Unplanned pregnancy. Unexpected, violent death. Absentee and drug-addicted parents. The frighteningly real prospect of the notoriously unforgiving Philadelphia streets swallowing up a few more troubled youths.
Pile all of these issues into a vacuum, and the last thing you’d expect is a resulting 11-1, Public League championship football season. Heck, that’s the kind of stuff you see only in movies, the uplifting sagas that make folks feel good but rarely mirror any type of reality.
Only this wasn’t a movie. This was real life, hauntingly real for members of the 1991 George Washington High School football team, a group that used torment off the field in order to find unfathomable success on it.
That extraordinary season can be re-lived in When Winning Hurts, the debut book from Porfirio Barrera. Barrera, now a 38-year-old psychiatric technician at Temple University’s Episcopal Hospital, was a member of that incredible team 22 years ago and battled many of his own demons to tell this tale, which was self-published through a company called Outskirts Press. Outskirts is calling the book a novel, but despite the fact that Barrera changed the names of many key players, he maintains that everything detailed in the book is based on actual events.
“As individuals, we all went through so much, which is why I think we were such a close group of tight-knit guys,” Barrera said during a nearly two-hour phone interview. “I told a friend back then, when I was in the eleventh grade, that I was going to write about this one day. He said, ‘Nobody will ever believe you.’ But that’s the reality. We went through some very, very serious things, to the point where football was therapeutic because it was all many of us had.”
Barrera detailed a laundry list of issues some of his teammates that season went through. One, Tyrone Simpson, had a violent, criminal father featured on America’s Most Wanted, and a mother so tortured by drug addiction that the teammate had to put his fingers under her nose before leaving the house to make sure she was still breathing. Another, Hakim Hansen, was led away in handcuffs by police in the middle of a G.W. practice after a young woman had accused him of rape (the charge was later dropped). One of Barrera’s closest friends, Byron “Peanut” Freeman, lost his brother in a drive-by shooting, while others sold marijuana to put food on the table.
“It was just that type of life for us,” said Barrera, who started the process about seven years ago, originally writing When Winning Hurts as a screenplay before converting it to a book. “It stayed with me, tormented me throughout the years. I think the story can enlighten people, not only to show them what went on back then, but now, too. It’s something people can relate to, even if they didn’t go through what we did.”
Then, of course, there’s Barrera’s own story. Born in North Philadelphia, his father left him and his mother when he was 4 years old. He vividly remembers going on trips with her in an attempt to track down his dad, which took the duo all the way from Los Angeles to Mexico (Barrera, who is of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, mentions in the book that he believes his father had ties to Mexican drug cartels). Years later, in high school, Barrera’s father showed back up, only to leave again a short time later (Barrera has not seen him since). When Barrera was a junior, the same year of Washington’s fairytale season, his girlfriend at the time, an undergraduate student at Temple, notified him that she was pregnant. Barrera’s mother is a pastor at a Pentecostal church, and the family’s religious background looked down on abortion; however, the girlfriend still went ahead and terminated the pregnancy.
All of that and more turned Barrera into an angry young man, something he could channel on the football field as a 6-foot-2 tight end/defensive end. The turmoil off the field left the Washington players longing for something else, a foreign feeling they didn’t get much of at home: joy.
“For us, it was a fresh start,” said Barrera, now the father of twin 9-year-old girls. “We realized we could be in the paper not for the crime and sadness going on around us, but for football.”
The resulting season was one that still vividly stands out like it was yesterday. There was the season-opening win over Shawnee (N.J.), despite the team losing starting quarterback Jason Brockington to a broken arm. Backup Xavier Nice then stepped in and remained the team’s starting signal caller for most of the season.
There was the playoff win over Dobbins, a game the Eagles were so fired up for that the team bus was literally rocking back and forth when it arrived at Northeast High School. “We ran onto that field like crazed dogs. You could see the fear in their eyes,” Barrera recalled with a laugh. Washington went on to blow out Frankford in the league title game thanks in part to two touchdowns by Barrera.
Then of course there was the Thanksgiving game against Archbishop Ryan. The Eagles, losers of 17 in a row vs. the Raiders, fell behind 21-0 at halftime and used a monumental comeback to stun everybody in attendance.
“We went from our own fans booing us to getting to be legends,” he said. “With everything going on around us, we were all each other had.”
Ron Cohen, Washington’s football coach for nearly 30 years, also remembers that season as if it were yesterday.
“Every win, especially Thanksgiving, was like winning the Super Bowl for these kids,” he recalled. “These overachieving young men came together, and every single one of them has a story. And for people like you and me, we can’t understand what these kids went through, because we didn’t live it. The book forces you to ask questions like, ‘What would I do if I needed to put food on the table if my father wasn’t around,’ or, ‘What would I do if my younger sibling was crying because he or she was so hungry and scared?’
“The average person may not go through it, but it’s important to realize that many young men and women do. I think my current kids can relate to it, and I want them to read this book. It opens up the thought process and makes you wonder. No matter how bad you have it, somebody else has it a little bit worse.”
Barrera described the book as “When Friday Night Lights meets The Wire” before quickly adding, “But there was no cow-tipping here. This was real hardcore stuff, some of it beyond comprehension. We couldn’t pick our parents, and nobody came from money. We felt like losers everywhere, except on the football field.”
In the month-plus since the book was released, Barrera said it’s selling better than he initially anticipated. But he said it’s about a lot more than reliving one glorious season just to sell a few books. It’s about enlightenment, the ability to show people how things were in order to hopefully change how the future unfolds. It’s about learning from past mistakes and about maturing as a person capable of defiantly swatting away adversity. And perhaps most of all, it’s about the unflinching, unwavering support of a group of young men who dared to defy the odds, regardless of how society viewed them.
“That’s called character, and that’s what we stress,” Cohen said.
And now that he was finally able to put all of his thoughts of that season into a 178-page book about the past, Barrera is intently focused on what lies ahead, namely coming up big where he thinks his own father dropped the ball.
“As an adult, when you have children, you can reflect on memories,” he said. “Because of what I went through as a young man, I handle stress differently now. It’s forged me into the man I am today, and I’m a great father because of it. Those things that happened to us, they made us emotionally tough. I feel any hardship can be dealt with, because I’ve already dealt with much worse. It prepared me for every facet of life down the road.
“How will I be a man? Who will teach me? These are questions I asked myself back then, and my daughters saved me in that I don’t want to let them down. I strive like no other to be the best father in life and always tell them I love them. I do my best so they don’t lack. It’s not about me anymore, and I think that’s made me a better person.” ••