It's twilight--an hour that mingles longing and regret, promise
and speculation--and Tony DaRocha is brooding raptly. The city
of Boston's high school cross-country coach is thisclose to
kicking Abdirizak Mohamud out of his program. Five weeks into
the season Abdirizak, the Somalian emigre who last December won
the Foot Locker National High School Championship in San Diego,
has been missing practices because of an after-school job. When
he shows up late for this afternoon's session at George White
Schoolboy Stadium, DaRocha takes him aside. "If you don't train
with the team," DaRocha says, "you're no longer part of it."
Abdirizak stares at DaRocha with big, liquid eyes. "O.K.," says
the senior from Boston English High School. "I understand."
As Abdirizak lopes off on his long pipe-stem legs, DaRocha says,
"People think I'm crazy. I have the Number 1 distance runner in
the nation, and I'm not going to let him run. But a coach sets
rules, and his athletes are expected to follow them."
Athletes have been following DaRocha like no cross-country coach
in Beantown history. In Boston, unlike most public school
systems, students who wanted to run had to join a single
citywide program, racing as nonscorers in suburban dual meets
and individually in invitationals. The team floundered so badly
that by the time DaRocha took over, in 1992, enrollment was down
to one. DaRocha persevered, building success upon success. His
current citywide team roster includes two of the country's top
eight prep runners, Ben Wessenyeleh, a junior from Ethiopia, and
Abdirizak. "I treat all my kids the same," DaRocha says. "No
matter who they are or where they're from."
Tony's Kids come from all over Boston and the world: Nigeria,
Ethiopia, Cuba, Haiti, Vietnam, Gambia, Cambodia, the Dominican
Republic. Abdirizak arrived from war-ravaged Somalia in 1993 by
way of Kenya, where he spent two years in squalid refugee camps.
"We're a little United Nations," says Secretary General DaRocha.
"Nearly all the 33 runners who signed up this fall are
DaRocha, 36, knows how it feels to be displaced. A native of the
Cape Verde Islands, off the coast of West Africa, he didn't run
until his family moved to Boston in 1967. Then he had no choice.
"We were the first blacks in an all-Irish neighborhood," he
says. "I used to get chased home by boys swinging belts. Thank
god nobody ever caught me."
A 10-kilometer specialist with a personal best of 29:11 who
earned All-East honors at Boston University, DaRocha became the
gym teacher at Boston's Lewenberg Middle School six years ago.
"Twelve and 13 are the ages when kids either lose focus or
develop a life goal," DaRocha says. "Unfortunately, phys ed can
often be a humiliating or confidence-destroying experience. So I
figured I'd have the biggest impact at that age."
He brought a similar focus to Boston Latin High School, where he
has coached track since '92. Under his guidance, the perennial
doormats have won the last two league titles. "He's more than my
coach, he's my conscience," says Dominique Vilmont, a protege of
DaRocha's who was born in Haiti. "He runs beside me in training,
telling me what I'm doing wrong and doing right."
He used the same approach with Abdirizak in September 1996.
Though the teen had run the 1,000 yards indoors in a spectacular
2:16.06, he told DaRocha he considered himself a sprinter. "No,"
DaRocha insisted. "You're a distance runner with speed." He
talked Abdirizak into running a couple of miles with him,
slowly. Abdirizak was so bushed that he didn't show up at
practice for two weeks. He only relented after DaRocha said,
"Come back. You're going to like cross-country."
Two months later, Abdirizak won the national championship.
"Coach was right," he says. "I liked it."
COLOR PHOTO: BILL POLO DaRocha (in glasses) had to convince national champ Abdirizak (back left) that he wasn't a sprinter. [Tony DeRocha, Abdirizak Mohamud, and others running]