When seven faculty members quit during their first week at Jordan L. Mott Middle School in the South Bronx, PE teacher Chris Astacio wasn’t surprised.
The year was 2012, and the kids were out of control.
“They would curse at me for no reason. I got hurt so many times breaking up fights,” Astacio told TODAY Parents. “There was this blatant disrespect. I remember my wife saying to me, ‘You need to find a new job.’”
But Astacio, 41, refused to get discouraged. He grew up on those same streets and understood the anger. Mott is located in one of the most dangerous, poverty-stricken neighborhoods in New York City.
"I never considered quitting,” Astacio told TODAY Parents. "These kids from the South Bronx have this image in their head that they're nobody. I knew they needed somebody to believe in them."
At the end of the school year, when an administrator approached the father of two about starting a girls’ softball team, he agreed to take on the challenge.
What happened next is a story so remarkable that it was recently turned into a book by author Dibs Baer.
“That first year coaching the Lady Tigers, I felt like a complete failure,” Astacio admitted. “They continued cutting class, getting into fights and hanging out with the wrong people. At practice, I’d ask them to run four laps, and they’d be like, ‘We ain’t doing that.’”
Determined to build trust, Astacio began holding unofficial therapy sessions.
“There were weeks where we didn’t even touch any softballs, it was just me sitting down with them and talking to them,” Astacio told TODAY Parents. “In the beginning, the girls were reluctant to speak, so I would share my story to show them, ‘Hey, I’m one of you.’ Whenever I hit a chord, someone would chime in and say, ‘Oh, I experienced that too.’”
Slowly, the walls started to come down. Astacio learned that a majority of the team came from broken homes and had never met their fathers. Many had mothers that left them alone with brothers and sisters to look after.
The girls began to use softball to escape the harsh reality of their lives. Every morning, they showed up ready to practice before school. After a rough first year — they lost every game but one — the girls would go on to win the Bronx playoffs.
In 2015, Astacio fundraised $39,000 in 5 days to take the team on a trip to Florida State University, so they could watch a college game. At the time, Astacio was battling cancer.
"I was hooked up to machines and I get a phone call from one of my teacher friends," Astacio said. "He goes, 'You won't believe what's happening. One of the girls stepped up and is leading practice. They said, if coach won't give up, we won't give up."
Genesis Moore says it is the least they could do for Astacio.
"He was the father I never had," the 18-year-old told TODAY Parents. "He saved my life." Moore, who suffered from anxiety and depression, said Astacio would go out and buy her lunch and they would eat together in his office.
"He would just talk to me and listen," she revealed. "I never had that before."
Today, some of the girls are still finishing high school, while others, like Moore, are in college. A few "are not doing well."
But Astacio, whose cancer is in remission, tries to focus on the success stories like Johanna, who recently accepted a full scholarship to play softball at Monroe College, and Heaven, who was accepted to every university she applied to and plans to study law.
“I always tell all the girls not to give me all the credit,” Astacio told TODAY Parents. “All they needed was to be directed on the right path and that’s what I did for them. They did the work. I just turned them around.”