WHEN THE PEOPLE of Flint, Mich., learned they would get their water from the town's eponymous river, they thought: That river? "If you walk by, the river stinks," says former NFL receiver Courtney Hawkins, a Flint native who now coaches at a high school there. "The river is nasty looking. Just the-smell-and-the-look test ... a person not being from here would be like, I know good and well they're not talking about hooking up from here. We were in disbelief."
For decades Flint purchased a portion of its water supply from Detroit, but in 2014 the financially strapped city stopped and began drawing water from the river—without using corrosion control to prevent lead from seeping from ancient pipes carrying water into people's homes. But the change saved some money, and who would notice, anyway? Flint, where the poverty rate is 41.5% and 56.6% of the population is African-American, is the America that most of America hides from itself.
Hawkins caught 366 passes over nine NFL seasons, the last in 2000. He started coaching at Flint's Beecher High in '06 for a simple reason: Kids in his hometown needed him. He emphasized academics and instilled discipline and won games, and he tried to be a dam against the decline of a city that has seen its population fall 20% in the last 15 years. In '09, at the nadir of the economic downturn, Flint's unemployment rate was almost 30%. (It's now 9.7%, still nearly twice the national average.) All around the city, lawn signs tout home-alarm systems, even at houses with no alarms. Many residents can't afford the alarm, just the sign. They hope it deters burglars. As Hawkins says, "You gotta do what you gotta do."
These are the people the government was "serving" when it connected to the Flint River. The first boil-water advisory came in August 2014, long before the water crisis became a national story. The Detroit Free Press reported in October '14 that General Motors pulled an engine plant off the river feed because the water was corroding its parts. The city kept using it. The water was not good enough for a Cadillac, but it was fine for a child.
Hawkins is fortunate; his home and his school are in the Beecher district, which uses a separate water source. One of his assistant coaches, Frank Gause, is not so lucky. Gause saw disturbing particles in his water and a brown film on his bathtub after he showered. His daughter's skin got "dry and ashy." He saw open fire hydrants spilling brown water into streets, "but [the city] hadn't said, 'Don't drink the water' yet."
Now Gause sees the fallout of a government-ordered catastrophe. He gets bottled water delivered, but not enough. And he shakes his head at his water bill, which has more than doubled since the switch. "This wouldn't happen in a more affluent county or city," Hawkins says. "The unemployment rate, the poverty, it's almost as if people looked at the city as if it didn't really matter. Nobody should have to live like that in the United States of America."
The extent of the physical damage—lead-contaminated water can lead to brain and kidney damage and learning disabilities in kids—won't be fully understood for years. But the crisis is another blow to the city, another devaluing of Flint lives. You want to see the ripple effect? Try persuading high school kids who have been drinking leaded water that their country will give them a fair shot. As a football coach and athletic director, Hawkins tries to teach skills that will help students build better lives for themselves. "The biggest challenge is changing mind-sets," says Hawkins. "[Kids] start to make what they see into their reality: [They think] this is the best I can do."
Hawkins, 46, and Gause, 47, are old enough to have known a different Flint. They grew up there when the auto plants were thriving, citizens could reasonably expect to pay a mortgage and high school kids could find reason to hope. "Thirty years ago was a different life around here," Gause says. "Now it's close to being a ghost town." You want to believe Flint can be someplace again, but then you turn on the faucet and it hits you: If you can't afford an alarm, it never goes off.
The challenge for a coach in Flint: Persuade kids who have been drinking leaded water that their country will give them a fair shot.
Who's to blame for the crisis in Flint?
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CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED