The Gainesville State Tornadoes didn’t exactly have a winning season last year (0-10), but they are the favorite team for ex-cons around the nation who are donating thousands of dollars for the team.
Gainesville State School is a juvenile detention facility with 270 teenage felons. It’s one of six facilities run by the state for juvenile offenders and it receives inmates from every corner of Texas. Dotty Luera is the Volunteer Services Director for Gainesville State. “A great deal of these kids haven’t really had a chance in life,” Luera says. “Most of them just need that chance.”
Gainesville State garnered media attention in 2008 for a game played against Grapevine Faith Christian School. Dozens of Grapevine students formed a spirit line for the inmates to run through at the beginning of the game. To the prisoner athletes, the idea of people cheering for them was so foreign that they ran around the side of the spirit line until a coach sent them back around. The private school’s fans spent the rest of the game in the Tornadoes’ bleachers, cheering on the convicted criminals.
Omid Ghaffari-Tabrizi, a Chicago lawyer specializing in expeal (clearing criminal records), stumbled upon the school a few months ago and posted the 2008 story to the Reddit community for ex-convicts that he moderates with Chris Cash and Kort Kirby.
Hundreds of former inmates look to the online forums for support and advice on how to restart their lives after prison. A criminal conviction on an adult record makes many ex-convicts pariahs within the job market. Cash spent 6 years in prison, learning how harsh the experience can be. “If these kids realize people believe in them, maybe it will give them a little faith in themselves,” Cash says.
When the boys at Gainesville State are released, they’re given a clean slate and an opportunity to start over. Ghaffari-Tabrizi, Cash and Kirby recognize that moment as a crossroads where a former inmate can either fall into recidivism or rejoin society. “If we can’t catch these kids before that, they will be a statistic,” Ghaffari-Tabrizi says.
The lawyer and Reddit moderators contacted the Tornadoes’ new football coach, Henry Thomas, to see what kind of help they could offer the team. Thomas, who has been the basketball coach for several years, pointed out that the state doesn’t provide much funding for the athletics department and the team is forced to make due with aging equipment.
Brandon is an inmate playing with the football team for the first time this fall. He’s been looking forward to joining the team since the beginning of this year but the humid climate and the gear make it a struggle at times. “The shoes are worn out,” Brandon says. “But we have to work out with what we have.”
Ghaffari-Tabrizi, Cash and Kirby started a GoFundMe page to raise the money. They had to verify with the fundraising website that they were legitimate and, in turn, the moderators confirmed with Gainesville State that the funds would be used as intended. To get the wheels spinning, the trio contributed $106 that they had left over from a previous fundraiser.
The remaining $194 was chipped in by a donor within an hour. Donations continued to roll in until settling a couple weeks later at a little over $3,500. Gainesville State will be able to supply new gear to other athletics departments with the extra money.
Most members of the football team see athletics as motivation to keep their noses clean while serving time. Gang activity exists within the inwardly sloping barbed wire fences, and inmates from opposing crews tangle with each other from time to time. How often depends on whom you ask, but inmates and staff agree unanimously about one thing: These turf wars never cross over to the football field.
Elliott has been at Gainesville State since last year and previously ran track, placing third in the district. He will be playing on the football field for the first time this September. “When we play football we don’t care about gangs,” Elliott says. “We focus on the team and the effort.”
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Joining the team means staying out of trouble, maintaining grades and reaching the higher levels of the rehabilitation program. Rosters will vary throughout the year. Players may be released or lose privileges for acting out. Brandon is one of the players who may be released before the final game, though it’s not unheard of for a player to stay slightly longer just to see the season through.
There are years with barely enough eligible inmates to field a football team. Players will have to line up on both sides of the ball throughout the games. But on good years like this one, there are enough players for separate offensive and defensive teams that can scrimmage.
Players are still surprised to hear that strangers are looking out for them. “It makes me feel like there are people who actually think about us,” Elliot says before adding a message to the donors. “Y’all are our motivation because y’all have been through worse, and yet y’all are still doing good.”
Kirby and Ghaffari-Tabrizi will travel to Gainesville in August to hand deliver the check to the school. They’ve invited other ex-convicts to join them in Texas to continue encouraging the Tornadoes. “The biggest thing I hope for is that the kids are really adopted by the community,” Ghaffari-Tabrizi says. “When people see a little love and support they can do incredible things.”