On Saturdays, Garfield belongs to the Gators. For the past 23 summers, hundreds of fans, friends and family members have gathered at Fort Pitt Elementary to encourage and cheer boys 6 through 14 as they play midget football.

Last Saturday, August 27, the orange-and-blue clad Gator fans who arrived at the Swamp were greeted by tragedy: Coach Melvin Gay, age 45, died overnight of a heart attack. A retired firefighter, Coach Mel had been involved with the Gators for over 20 years; since 2009, he was head coach of the Twerps, the second youngest of the five Gators teams, ages 7 – 8. In Mel’s six years as head coach, the Twerps reached the championship five times, winning it all twice.

“It was a tremendous shock,” says Coach Bob Jones, Director of the Garfield Gators. “He meant so much to us. He was one of our leaders. He managed our field; he made sure everything was in place. He was everything.”

As word spread at the Swamp of Coach Mel’s passing, the decision was made to cancel the Baby Twerps game for kids 5 through 6. Parents and coaches then asked Mel’s Twerps if they wanted to cancel their game as well. The boys voted unanimously to play, citing one of Coach Mel’s favorite mantras as inspiration: “One man can’t stop the show.”

“All the kids looked up to him,” says Veanna Cain, mother to DJ, age 9, a Twerp running back, as well as Deja, 8, a Gatorette cheerleader. Cain says Mel’s positive influence was the main reason she wanted her son on the team. ”Coach Mel kept him going,” she says. “When he’d get out of line, Coach Mel would put him back in line.” At work, when she heard of Mel’s passing, she broke down in tears.

Garfield Gators. Brian Conway photo.
Garfield Gators. Brian Conway photo.

The Gators were formed in 1994 when four Garfield natives and close friends in their 20s, including Coach Jones, as a safe space to keep neighborhood boys off the streets and provide them with structure, discipline, and positive male role models—all things the founders lacked in their own life growing up.

“They train the kids well,” says James Williams, of the North Side, whose son James plays on the Mighty Mites. “A lot of these kids don’t have fathers. They receive a lot of good discipline here.”

Over the years, the organization has expanded beyond football. Today, the Gators are housed under an umbrella group, Brothers And Sisters Emerging, which includes after-school programs and the Gator-way male mentoring to over 200 young Gators, from the Baby Twerps and Twerps up through the Termites, Mighty Mites, and Midgets, aka The Big Team.

“It’s a true brotherhood,” says Coach Jones. “Where else can you get this?”

Coach Mel was always the first to arrive at the Swamp on Saturdays to check on the field and facilities, always quick with a smile and a laugh. On game days, children bounce between the swing sets and ice cream stand while the adults cookout and catch up with friends and neighbors between stints in the stands. The passage of time is marked by the referee’s whistle and the lengthening shadows on the field.

“It’s a family up here,” says Bryan Moore. Clad in Gator orange and blue, Moore played for the team in the mid-90s before earning a scholarship to Central Catholic where he became the first black starting quarterback in the school’s history. Moore was there to root on his son, Khalil, quarterback for the Twerps. “It’s the best organization by far,” he says. “They make sure it’s not just about football.”

Coach AP wears a shirt honoring Coach Mel. Brian Conway photo.
Coach AP wears a shirt honoring Coach Mel. Brian Conway photo.

On September 3, the day after the funeral, new Twerp head coaches, AP and Rock, wear matching airbrushed shirts bearing the likeness of their fallen coach. They say the mantra for the season has become “five teams, five championships.” It’s what Mel said the Gators organization should strive for this and every year; why settle for anything less?

It certainly wouldn’t be out of the question. The Midgets won 69 straight games from 2008 to 2014. Like any good Pittsburgh sports team, championships are as expected by fans as much as they are celebrated. But the lessons imparted by the all-volunteer staff go far beyond the field.

Darrin Walls played under then-assistant Coach Mel’s Termites in the late ’90s. He then went on to play at Notre Dame before signing as an undrafted free agent with the Atlanta Falcons in 2011. His family still lives in Garfield, and last month, when his current team, the Detroit Lions, held joint practices with the Steelers, Walls arranged for some of the Gators to visit. “It puts kids in a different mindset,” says Walls of the Gators. “The focus is on the virtues needed to be a great person, not just a good football player.”

Over 90% of the Gators call Garfield home. Families pay $45 for a child to join the club, a slight amount that helps cover the cost of uniforms and equipment. Gators Director Bob Jones says that the team has no substantial financial reserves set aside and that funding must be established annually. He hopes as Garfield develops, more money will be invested in community amenities such as rec centers, and that longstanding community groups like his—that have “done a lot with a little” over the years—are included in the conversation about Garfield’s future.

“Investment is more than brick and mortar,” he says, surrounded by dozens of his young charges.

Garfield and Wilkinsburg parents embrace at the Swamp. Brian Conway photo.
Garfield and Wilkinsburg parents at the Swamp. Brian Conway photo.

The morning after Coach Mel’s passing, there would be no Hollywood ending for the Gators. The Twerps suffered a rare loss, 8-7, to Hazelwood, on a controversial, heartbreaking 2-point conversion by the Cobras as time expired. (Gator partisans argue that the rules state a 2-point conversion in Midget football must be run as a field goal, not a play from scrimmage.)

Regardless of the final score, Coach Walls, one of the four Gators founders, says the Twerps came ahead as winners that day. “For them to have the courage to go out and play,  it shows what [Mel] taught them. It’s a testament to him. It’s a victory for the whole community.”

On September 3, the Gators took four of five against Wilkinsburg, including a dominant 28-0 victory by Mel’s Twerps. Before the game, the PA announcer asked the crowd to join in a moment of silence in memory of their fallen mentor.

“Coach Mel,” boomed the voice of the Gators, “we will never forget you!”

Catch the Gators September 9 during the Garfield Gators Tailgate and Alumni Charity Game, part of NEXT 3 Days Garfield.

Brian Conway

Brian Conway is a writer and photographer whose articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune and local publications. In his free time, he operates Tripsburgh. Brian lives in the South Side.