All late summer, bikers and walkers on the canal path at Brighton Town Park have watched boys age 7 – 11 practicing blocking, passing, and fumble recoveries — with plenty of water in this scorching August. They are the new team in town: the Roc City Steelers.
Often seeing the team while biking, I dropped by for a couple of practices where team organizer Marquita Tubbs explained the Steelers had recently joined the Greater Rochester Pop Warner League. In the Fall, the Steelers will be playing games down the road at Buckland Park.
The practice turnouts were impressive. Despite the heat, along with the many coaches, the families of the players sometimes came every day: tossing football on the sidelines with the Jr. Pee-Wees (7-9) and tucking in the shirts of the Might Mites (10-11) who looked like mini-astronauts in full gear and helmet.
Finally, last Sunday, under sparkling clear skies and big crowds, the Mites and Pee-Wees debuted at Buckland Park. There I met Player Safety Coach Deondre (Dre) Gray who told me the unlikely but compelling story of the Roc City Steelers.
Son of Pastor Sam Gray, the famed East High basketball star, Deondre is a worthy Roc City Steelers ambassador. Having played his ball back in the day at Gates-Chili, Deondre often arrives at practices — still in jacket and tie — straight after his job at Maximus in Henrietta. On Sunday Deondre was all over the field and running the concession stand. When I asked what drove his passion, Deondre answered simply by pointing to his son, Denzel: “All this is for the kids.”
As Deondre explained, last year the Steelers played in the city Tyro League, practicing and playing on Addams Street. They even played in a blizzard in Buffalo during the freakish storm that missed Rochester. But this year, the Steelers had the opportunity to move to the suburban Pop Warner League. They still scrimmage with some city teams.
To do so, the Steelers needed to also move to Brighton, arranging with the Brighton Town Parks Department — who Deondre says were warmly welcoming — to practice at the Town Park and play in Buckland. For Deondre, the move was more than just about football. Deondre envisions the Roc City Steelers as an “urban suburban outreach based on the love of football” where city and suburban boys can bond together.
Not wanting to leave anyone behind, many of the boys who played at Addams Street made the shift to the Pop Warner League. Right now, Deondre says the team is split about evenly between boys living in the city and Brighton with expectations that more Brighton boys will join. The mixing of the groups is exactly what Deondre means by urban-suburban outreach through the love of football.
At this point, based upon the Town Park practice location and other factors, Deondre says many of the players and families reside in West Brighton, the less affluent, apartment-based part of the town. While Deondre fully appreciates the support received so far, he wants the Steelers to be the youth football team for all of Brighton. In a way, Deondre sees this first season as advertising the new team in town.
By advertising, Deondre wants people to see what the Roc City Steelers are all about: a caring and safe community. As evidenced by the turnout at practices and games, joining the Steelers means joining an extended family of friends. As the Player Safety Coach, Deondre follows all Pop Warner mandated and suggested guidelines. The coaches — all certified through Pop Warner — see themselves as mentors and teachers more than x’s and o’s coaches.
I also wondered if Deondre thought the Steelers could be a feeder into the Brighton High School program.
His eyes lit up; “If McQuaid doesn’t ‘steal’ our players, in just a few years we are going to put Brighton football on the map.” My eyes lit up too. I am tired of McQuaid stealing our players and its been over 50 years now since the Barons were undefeated.
As Deondre and I agreed, Sunday was just chapter 1 in a long book-to-be. Come by next Sunday, September 18th at Buckland Park for chapter 2.
I also met Toya Graham. Having graduated from Gates-Chili and college in Florida, Toya is back in town helping the Steelers. Toya kindly provided a photo montage covering both the Might Mites and Jr. Pee-wee games.
PHOTOS BY TOYA GRAHAM BELOW
The 1955 Brighton Yearbook. The Baron’s last undefeated team.
ALSO ON FOOTBALL