Coaches using sports to save Memphis kids from the streets

A Memphis youth football team is coached by former gang members. It’s not a script for a movie, although it could be.

On a given night, you’ll find dozens of boys practicing football in a field near a North Memphis community center. More than 40% of the children in the neighborhood live in poverty.

The coaches hope they can help the boys break the cycle of poverty and gang violence in the area.

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Valerie Calhoun spoke with one of the coaches, Chavis Daniels who was a star in the Oscar-winning documentary ‘Undefeated.’ The Manassas High School graduate said football saved his life eight years ago -- and now he’s trying to return the favor to other young men in need.

“So much killing going on,” Daniels said. “How could you not worry? That’s why I do this.”

Daniels started the North Memphis Steelers, and their mantra is "School First! No Excuses!."

The coach is a former gang member, and he isn’t the only one on the staff.

“Probably every one of my coaches were in gangs,” he said.

To some, learning from former gang members may not sound like the answer; but once you hear from them, your opinion will likely change.

E.J. Simmons is another one of the coaches. He is a former Kingsbury High School receiver who was known as "Fast Eddie."

"I could've went to Division I college, but I got exposed to the streets," Simmons told FOX13.

He was picked up for a crime two days after his junior year ended .

"They detained me and told me I was a threat to society," Simmons said.

When Simmons got probation, he went straight to football practice and later signed with Bethel College. He told FOX13 football saved his life, and he's not alone.

"What better example to bring around these kids than someone who already been to where some of these kids are headed," Daniels explained.

A University of Memphis study on poverty shows one of the two zip codes in the neighborhoods surrounding the community center ranks as one of the most distressed in the state. More than 40% of children are living in poverty.

FOX13 checked the crime stats and found more than 655 crimes in the last 90 days. 200 of those were assaults.

Daniels said the solution starts on the football field.

"I know for a fact that football is the answer to a lot of this stuff. Because when we get out here for two hours, everything else in these kids' minds don't exist," he said.

80 boys. Two hours a day. Four days a week.

There are a lot of boys putting in a lot of hours, but the coaches are teaching much more than football.

10-year-old D'Mitris Russell told FOX13 he's learned a lot.

"You can't get nowhere if you don't work for it," he said.

Daniels admitted he can't save every kid, but he's hoping the lessons they learn will keep them on the field and off the streets.