This football coach spent years saving his city’s kids from gun violence. Then someone shot him

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INDIANAPOLIS – I’ve come again to this metropolis on the lookout for solutions.

For practically six years, I lived and labored right here, crisscrossing the streets of Indianapolis as a journalist. I walked the canal, attended the Indy 500 and ate and drank on Mass Ave. Some weekends, I’d drive down I-65 to the south aspect, to buy within the parking-lot swaths of suburban Greenwood. 

And plenty of days, I stood on the grass on the close to northside, in Tarkington Park, within the searing warmth or biting chill of soccer season. That was the place I met Richard Donnell Hamilton. 

He was the type of neighborhood hero that you’ll find in each metropolis in America, in case you are keen to see. The type of one that reaches past himself, past his household. Who reaches above the expectations the world has for somebody like him. 

I knew him as Coach Nell. 

Indy Steelers coach Richard ‘Coach Nell’ Hamilton.
Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

Coach Nell based and ran a youth soccer league referred to as the Indy Steelers. He taught soccer, and much more, to boys within the coronary heart of Indianapolis. 

For nearly 20 years, Coach Nell skilled a technology of boys to count on one thing of themselves, one thing greater than what the world expects for them – right here in a metropolis the place one-fourth of all murder victims are youthful than 21, the place the primary three folks killed within the new yr have been teenagers.

I adopted Coach Nell and his Steelers for greater than two years. I adopted them to follow and video games, sure, and in addition to the park the place they ducked gunfire, and to funerals for his or her teammates’ mother and father. 

I interviewed them on the sphere, of their houses, within the close by Martin Luther King Group Heart. I listened to them speaking, laughing, cheering, my digital recorder operating.

Fourth & Purpose: An IndyStar documentary on the children everybody counted out

Coach Donnell Hamilton began the Indy Steelers youth soccer group 15 years in the past. His aim was easy: Mute the echoes of gun violence so youngsters can be taught a greater manner.

Mykal McEldowney, Indianapolis Star

Coach Nell was not simply these boys’ coach. He was their information and their champion. He beloved on them and challenged them to grow to be higher males. He labored to maintain them secure from gun violence.

My colleague and I chronicled their victories and losses, on and off the sphere, for a particular report and an Emmy-winning documentary. I left for a brand new job. Coach Nell led the Steelers to even larger success. 

Then one thing occurred that nobody may have anticipated. On Jan. 11, Coach Nell was shot and killed.

Indy Steelers coach Richard 'Coach Nell' Hamilton.
Indy Steelers coach Richard ‘Coach Nell’ Hamilton.
Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

He was not in Butler-Tarkington, town neighborhood the place he and his boys grew up on a knife’s edge, however in Greenwood, the suburb 14 miles away the place I used to go to the mall. It was a foggy, wet night, and he was the passenger in a white cargo van. His spouse was driving. 

Police imagine he was the sufferer of a road-rage taking pictures – certainly one of greater than 60 that now occur yearly on interstates in central Indiana alone. 

Coach Nell was on the age when he appeared ahead to a life spent watching soccer. His personal youngsters have been grown and gone to varsity. He had simply secured a promise of a brand new follow area for the Indy Steelers. He was 43. 

And so I’m again in Indiana, within the uncooked chilly of winter. I’m right here for Coach Nell’s funeral, however actually, I’m right here – on this metropolis and with the group whose tales way back crawled as much as reside inside my coronary heart – to search for solutions. 

How will these boys survive with out this man? Lots of them are as younger as 7. Some who I met once they have been that younger now tower over me. However they’re boys, nonetheless. How will they reside with out this man, their trainer, mentor, confidant, massive brother, uncle, father and good friend?  

Who will carry the ball for Coach Nell? The workers of this system was strong, however this was not a coalition, it was the pressure of persona of 1 man. Who may change him? 

And in my coronary heart, I wish to know the factor that even police seemingly don’t. Who killed Coach Nell? What occurred on that wet night? How did a person who spent a lifetime constructing immunity to gun violence fall sufferer to this most American contagion? As a lot as anything, I wish to know why.

Tarkington Park is simply as I bear in mind. 

It’s sprawling, with just a few hills the place Indy Steelers run drills. Coach Nell would stalk the sphere yelling instructions. “Let’s go!” “Fill the hole!” “Widen out! Widen out!” “Use your arms!”

He believed in operating his gamers, particularly in the event that they weren’t centered on the sphere. “We are able to run all day,” he would warn. 

Up the hill and again. Up. Down. Up. Down. Bear crawls and burpees.

Indy Steelers coach Donnell Hamilton yells after a long run play by a player on the 8u team during their league championship against the City Colts on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2018. The Steelers would lose in overtime 12-6.
Indy Steelers coach Donnell Hamilton yells after a long term play by a participant on the 8u group throughout their league championship in opposition to the Metropolis Colts on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2018. The Steelers would lose in extra time 12-6.
Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

These little legs would get drained, and generally their house owners would wish to give up. “Rise up!” he would yell if a participant tried to faucet out.

Because the first, the Indy Steelers got here largely from the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood. They might begin at age 7, play till highschool. 

Because the first, they’ve referred to as themselves the Hit Squad. It is their calling card. They hit exhausting. They play exhausting. They go all in. That’s the one solution to play.

Earlier than video games, dressed of their black and yellow uniforms, I’d marvel on the hype up. They might collect in a circle, bounce and yell as loud as they may. 

“Who’re we?”

“HIT SQUAD!”

“Who’re we?”

“HIT SQUAD!”

“Who’re we?”

“HIT SQUAD!”

Tackling sleds sit on the field at Tarkington Park, where the Indy Steelers practice. Coach Richard Donnell Hamilton was killed Jan. 11, 2023 in a road rage incident, according to Indiana State Police. His football team must now find a way to pick up the pieces.
Tackling sleds sit on the sphere at Tarkington Park, the place the Indy Steelers follow. Coach Richard Donnell Hamilton was killed Jan. 11, 2023 in a street rage incident, in accordance with Indiana State Police. His soccer group should now discover a solution to decide up the items.
Suzette Hackney

Whereas the Steelers may run drills on grit alone, they wanted someplace to run. And Tarkington Park was drained. 

So in 2016, Coach Nell began strategizing. Fundraising. Politicking. And it had lastly paid off. 

Artificial flowers and candles sit on the edge of Tarkington Park, where the Indy Steelers practice, on Jan. 20, 2023. The team's coach, Richard Donnell Hamilton, would be buried the next day.
Synthetic flowers and candles sit on the sting of Tarkington Park, the place the Indy Steelers follow, on Jan. 20, 2023. The group’s coach, Richard Donnell Hamilton, could be buried the subsequent day.
Suzette Hackney

Tarkington Park, which sits within the shadows of the Martin Luther King Community Center on town’s close to northside, was lastly going to be refreshed. The outdated dirt-and-grass area would get replaced with an actual follow area, plus round walkways, extra shelters and a farmers market pavilion. A $3 million Lilly Endowment grant would pay for all of it. 

The push had taken him seven years. Coach Nell had simply gotten the information. It was Jan. 10. He referred to as it a good looking wrestle.

“Woww… That is going to be nice for the group. We have labored so exhausting for this. I am wish to thank everybody for there continued assist of the Indy Steelers AYF,” he wrote on Fb.

The subsequent day, he was killed.

And now I’m strolling the outdated dust and grass with out him, and desirous about the brand new area he won’t ever see. 

I hear them now, as I stand alone. Who’re we? HIT SQUAD! 

However the area is empty. Mendacity close to the road, there’s a synthetic flower bouquet in a vase, and 7 battery-operated mini candles.  

In the course of the sphere, there’s a blocking sled left over from follow. You’ve seen one, on a children’ follow area or in a film: It’s that padded metallic machine constructed for gamers to ram into, to follow tackling. 

From the place I stand, it appears to be like like two gamers, proper all the way down to their uniforms. Black in entrance, yellow within the again. Their heads bow in mourning. 

I stroll by way of the doorways of the MLK Heart and go searching in delight. It has been renovated, partitions knocked down and the foyer opened as much as create a light-filled welcome heart. Group house that appears like an awesome room. I should have been right here 100 instances earlier than, however it’s all new to me.

Allison Luthe, the middle’s government director, is assembly with a pair of us. We are saying hiya, and I’m going await her close to a newly put in black and white mural by Indianapolis artist Justin Brown. It’s gorgeous and I’m completely happy to have the time to check it.

I’ve spent many days on this heart. My work can also be on the partitions, framed copies of columns I’ve written as an Indianapolis journalist. And, in fact, the Fourth & Purpose mission. I performed most of my official interviews with Coach Nell from this constructing. 

I can hear his voice now, echoing by way of the house his dedication helped develop.   

In spite of everything, Coach Nell was a hustler himself. 

He had gone to varsity on scholarship, however he received into hassle. He did time in jail for weapons and drug fees. 

When he returned dwelling, desires of the NFL erased, he labored exhausting to assist his household and his group, first doing building, teaching after which changing into an entrepreneur. He wanted the flexibleness of setting his personal schedule as a result of a lot of his time revolved across the Steelers.

The MLK Heart turned his dwelling base. That is the place the Indy Steelers would develop from a ragtag crew of teaching fathers to an organized soccer league that welcomed tons of of Hoosier youth.

Scenes from the Indy Steelers in 2019: Robert O’Neil, father of a participant, strikes the chains throughout a Steelers recreation. O’Neil would spend all day on the park, then head into work at his third-shift custodial job. Indy Steelers coach Richard Donnell Hamilton taught his gamers by no means to surrender.
Scenes from the Indy Steelers in 2019: Robert O’Neil, father of a participant, strikes the chains throughout a Steelers recreation. O’Neil would spend all day on the park, then head into work at his third-shift custodial job. Indy Steelers coach Richard Donnell Hamilton taught his gamers by no means to surrender.
Scenes from the Indy Steelers in 2019: Robert O’Neil, father of a participant, strikes the chains throughout a Steelers recreation. O’Neil would spend all day on the park, then head into work at his third-shift custodial job. Indy Steelers coach Richard Donnell Hamilton taught his gamers by no means to surrender.
MYKAL MCELDOWNEY, INDYSTAR

Coach Nell discovered to attach with metropolis leaders, civic leaders, nonprofit organizers and people within the non secular and schooling communities. He constructed sufficient connections and sufficient {dollars} to  preserve his gamers secure, fed, uniformed and on the sphere. 

He helped set up Tarkington Teen Work Crew, a summer season program that takes children from the neighborhood and offers them paying jobs reducing grass and cleansing parks. He was “that canine.” Up the hill and again. Again and again. Relentless.

He constructed a lot on the MLK Heart that it got here to really feel as if he owned the place, although in fact Allison Luthe is the one who runs it. The youngsters and workers would jokingly name Coach Nell Luthe’s bodyguard. 

Now within the light-filled foyer, Luthe emerges to greet me and I notice her defender is gone. 

Coach Nell’s absence has not felt actual to me till this second, after I hug her and say the one factor I can: “I’m sorry.”  

I’ve so many questions. Luthe has solely a few of the solutions.

Luthe mentioned Coach Nell and his spouse, Tiffany, had began a logistics enterprise on the aspect. That they had a cargo van to hold deliveries. Generally they’d drive to the suburbs, and even make fast runs out of state.  

On Jan. 11, Hamilton and his spouse have been on a supply run in Greenwood. 

In keeping with Indiana State Police, Tiffany Hamilton was driving the van. They took the County Line Street exit and turned to cross the interstate. Police say a single shot was fired.

Luthe has talked with Tiffany, however largely to supply help in planning his service. She is on name for something. 

As we discuss, I watch her nonetheless in enterprise mode – organizing, facilitating, main. She generally has to pause to direct workers. 

We at the moment are sitting within the heart’s renovated group room in comfy chairs positioned in opposition to the entrance home windows overlooking Tarkington Park. 

It’s the day earlier than Coach Nell’s funeral. I ask her if she has cried. 

“Oh, yeah,” she says. “Tons.”

She begins to cry. I do, too. We sit and wipe tears away with our fingers whereas quietly staring out on the park. 

Then I be taught one thing else in regards to the investigation of Coach Nell’s demise. 

Police are not analyzing his van. That they had dropped it off at his dwelling, however his spouse couldn’t stand seeing it within the yard, this van, the place the place he died. 

She had referred to as Luthe for assist, asking if somebody may put a tarp over it. Luthe, as an alternative, despatched a employee to select it up.  

It’s sitting right here now, within the parking zone, simply out again. 

“I’ve not been exterior to take a look at it,” Luthe tells me. 

We determine to go collectively.

There aren’t any shattered home windows within the van. We can not even see a bullet gap.

The van where Indy Steelers coach Richard Donnell Hamilton died sits in the parking lot of the Martin Luther King Community Center. Coach Nell, as he was known to members of the youth football program, was shot during a road rage incident on Jan. 11, 2023, according to Indiana State Police.
The van the place Indy Steelers coach Richard Donnell Hamilton died sits within the parking zone of the Martin Luther King Group Heart. Coach Nell, as he was recognized to members of the youth soccer program, was shot throughout a street rage incident on Jan. 11, 2023, in accordance with Indiana State Police.
Suzette Hackney

The white Dodge Ram 3500 ProMaster is barely soiled, streaked from journey. The tires are caked with mud. A signed receiving bill is resting on the dashboard. It notes the supply was a hand-unload. It’s dated Jan. 9.  

I attempt to envision Coach Nell driving right here, sipping from the 44-ounce Styrofoam within the passenger’s cup holder. I attempt to erase the picture of him slumped on this similar seat.  

As a substitute I think about him driving on this van, along with his spouse, cruising down I-65 within the fading mild of a winter night. 

Afterward, I am going to drive the identical route myself, on the lookout for solutions I will not discover.

Greenwood and its 60,000 folks sit in Johnson County, simply exterior the sting of Indianapolis. It is a donut suburb. It’s additionally a spot the place six months earlier than Coach Nell’s demise, a gunman killed three folks on the mall, and the proverbial “good man with a gun” was lauded by police as a hero for fatally taking out the shooter. 

I’ll drive the off-ramp the place Nell’s van got here to a cease. There aren’t any surveillance cameras on the exit.

I’ll drive on the interstate again to a good friend’s home, desirous about the statistics I’ve learn. In keeping with Indiana State Police, Central Indiana had 9 interstate shootings every in 2018 and 2019. By 2020, that quantity grew to 23 and exploded to 65 in 2021. In 2022, ISP documented 66. 

Even after I’m gone from this state, there might be no motion on the case.

The one element launched is an outline of the automobile – grey or silver with tinted home windows – and a name for anybody who might have dashboard cameras to come back ahead.

I’ll file public information requests – for investigative and at-the-scene reviews, and audio of the 911 name – something to assist make extra sense of what occurred. Citing a statute that permits police to determine whether or not or not their work is topic to the general public information legislation, the state will deny my request. 

I am going to discuss to Greenwood’s police chief and he, too, will not launch any investigative materials as a result of he would not wish to jeopardize the case. He tells me there is a license-plate reader half a mile away, however police do not imagine the car handed it after the taking pictures.

“It is extraordinarily unhappy that this man misplaced his life, and the irony in it’s simply not proper,” Chief James Ison says. “It isn’t truthful.” 

He remembers responding to the scene of the taking pictures that evening. “It may have been me and my spouse,” Ison says. “You do not have to do something mistaken or be engaged in any kind of wrongdoing for some fool to drag out a gun and shoot you behind the top.”

I’ll discuss with Sgt. John Perrine of the Indiana State Police. He may give me few different particulars in regards to the case. “We had 66 interstate shootings that our detectives are investigating in all of 2022,” he says. “Lots of these are nonetheless energetic, too.”

The Greenwood Park Mall in Greenwood, Indiana. It was here, in July 2022, that a gunman opened fire in the food court, killing three before being killed by an armed bystander. Months later, an interstate offramp nearby became the spot where Coach Nell died.
The Greenwood Park Mall in Greenwood, Indiana. It was right here, in July 2022, {that a} gunman opened hearth within the meals court docket, killing three earlier than being killed by an armed bystander. Months later, an interstate offramp close by turned the spot the place Coach Nell died.
Jon Cherry, Getty Photographs

He’s been a police officer in Indiana for 20 years. “Till not too long ago, it was very unusual for us to reply to a street rage gunfire incident,” he says. “Now, each single day, at the very least one time a day, we get a name of someone displaying a firearm in a street rage scenario.”   

I take into consideration how defeating all of it appears. {That a} man might be swept away by the factor he spent a lifetime making an attempt to cease. 

Then I take into consideration Coach Nell. Up the hill and again once more.  

So I ask Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s workplace if he is been apprised of the rise of street rage incidents in his state. I ask if he is involved in regards to the spike. I ask if there’s any potential connection between the surge in shootings and the legislation he signed final yr – the one which eliminates a license requirement to hold a handgun.

I ask what Holcomb has to say to the tens of millions of Indiana residents who hit the street each day and are anxious about their security. I ask if there are any insurance policies or procedures being launched to handle this violent street rage pattern.

The subsequent day, I ask once more. 

I obtain no response to those questions. 

However the reporter in me desires solutions. So do those that love Coach Nell. 

A photo of the Indy Steelers sits in the console of the van where coach Richard Donnell Hamilton died. Coach Nell, as he was known to members of the youth football program, was shot while riding in the passenger seat during a road rage incident on Jan. 11, 2023, according to Indiana State Police.
A photograph of the Indy Steelers sits within the console of the van the place coach Richard Donnell Hamilton died. Coach Nell, as he was recognized to members of the youth soccer program, was shot whereas driving within the passenger seat throughout a street rage incident on Jan. 11, 2023, in accordance with Indiana State Police.
Suzette Hackney

“This was random – everyone needs to be anxious about it,” Indy Steelers group mother and photographer Lacey Nix tells me after I chat along with her later. “This could possibly be you, this could possibly be your child, this could possibly be any of us. I hope for these boys in this system, who already don’t belief the justice system, I simply really feel that they want this. They should see that issues might be solved and they should see that there’s justice for the coach.”

Coach Nell’s cousin, Kendall Hamilton, will inform me: “That is the exhausting half about this. We have got to belief the authorities and we have got to belief God to deliver justice. We want folks to step ahead – individuals who know issues and individuals who noticed issues – we want them to embody the braveness that Donnell had and are available ahead and do what’s proper.”

The January air appears to blow round my reminiscences of  warm-afternoon group barbecues and fish frys the Indy Steelers host on the black-top parking zone right here on the MLK Heart. 

The middle’s marked vans, those that may haul the children to their video games, are idle. There aren’t any excited boys horseplaying whereas piling in to pursue the subsequent victory.

Luthe and I wander round Coach Nell’s van, surveying for particulars state police gained’t share. We peek within the home windows.

Sitting within the cluttered console above the glove field are some Membership butter crackers, a drugs bottle and an image of the Indy Steelers. I ponder if that is the final picture he noticed earlier than he died. Actually, I hope it’s.

As Luthe and I stroll away from the van, chilly and unhappy, bells start to toll from the steeple tower of the close by North United Methodist Church. I really feel a chill that has nothing to do with the temperature.

I’m sitting in my rental automobile – the Kia Forte’s engine operating to maintain me heat – exterior Olivet Missionary Baptist Church on the northwest aspect. It’s the place to show in Indianapolis when a number of our bodies are anticipated. 

I spot group mother Takkara Delaney and her son, Tyree, being dropped off in entrance of the church. I do know this household effectively. Three of her 4 sons have worn Indy Steelers uniforms. I exit my automobile to hug them. The nice and cozy embraces are acquainted; we’ve shared so many. Tyree is now enormous and I say so. Later, I remind him that regardless of how massive he will get, he’s nonetheless my child. 

“I’m OK. We’re OK,” Delaney says, seemingly making an attempt to persuade herself. “He was my brother so I’m right here to put him to relaxation.”

I collect my belongings and attempt to collect myself, my abdomen in knots. I signal the funeral registry and head straight to the entrance.  

Indy Steelers coach Darryl Smith Sr. reaches for a flower from the casket of Richard Donnell Hamilton as team members look on. Smith helped Hamilton coach the youth football league.
Indy Steelers coach Darryl Smith Sr. reaches for a flower from the casket of Richard Donnell Hamilton as group members look on. Smith helped Hamilton coach the youth soccer league.
Suzette Hackney

Coach Nell lies in a light-weight blue casket with silver handles and accents. The Indy Steelers emblem ornaments the within. I’m one of many first folks to reach. 

Coach Nell appears to be like dapper and peaceable, wearing a royal blue swimsuit. Round his neck is a braided rope gold chain with a black coach’s whistle hooked up. 

A close-by desk holds trophies, medals and photographs from his highschool and faculty soccer profession. On the identical desk are trophies signifying the championships the Indy Steelers have amassed.

The guests grow to be an unrelenting line that can snake the size of the sanctuary. 

At 10:45 a.m., Coach Nell’s household, all wearing royal blue – the identical shade he wore on his wedding ceremony day – enters the church. On two massive video screens, he seems – as a child, a teen, taking part in soccer in highschool and faculty, his wedding ceremony, changing into a daddy. And, in fact, teaching the Indy Steelers.

By 11:07 a.m., it’s virtually as if Coach Nell’s spouse, Tiffany, simply realizes. She wails in loud, brief bursts of shock and anguish, piercing the comfortable gospel that performs within the background. Her sons take turns holding her.

The church’s sanctuary seats greater than 1,000. But the massive choir stand behind the pulpit is opened for dozens who arrive later and won’t discover an open seat. Indianapolis has come to pay respect.

Mourners gather at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis to say goodbye to Indy Steelers Coach Richard Donnell Hamilton. He was killed Jan. 11, 2023 in a road rage incident, according to Indiana State Police. Hamilton, known as Coach Nell, grew up in the neighborhood where he coached. His mission was to keep kids off the street and away from gun violence.
Mourners collect at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis to say goodbye to Indy Steelers Coach Richard Donnell Hamilton. He was killed Jan. 11, 2023 in a street rage incident, in accordance with Indiana State Police. Hamilton, often called Coach Nell, grew up within the neighborhood the place he coached. His mission was to maintain children off the road and away from gun violence.
Suzette Hackney

The audio system start. Associates and teammates from his faculty days at Western Kentucky College. Kinfolk. His youngsters. His cousins, who name themselves brother-cousins. 

He was brutally aggressive, even at a younger age, I be taught. He would preserve his brother-cousins up all evening to beat them at video video games. In the event that they wished to get any sleep, they knew they’d finally must lose.

Coach Nell left to-do chore lists for his youngsters with specific directions that might not and shouldn’t be ignored. I chuckle, remembering the notes my Black mom left on the kitchen counter.

When he was taking part in faculty ball, Coach Nell met Joseph Jefferson. Jefferson, becoming a member of the group as a freshman, had the nerve to say he’d be taking Nell’s spot at linebacker. Nell, replying, didn’t miss a beat: “No, you may be backing me up.”

The church erupts in laughter.

Every speaker got here from a special a part of life. However every had one constant factor to say. Coach Nell was devoted to the Indy Steelers.  

The extra I hear, the extra I perceive this man. This neighborhood hero.

“Donnell lived a lifetime of service,” his uncle, David Hamilton, would say. “He was an advocate for change. Fairly than simply complaining, he went into motion to make change. … Donnell might not be with us bodily, however his want for change and to enhance a group is a name for motion that we must always all try for.” 

The Rev. Wayne L. Moore takes the pulpit and presents information that elicits essentially the most applause. Some attendees stand and wave their arms in completely happy settlement. This all-state and all-conference linebacker won’t be forgotten. This Indianapolis big will reside on. 

“The soccer area that might be put in at Tarkington Park, the follow area, the sphere the place he as soon as performed on dust, will now be a licensed soccer area,” Moore says throughout the eulogy. “And it will likely be named in his honor.”

A phenomenal wrestle, certainly.

I’m in my rental automobile once more, on a visit by way of the previous. 

I’ve been to this cemetery earlier than, the place I’ve witnessed different burials. 

My outdated home is shut, lower than 3 miles. The college the place I attended lessons to earn a grasp’s diploma is across the nook.

However the journey is lower than peaceable. Funeral escort patrol automobiles, with sirens blaring, blow previous us to clear every intersection. I think about the flashing lights of cops racing towards Coach Nell’s van. 

Community members gather Monday, Jan. 16, 2023, for a balloon release and memorial in honor of the late Richard Donnell Hamilton, or Coach Nell as he was known to the Indy Steelers youth football program. According to the Indiana State Police, Hamilton was shot during a road rage incident last week.
Group members collect Monday, Jan. 16, 2023, for a balloon launch and memorial in honor of the late Richard Donnell Hamilton, or Coach Nell as he was recognized to the Indy Steelers youth soccer program. In keeping with the Indiana State Police, Hamilton was shot throughout a street rage incident final week.
Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

We attain the thirty eighth Road exit, and cross a looming blue signal with white lettering and a big white cross:

PURPOSE OF LIFE.

It’s a church on close by Kessler Blvd. 

Objective in life, I ponder: Is it a query, or a requirement? What’s your objective in life? What was Coach Nell’s? 

5 days after his demise, on Jan. 16, Indy Steelers gamers and households convened on the MLK Heart. The federal vacation that acknowledges Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is usually a day of service and giving on the heart. However this yr it was a day of loss. The gamers gathered to share tales about what Coach Nell meant to them. They launched balloons in his honor.

The funeral procession appears to overlook a flip. I know how into this cemetery, and we’re not on the trail. Then it sinks in. Earlier than the cemetery, we’re taking Coach Nell previous Tarkington Park. 

Community members gather Monday, Jan. 16, 2023, for a balloon release and memorial in honor of the late Richard Donnell Hamilton, or Coach Nell as he was known to the Indy Steelers youth football program. According to the Indiana State Police, Hamilton was shot during a road rage incident last week.
Group members collect Monday, Jan. 16, 2023, for a balloon launch and memorial in honor of the late Richard Donnell Hamilton, or Coach Nell as he was recognized to the Indy Steelers youth soccer program. In keeping with the Indiana State Police, Hamilton was shot throughout a street rage incident final week.
Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

Some black, yellow and gold balloons, limp and lifeless after being caught within the limbs, nonetheless grasp from barren bushes on the MLK Heart.

Richard Donnell Hamilton is buried in Part 93-A, an space of the sprawling Crown Hill cemetery framed by massive bushes and with few headstones. It’s a quiet, unpopulated place to relaxation, although life dictates that others will be part of him right here.  

His three sons, Isaiah, Richard Jr. and Dontaye, in matching black and royal blue paisley tuxedos, place white roses on prime of his casket. As Coach Nell is lowered into the bottom, his daughter, Dynia, hovers over the outlet sobbing: “Daddy. Daddy. Daddy.” 

Somebody within the crowd yells: “Yet one more time for coach!” The gamers know precisely what to do. 

“Who’re we?”

“HIT SQUAD!”

“Who’re we?”

“HIT SQUAD!”

“Who’re we?”

“HIT SQUAD!”

Coach Nell by no means made it to the NFL, however many years later, the NFL lastly seen him. 

After our report in regards to the Indy Steelers in 2021, the Indianapolis Colts group and gamers turned boosters. Linebacker Darius Leonard donated cash to the group and invited them to satisfy proprietor Jim Irsay and different gamers. 

A couple of months later, the Colts would pay for Coach Nell and his spouse to attend the Tremendous Bowl in Los Angeles.

On Feb. 13, 2022, Tremendous Bowl Sunday, I despatched him a message at 9:26 a.m.  

“Hey Coach! Simply considering of you at this time and feeling so grateful for all of the blessings coming your manner. I hope you and Tiffany have an impressive Tremendous Bowl expertise. You earned it! Assembly you and writing in regards to the Steelers will stay certainly one of my favourite skilled accomplishments. Hold reaching and striving to make a distinction for all of these lovely youngsters…Benefit from the solar and soak all of it in. A lot like to you and my Steelers household.”

He responded at 10:52 a.m.

“Thanks a lot Suzette. In case you guys hadn’t executed that story I do know we wouldn’t be capable of be right here I recognize you.”

It could be the final time I had any contact with Coach Nell. 

After Coach Nell died, the group paid for his funeral and hosted a repass at its headquarters and follow facility. 

A whole lot who have been on the funeral and cemetery now sit at spherical tables within the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center’s banquet corridor mingling and consuming pulled pork, beef brisket, inexperienced beans and macaroni and cheese. Large screens flash photographs of Coach Nell along with his Indy Steelers gamers and groups over time.

The Indianapolis Colts paid for the funeral, burial and repass for Indy Steelers coach Richard Donnell Hamilton, together with a show of the Colts’ horseshoe at Crown Hill Cemetery. Later, tons of gathered on the Colts Indiana Farm Bureau Soccer Heart to honor Coach Nell.
The Indianapolis Colts paid for the funeral, burial and repass for Indy Steelers coach Richard Donnell Hamilton, together with a show of the Colts’ horseshoe at Crown Hill Cemetery. Later, tons of gathered on the Colts Indiana Farm Bureau Soccer Heart to honor Coach Nell.
The Indianapolis Colts paid for the funeral, burial and repass for Indy Steelers coach Richard Donnell Hamilton, together with a show of the Colts’ horseshoe at Crown Hill Cemetery. Later, tons of gathered on the Colts Indiana Farm Bureau Soccer Heart to honor Coach Nell.
SUZETTE HACKNEY, USA TODAY

I watch as the children run drills, try area targets and lob the pigskin on the indoor turf, opened to them for a reprieve. They’re shrieking, operating and laughing. Like a day on the park.  

I’m grateful they’ve the distraction. Soccer, household and fellowship – one thing that lastly feels regular amid all of the unhappiness.

Cameron Harden, 14, a self-described evening owl, tells me it was round 1 a.m. on Jan. 12 when he obtained a name from a teammate informing him Coach Nell was lifeless. His first response: “Cease taking part in.”

As a result of in his eyes, Coach Nell was bigger than life. Invincible. Sturdy. Untouchable.

Cam ran downstairs, instructed his dad and broke down crying.

“It’s been tough, however I’m making an attempt to hold in there for coach and our group,” he says. “I grew up round him since I used to be somewhat boy. I grew up with him so it hurts totally different.” 

Cameron Harden
It’s been tough, however I’m making an attempt to hold in there for coach and our group. I grew up round him since I used to be somewhat boy. I grew up with him so it hurts totally different.

Cam tells me he hopes to take his positions as cornerback and slot receiver with him to his highschool group subsequent yr. He plans on taking Coach Nell, too.

“I will play for him. I will have his mentality. I’m going to at all times have his mentality in all places I’m going. I will at all times do all the things for him,” Cam says.

However what was Coach Nell’s mentality? What classes are left with these boys – for these boys? 

“Go 100 at all the things I do,” Cam explains to me. “Exhausting working. By no means giving up. Going by way of everyone.”

The youngsters know what Coach Nell would demand. As do the coaches. It’s the execution that is still in query.

“Sure, we’re most undoubtedly going to maintain it going – that’s what coach would need us to do,” Chris Meriweather, a Steelers coach, tells me. “What that one man did by himself, it’s going to take all of us to do what he was doing by himself. We’re simply going to must work collectively to maintain it going for the children.”

Indy Steelers coach Chris Meriweather lines two players during a drill at Tarkington Park. After Coach Nell's death, one question was how the remainder of the coaching staff could carry the team forward.
Indy Steelers coach Chris Meriweather traces two gamers throughout a drill at Tarkington Park. After Coach Nell’s demise, one query was how the rest of the teaching workers may carry the group ahead.
Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

As a result of how do you construct again a physique when the center not exists? How do you undergo everyone when a physique is lacking? 

I have a look at these gamers and I fear about the way forward for their group. I watched for years as Coach Nell held them up. He palmed their heads and rubbed their shoulders as they attended the funerals of teammates and relations.

The half dozen coaches who surrounded Coach Nell daily are struggling for solutions, too. I’m instructed they held an impromptu assembly on the repass, the primary time they can collect and even think about the longer term. 

None of them wish to lead; none of them suppose they will do it justice – at the very least not but. However they do know they cannot give up. 

Coach Reggie Martin is introspective after I ask how they are going to preserve the Steelers afloat with out their coach. 

“It doesn’t matter what we do, we will’t change him – you’re not going to exchange that vitality or that presence, simply that love,” Martin says. He clears his throat. Struggles for a second. 

“We are able to undoubtedly try and preserve pushing the agenda. We are able to undoubtedly preserve teaching. We are able to undoubtedly nonetheless be a presence. …”

Martin’s phrases path off. He hugs me and walks away with tears in his eyes. 

I fear about them nonetheless, how they are going to preserve pushing now. Coach Nell is gone. 

However I nonetheless have his voice.  

Coach Nell comforts an Indy Steelers player after a loss at Frederick Douglass Park.
Coach Nell comforts an Indy Steelers participant after a loss at Frederick Douglass Park.
Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

I talked to Coach Nell for hours. Hours and hours. 

And for therefore lots of these hours, the digital recorder in my telephone was operating. 

As soon as I get the primary message that he’s gone – as soon as I begin to imagine it, begin reserving flights, begin packing – I open up these audio information and press play. 

I pay attention as I stroll my very own neighborhood. I pay attention on the airplane. I want to listen to his regular voice once more, even because the train haunts me.

In certainly one of my interviews with him, we focus on the exterior risks going through the group.

Throughout a follow in March 2019, there had been a taking pictures at Tarkington Park. No group members have been injured, however everybody was rattled.  

His voice comes from my telephone now. Coach Nell laments how tough it was to clarify to younger youngsters that in the event that they hear gunfire, they have to not run and will as an alternative drop to the bottom and keep nonetheless. 

However Coach Nell by no means wished to say an excessive amount of about that. He didn’t need his story – or the story of his group – to be about gun violence, even when that was one thing they survived. He wished it to be about placing children on the fitting path. 

Neighborhood heroes. It’s simpler to think about they’re not there. Simpler to say it’s an issue with Black fathers. Simpler to say that individuals would quite protest the police than take care of their very own communities. 

However the straightforward argument is a lie. There’s a hero like Coach Nell in each massive metropolis in America. You simply must be keen to see.   

In these hours of tape, there are numerous phrases I’ve by no means printed prior to now.

I can not ask Coach Nell the query I nonetheless haven’t answered. How did it occur that evening? How may it occur to you? Why?

However as I pay attention, I discover that years in the past, he gave me an easy reply. A slice of the decision I search.

The Indy Steelers practice as the sun sets at Tarkington Park. Coach Nell Hamilton grew up in the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood and founded the Indy Steelers.
The Indy Steelers follow because the solar units at Tarkington Park. Coach Nell Hamilton grew up within the Butler-Tarkington neighborhood and based the Indy Steelers.
Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar

“It will probably occur anyplace,” he says, after we discuss gun violence. 

It’s July 23, 2019. We’re sitting, speaking, within the MLK Heart. Coach Nell will reside for 3 and a half extra years. 

“That’s what kind of folks that we now have out right here on the earth. That’s the kind of world we reside in. … Individuals have weapons. The mistaken folks have weapons.”

A remaining lesson, from the grave, for all of us.

Suzette Hackney is a nationwide columnist. Attain her on Twitter: @suzyscribe.


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