By Alleen Brown
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On a Friday in early August, Johnny Howard's son called with some bad news. He had just received word that the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department planned to fire Howard from his position as the head coach of the Frogtown Football program, which he had held for the past 19 years.
"What's going on?" Howard asked frantically, unable to believe what he had just heard.
"I don't know," his son replied.
For the next few hours, the news haunted Howard's mind. He had invented the Frogtown Football program. Now they were taking it away from him.
"I got pissed," says Howard. "I just got completely upset. I felt really disrespected and discounted."
That weekend, Frogtown Football Commissioner John Robinson called to break the news officially. Howard could no longer helm the team, Robinson told him, but he was welcome to stay on as an assistant coach.
"Essentially, they fired me," says Howard. "After coaching for 19 years and volunteering for 20-plus years in the neighborhood, it didn't feel good. It didn't feel right."
Howard wanted an explanation. Given the nearly two decades he had devoted to the team, he viewed the assistant coach offer as a personal insult.
That Monday, Howard met with St. Paul Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm to demand an explanation. Hahm told Howard he would look into it and get back to him by the end of the week.
The call never came. Howard says he has yet to receive an answer as to why the city pushed him out of the volunteer position he held since he started the program in 1991.
Twenty years ago, the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul was a very different place than it is today. Thinly disguised brothels and crack dens brought down the value of entire blocks. Gangs patrolled the streets, charging kids a toll to walk on sidewalks they claimed as their turf, remembers Tony Schmitz, former editor of the Frogtown Times Newspaper.
"That was kind of the height of the crack epidemic around here," says Schmitz. "Your kid's school bus would show up and there'd be kids selling crack on the corner."
Howard was among the loudest voices for change. He organized the Thomas-Dale Block Club, an aggressive version of a neighborhood watch program. Hundreds of community members protested the known brothels and crack houses until the city could no longer ignore them.
"That was really a critical time for how this neighborhood was going to go," says Schmitz, an original member of the block club. "It finally got to the point where we could go to the cops and say we need more policing there, and they would listen."
It was Howard's idea to create a place for kids to go after school. He merged two dwindling community football teams into one program, which he called the Frogtown Football program. He poured thousands of dollars of his own money into equipment and jerseys.
The program was an immediate draw to kids around the neighborhood. Within the first few years, more than 150 kids played for Frogtown Football. For many who joined, playing football with Howard after school was an alternative to the streets, says District 7 Planning Council executive director Tait Danielson-Castillo.
"They were young men that often-time would be coerced by gangs, and that was a way to keep them out of that," says Danielson-Castillo. "I think a lot of people who were on the Frogtown Football team stayed out of the gangs."
Brian White was one of the first to join the team. White began playing Frogtown football since he was in fourth grade. Over the years, Howard taught him everything he knew about football, and life.
"Even after practice was over, he'd be dropping kids off at home," remembers White. "He'd be on you about your homework. I remember one time he'd have you bring in grade sheets. He'd want to see what your grades were."
Howard eventually introduced White to the Cretin-Durham High School football coach. The next year, Cretin Durham accepted White into the school. He played Varsity football until he graduated in 2001 and went on to play for North Dakota State University.
White now runs a marketing company out of the Twin Cities. He also organizes an annual Twin Cities all-star football game, in which a team of the best players from St. Paul high schools plays a team of the best players from Minneapolis.
"That's an unheard of story for people coming out of the inner city," says White. "That's why I'm always here for Johnny."
Throughout Howard's tenure as team coach, there have been "ups and downs," says Brad Meyer, St. Paul Parks and Recreation spokesman. One of the low points happened earlier this summer, when Howard mixed up invoices for equipment.
"There's going to be obviously feedback from that," says Meyer. "It's a big deal anytime there's a mistake."
Yet Meyer insists no single event led to the board's decision to fire Howard. Every year, the Parks and Recreation Department takes an after-the-fact look at each program it oversees and looks for ways to improve, based on dozens of factors. In this case, the improvement was to put someone else in charge.