A Chance to Win began as a series of articles in the Newark Star-Ledger, where you were a reporter until 2008. What made you decide to expand upon your story?
I spent about three months in the spring of 2008 reporting the original article, which for a newspaper is a relatively long time. But when it was over, I felt like I’d done a superficial job; I’d missed a lot of important moments, and I wanted to see how things turned out for Rodney, DeWan, Derek and the rest of the team. I also began to see that the characters’ lives in many ways reflected a broader struggle in Newark, and that it would be possible to draw historical and contemporary parallels.
I initially envisioned spending a year with Rodney and the kids. But I came to realize that in order to tell an intimate and rewarding book-length story, I’d need to hang out for much longer. And so now, five years later, here we are.
You delve into the lives of two young boys (Derek and DeWan) and two grown men (Rodney and Thaiquan) in A Chance to Win. What was it like getting to know these characters and their families? Did anything surprise you along the way?
I did a lot of hanging out, much of it just getting to know them, and letting them become comfortable with me, but also taking written or mental notes. I tried to reciprocate their trust and candor, introducing them to my family, and telling them about my life. I wrote something about that in the book’s prologue, and I’ll repeat it here: I came to see them not just as subjects, but as friends. Many reporters are uncomfortable with such relationships, but in this case it felt natural to me, and it drove my desire to write a fair and truthful account of their lives. I still keep in touch with them all, and I hope to continue for as long as they’ll allow me.
Despite my experience as a crime reporter, I was often shaken by the spurts of brutal violence: the death of Darnell Chase, the drive-by outside Carmel Towers, the gunfire that felled a young boy on a bike, an October night of gang-related gunfire that had many kids afraid to go outside. That said, I was also pleasantly surprised at the strength of the relationships I developed. I got the sense from some of the people I wrote about—the boys in particular—that they didn’t want me to go away when the book was finished. I began my reporting while learning how to be a father myself and my experiences with the boys and their families influenced me in profound ways. I believe that I’m a better man, and dad, for knowing them. I did not expect that to happen.
It’s clear that Newark is facing some serious challenges – gun violence and a struggling education system, to give a few examples from your book. How do you think Rodney’s Little League program is affecting the lives of children who are growing up in that tough environment?
In an environment as unforgiving as the South Ward of Newark, it often seems as if the forces of nature are conspiring against the community, particularly its children. In that context, neighborhood institutions, even small ones like a ball team, offer a sense of stability and dependability. On a very basic level, Rodney and his fellow volunteer coaches give boys and girls an opportunity to feel really good about themselves and to have fun.
No kid forgets his or her Little League coach—I haven’t, and neither will Rodney’s original cast of Eagles. He didn’t just show them how to play baseball. He showed them that he cared. He encouraged them. He pulled some of them off the streets. For those who didn’t have a steady man at home, Rodney’s coaching could be seen as paternal. I have a feeling that they won’t fully appreciate his impact on their lives until much later.
I believe that Rodney has, indirectly and directly, saved lives—or at least improved them. But there’s also the nagging reality that the Eagles are a tiny team in a tiny league in a struggling corner of the city, and a volunteer baseball coach can only do so much. Rodney’s own childhood stands as a cautionary tale that things can still go very wrong.
How are Rodney and the boys doing today?
Rodney continues to volunteer as a Little League coach, and has expanded his repertoire to flag football for boys too young to tackle. Between bouts of medical problems related to his injury, he continues to contemplate other opportunities, but does not have a job. He still lives in Zion Towers. In the winter of 2013, Rodney was honored by the Essex County Board of Freeholders for his work with children, and on the night he received the proclamation, the audience was packed with friends, family and colleagues.
DeWan attends a high school run by KIPP, and continues to exhibit streaks of academic and athletic brilliance. When I ran into him recently, he reported that he was playing running back for a varsity team and still aspires to earn a college scholarship. He and his family—his mother, two brothers and newborn sister—no longer live on Elizabeth Avenue.
After a rough start at his new experimental high school, Derek transferred to his dream school, Arts High, where he is flourishing as a drummer. He promises me that his grades are good, too. He has become something of a jazz aficionado, and performs with various school bands. He also continues to plays gospel with his church group, the Golden Lights. He still lives with his aunt, Mary, in the South Ward.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading A Chance to Win?
I hope readers will feel a genuine emotional connection with the main characters. I hope readers who live in Newark and other struggling cities will find an honest and accurate portrayal and that readers from outside the city will better understand the nuances of life in a place that many prefer to ignore. I hope readers will feel a personal connection with the book’s broader themes: the fragile innocence of childhood; the desire for hope and forgiveness; the notion that anyone, no matter what they’ve done, deserves a chance to make amends; that redemption doesn’t come easy. I also hope that some people will be inspired to sign their kids up for Little League, or volunteer to help a team.