rough-touch football leagues for a decade. Essentially two-hand-touch taken to bloodsport level, with two 25-minute halves, a mostly running clock, and referees to nominally control the mayhem, it's the closest these weekend warriors will come to professional sport, though many are high-caliber athletes. Most played high school ball, but only a half-dozen of the 200-plus devotees I'll meet made it to college; two were walk-ons for the New York Giants or Jets, one played semi-pro in Coney Island, another plays Arena football.
If you've made it into the Mobb, this is your life.
Pamz coaches Carver Mobb from the sidelines.
Nonetheless, this has been one of New York's most enduring if unheralded subcultures since players formed the first league in the south Bronx 35 years ago: the outlet for inner-city rage, profanity and love of football. If you've made it into the Mobb, this is your life. Fall, winter, and spring seasons, overlapping yearlong save the dead of winter and August (when many play softball or vacation in the Dominican Republic) culminate in three-week playoffs, where stakes are huge. Psychically: These are bragging rights so fiercely contested several teams are fielded by local drug lords. And financially: Winner-take-all championship purses, aka "Chips," make up the cumulative league fees ($600 to $1,000 per team, varying with seasons and leagues), minus a minimal amount of expenses. Teams pay refs after games, and the fields of battle, typically the roughest stretches of parks at the extremities of the boroughs, are free — 80-by-40-yard gridirons with 5-yard intervals marked by traffic cones.
A Chip is usually worth $5,000-$10,000, and over time they add up: The Carver Mobb has won 37 to date. Or 34. Or perhaps 39. Statistics tend to be rather fluid in a street sport like this.
As are the leagues, which come and go, often failing not for lack of interest but for spiraling violence. If all sport is ritualized warfare, it's often difficult to distinguish the two in rough-touch. That's particularly true as playoffs approach, when midfield fights emptying both benches can involve fans, referees, even league commissioners, usually aging veterans of the sport. "City" (short for the Bronx's Coop City/City Island League) was the most desired Chip, until recruiting refs became difficult and the commissioner's tires were slashed.
The Mobb's 33-man roster (twice the typical number for teams) also varies year to year: with injury (concussions and ankle injuries are most common, though every game I attend has at least one athlete on crutches), retirement, defections to other teams, and recruitments of formerly hated rivals. And, most crucially, with the current state of incarceration/probationary status of Paul Rivela.
Known as "Coach Pamz," he's the shortest, widest one out there tonight, and the one working his drills hardest. Pamz hasn't played in years, but he's the Carver Mobb's heart and soul.
And mouth: Once a game starts, you won't go long without hearing his opinions above all others — and a large number of opinions are expressed, both on field and off, before, during, and after games. Usually concerning the skin color or alleged sexual proclivities of the day's opponents, the N and F words are pretty much nonstop for two hours.
At 40, Pamz's spent almost half his life behind bars. Lengthy "visits upstate" are not uncommon in these leagues, but the Mobb's history and Chip wins correlate highly to his. During his third and, hopefully, final jail stretch, 2009-12, "a drug charge," as he explains (no one in this league seems to have suffered a conviction, only a "charge"), Pamz coached Mobb games over the phone: "I'd save my minutes up all week for the game-time hours on Saturday and Sunday." The Mobb averaged only one Chip a year in that span.
During the team's peak, which came from 2004-08, the average was closer to six a year. It came after Pamz "did only the minimum on a six-to-life" 1998 drug case, his second incarceration. "The charge was a kilo of cocaine," he says, "automatic life under the Rockefeller Laws, but, luckily for me, it came with parole. By 2008, we owned this city, four Chips in two weekends alone, $33,000. We went to Miami Beach: Five days, flights and hotels for 33 niggas, and hard as we partied, we came back with $13,000." The trip has since become a yearly tradition.
The Mobb first came together in 1993, after Pamz's unexpected early probation at 21. "I'd caught a manslaughter charge at 14," he shrugs, "but I only did the minimum. Don't ask me how. I was a real knucklehead then." Six schoolyard friends approaching manhood started playing pickup football in a concrete schoolyard on 112th Street and Lenox Avenue, then joined a league when they saw they were good. "Actually, when we saw how good Chucky was," Pamz corrects himself, nodding at a well-built 6'3 man of 40, whose thick black glasses, plain white T-shirt, quiet grace and easy smile set him apart; at tonight's practice, everyone else wears uniforms with numbers. Pamz's "number" is "OG."
Pamz's friend "since kindygarten," in 1993, Chuck Martinez was also newly back in Spanish Harlem from his time upstate — "Not in Dannemora [the Clinton Correctional Facility] like me," demurs Pamz. "He played college ball. Chuck was always a good boy, the only one among us — he's our Tim Duncan — and the best Spanish point guard in New York. Ever. Ask anyone, I mean anyone." (I asked Chuck. "I was a backup small forward at SUNY-Delhi for two years," he shrugs it off with that easy smile. "But I flunked out.")
The QB is key in rough-touch — Chuck can hit you between the numbers from 60 yards out — but it's not about arm strength so much as what he sees. Athleticism is important, the crucial talent being neither agility nor speed, but an ability to hold onto a ball while being pummeled to the ground. Given all that violence downfield, and the stakes involved, it's more crucial to see whose temper has been lost, both teammates' and opponents.' Victory is often determined by who can walk this sport's very fine line between aggression and a rage so blinding concentration is lost. That happens so quickly in rough-touch — one, two plays with 2:00 to go that win or lose the Chip.
Chuck's clutch targets are therefore usually older guys, the ones with families on the sidelines and smiles: Danny Encarnacion, 41, the only original Mobb member playing downfield. And Wes Santiago, a former rival from a former rough-touch dynasty, Sugar Hill (no longer extant), who at 50 looks like he could take NFL minutes. "If a fight broke out back in the day," recalls Pamz, "Wes was the dude every Mobb guy tried to punch.
if your sport is football, rough-touch can often seem like its very essence: controlled warfare.
"Him too," Pamz adds, pointing to former Sugar Hill veteran Joe Blow, who at 41 claims 63 Chips. That's a huge, unlikely number, debated among old-timers when they gather in the shade after games over Coronas and Jackhammers, the sport's unofficial beverage: semi-frozen pineapple or mango juice containers spiked heavily with rum. Joe plays nonstop, however, on many teams, his love for the game boundless. And he also has that same easy smile and quietude as Chuck and Wes, which I'll learn marks this sport's elite. It's easy to smile when you win.
That ability — to walk the line between aggression and rage, quiet and smiling — makes this sport, though at times ugly to watch (and listen to), ultimately beautiful. It's the love of the game that brings these men out, 40-plus weekends a year, decade after decade. And if your sport is football, rough-touch can often seem like its very essence: controlled warfare. There are rules governing how hard you can hit — each league has its (not very long) rule book, but in practice each game sets its own violence level — a balancing act of boundaries tested by sudden escalations of rage that are remarkably similar to the rules of conduct governing a street fight. Everyone's come out for love of the game and a desire to win, but things do tend to get out of hand.
Two Saturdays later, I see that quiet smile, unfortunately for Carver, on the face of a superbly built, imperious man wearing the blue No. 2 jersey of today's opponent, Hustler. It's July 4, the Championship Weekend: today's League 718 final, a $6,000 Chip, and tomorrow's $5,000 BQFL Chip in Brooklyn's Seaview Park. It kicks off with a mercifully cool, clear morning under the Whitestone Bridge in the Bronx's Point Ferry Park, the Empire State Building visible past Riker's Island down the East River, its breeze blowing off any stench from a nearby landfill. Sidelines are packed 40-strong each side, with players, families, a record five pit bulls, and the makings of postgame barbecues: roughly equal parts solid, liquid, and more inhalable refreshments. The war of words is underway well before a whistle blows; familiar odors from both sidelines let you know the barbecue has begun for many already, as do the extremely high levels of vituperation expressed, in everything from English to Spanglish to flat-out Spanish. A rough head count tells me that 70-80 percent of this sport's adherents are Latino.
it's less about superior play than about unity, on and off the field.
A month into watching Carver, I've grown used to their winning ways, and when they end the first half up 21-12 on a 30-yard bullet downfield to Wes, the Chip seems in their pocket. As I've learned, it's less about superior play (sides are fairly equal in these leagues) than about unity, on and off the field. A T-shirt of one of the wives says it all: WE'RE NOT A TEAM, WE'RE FAMILY. As does the Mobb's huddle chant before each half: "1, 2, 3 Family! 4, 5, 6 Ella!" Ella was a founding member's 1½-year old daughter, tragically lost to heart trouble. Yellow angel wings and her name adorn the different jerseys the Mobb wears year-round. All either white, red or blue (Chuck's favorite team being the New England Patriots), jerseys now sport pink as well, one of the wives recently suffering breast cancer. And when the Mobb's yearly vacation to Miami comes, it's been with families ever since Chuck got married. Not everyone likes that change ("Chucky never had any balls when it came to women," as a teammate tells me, way-y-y-y off the record), but on the Mobb the rule is unbending: What's good for one is good for all. Particularly if it's Chuck.
That unity alone seems to guarantee today's Chip over Hustler, a sentiment put with typical eloquence and volume at halftime by David Bethea, aka Boo-Boo, a thick-set man, who at 29 is the youngest Mobb veteran, and its most voluble other than Pamz: "You faggots not even a fucking team," he informs Hustler, "just a buncha ghetto-ass, dick-eating niggas from the same block."
Except for that No. 2 in blue. He's been leveling Mobb players regularly, on offense and defense, always just legally enough not to draw a flag: Roughness or personal fouls are rarely called in these leagues — there wouldn't be a single play: If you approve of NFL games where the refs "let the guys play," you'll enjoy this sport. And besides most of the refs are former and sometimes current players. They know it'll work itself out, one way or another.
And No. 2's impeccably controlled fury is old news to Chuck, Danny, Wes and, particularly, Joe Blow — who after the game will introduce me to this sledgehammer of a man as Kendle, a former teammate on Carver, as well as other teams.
But Kendle's getting to the younger kids who form the bulk of today's squad. "A year or so back," Pamz explains, "I saw we had to retool, get younger. We played this team, YMM, and when they kept their cool and beat us on the final possession, we took them on. I tell my guys: ‘Don't matter how long you been Mobb, if these kids're better, you're sitting. And they all have, one time or another. Except Chuck, of course."
YMM ("Your Mother's Mustache") is made up of 10 players 20 to 26 year old from the Bronx's Moshulu Parkway area, and they've made their mark on Carver Mobb, appearing in every game. In some leagues, the squad is actually called YMM. Several of the younger kids play both ways, or on special teams, but YMM is always out on defense, Carver Mobb's own private "Legion of Boom." Their greater foot speed and endurance enables them to replace Mobb players in their 40s. More important, they have that youthful desire "to take names," so crucial on defense: Scores happen on 70, 80 percent of possessions in rough-touch. With linemen unable to rush the QB until "five Mississippi" (only two blitzes per possession are allowed), it's easier to score than defend. If you do stop a team, blasting the ball out of a receiver's hands, forcing him out, or on an interception, you've made a name for yourself.
Like "Caca," a short, wiry kid whose real name I never learn: "Nobody throws to Caca Island anymore [the name borrowed from the Patriots' Darrelle Revis]," he boasts, showing me a florid tattoo sleeve down his arm, ending in his number: 24. "'Cause I shut down the best receiver in every league last year, then the second-best, third-best ... I shut down every fucking nigga out there."
The YMM kids become emotional when Boo-Boo takes exception to a late hit from Kendel, however, and a fight breaks out. Far more intense than any I've seen thus far (this is a Chip game) it brings 45, 50 men midfield in a heartbeat. The violence comes in frightening waves of blue and red, stopping, then starting again, for a good 10 minutes.
The animus continues into crunch time, and mistakes start happening: coverages blown for big yardage on do-or-die downs, an interception and, crucially, balls dropped on conversions of the two TDs the Mobb is only able to put up in their four second-half possessions. It's not unnoticed on the Hustler sidelines, where the trash talk now turns to travel plans a few YMM kids had announced for August: "No Santo Domingo for you little niggas. Maybe Coney Island."
Hustler is still down six points on their final possession, backed up to their 5-yard line on third down, and out of timeouts. With two minutes left, only two stops are needed by Carver for the Chip, two stops for $6,000. A 35-yard strike to an unattended receiver, a squat little pit bull of a man who hadn't caught a pass all game, gets the first down (at midfield), however. When the same receiver scores two plays later and Hustler converts to go up a point, they've left only 58 seconds, which proves not enough time for Carver Mobb. Like that, the Chip's been lost.
Anyone who doubts the fundamental difference between anger and rage should witness something like this.
The benches empty quickly onto midfield — not to fight, but for the handshake line, and it's shocking to see how warm and sincere the embraces are. "It's all love," Joe Blow smiles. "Just, during the game, maybe more a love-hate kinda thang." He tries to explain the twofold nature of win and loss to the YMM kids in the postgame huddle, as does Pamz: "I've been hunted my whole life," he screams. "And I'm a hunter, too. You got an animal wounded, you never take your eye off him. Today, you did and it cost the Chip. Everyone's telling me we're too young with YMM, and today you fucking proved it. Tomorrow's a new day. Tomorrow, we hunt and kill."
Several YMM kids are inconsolable, however. None more so than Caca. He keeps it together until he removes his jersey after the huddle, an act that proves too much to bear. In seconds, his body is convulsed in rage, the muscles of his torso, arms and back tightening, loosening, then tightening further with each screaming outburst — variously against his teammate's inability to get A SINGLE FUCKING STOP in the second half, how nothing in his life ever works out. Time and again, it seems to end. But then it comes again, exactly the same as today's midfield fight.
Anyone who doubts the fundamental difference between anger and rage should witness something like this. I've watched it for a month, lived in this city half a century, and have devoted much of my career to reporting its various inner-city manifestations. But feel I only now begin to truly get it.
Documentary: How Carver Mobb redefined street football
Or think I have. That true reportage comes after halftime of Sunday's game, against a tough, and atypically all-African-American squad, New Era. It's the biggest Chip of the spring/summer season, the BQFL (Brooklyn-Queens Football League), held at Seaview Park on the southernmost edge of Brooklyn.
I have my eyes on the ball on a busted play downfield when something explodes in my chest. I'm knocked back three-and-a-half steps into someone who braces me against a fall, then become aware that my heart has stopped beating — that comes only when it resumes. Then I feel a panicky alarm that I've been shot: I've been hit, hard, but never felt anything like this.
I see a New Era defender staring at me, then the back of a YMM receiver, as he rushes back to the huddle, and my mind pieces together what's just occurred. I'd been standing three-deep on the sideline when a typical full-speed altercation ended with the YMM receiver pushed out of bounds; those in front had parted and I'd taken the kid's elbow straight to the big bone of my thoracic cavity. Luckily: an inch to the left or right would've cracked a rib. People begin to ask if I'm OK, and the New Era defender keeps eye contact, awaiting my response.
"Damn, y'all niggas hit hard!" I say with my first, extraordinarily painful, full breath. It suddenly becomes very quiet. Oops.
I've been hearing this word nonstop, and several of my first-half notes concern its usage in today's game, the first against African-American opponents, by both teams indifferently. That all seems immaterial in the long seconds that pass until the New Era defender nods imperceptibly, smiles even more so, then says, "Welcome to the BQFL," before returning to the battlefield.
Which this particularly barren stretch of Seaview Park truly is today. This is the final spring season game: no more rough-touch till fall, the season devotees live for. "From September through playoffs," says Pamz, "we watch NFL only on DVR. I'm out of my house before sun up and not back till it's dark." The BQFL has also become New York's most desired Chip, enough to field three full divisions. This "A" League Chip is the last of today's three contested, and there are a good 200 people still here to "watch." Loudly: The moment you drop a ball or get beat badly on a play, dozens of spectators are invoking your alleged skin color and anal-passive tendencies.
I see how high the stakes are when a vicious horse-collar hit on a kickoff return by Brown, a YMM player, levels him for three minutes. He seems unconscious until he expels a huge mouthful of gray-yellow liquid and gets up, wobbly. Pamz looks him over, then gives him the bad news: "You got all summer to be hurt, nigga. You're back in next defense."
"We're not a team, even a family. Carver Mobb's a multigenerational fucking brand."
Today's animus is also somehow stronger than yesterday's: two midfield fights emptying both benches, each not only a full 10 minutes, but promising to extend past the game: "Don't even think about coming to my projects, you fucking faggots. Won't make it a block." The word's gone out that YMM players had crumbled in the clutch yesterday — that the Carver Mobb dynasty is vulnerable through them — and they're being targeted remorselessly, by foes and fans alike: Everyone knows each other here, and will soon be squaring off in battle.
But these kids have clearly learned from the defeat. All 10 keep their cool, led on field and off today less by Pamz than Boo-Boo. With a full decade in these leagues, he has an enduringly youthful, crazy passion for the game, which they see and respect. As does Pamz, who lets Boo-Boo take the halftime huddle: "You niggas know how emotional I get," he tells them. "Don't FUCKING make me cry. And when you win this Chip, do it like a man, like you been there before. You little niggas are Carver now." Later, Pamz will tell me he couldn't agree more. "We're not a team, even a family," he says. "Carver Mobb's a multigenerational fucking brand."
One by one, they come up with big plays when needed. Chuck's flawless today at QB, despite a severe ankle injury, as are Wes and Joe Blow, also playing hurt. But when the Chip gets sealed with a final TD and only a minute to go, it's YMM receiver Rico who brings down the 50-yard bomb. And when trophies are handed out, and Chuck gets both League MVP and Championship Game MVP, he immediately hands the second to Boo-Boo. "This Chip's all about you," he says.
I look for Caca, to see how the result compares to yesterday's, but neither he nor Pamz are to be found for a good hour. When both reappear, joining Carver and a dozen past and future foes for Coronas and Jackhammers in the shade of one of the few trees in this sun-baked part of the park by the Belt Parkway, Pamz has six pizzas, and Caca's smile is a mile-wide: The BQFL has presented him with a prize far more valuable than a check or trophy: professional receiver's gloves stitched with No. 24. "Going to change that to number 88 soon," he says to Wes, who's owned No. 88 for three decades now: In fact, no one, on any team I've seen, has worn No. 88.
Only Wes, icing his ankle on a lawn chair next to Chuck, who is icing down next chair over, won't even dignify that with an answer. I ask Chuck how much longer he thinks they'll be able to keep playing, and he just gives me that smile and shrugs his shoulders. He and Wes are taking their wives to Miami Beach on Wednesday — the trip paid for by today's Chip — and for the moment, the moment is all that counts. "Just another beautiful day in the park," he says, raising his Jackhammer. "Another day, another Chip."