Sat December 4, 2010

Peewee Powerhouse Grows On A Dangerous Field

A group of volunteer coaches are building a tiny football dynasty in North Philadelphia. The pre-teen players on the North Philly Blackhawks usually play on a dirt field littered with broken glass and rocks, but that might just be the kind of grit that makes them champions this weekend at the Pop Warner Super Bowl.

For many kids on the team, however, playing for the Blackhawks is about more than learning how to play football; it's a chance to connect with the positive male role models they may not have at home.

"Some of these kids might not have the father figure or the big brother figure at home," head coach Derrick Williams says. "It tends to help when they have someone to come or call. That's my payment right there."

Tough Players On A Field Of Hazards

Broken glass, rocks and evidence of neighborhood dogs are scattered across the Blackhawks' practice field. Their part of town is an urban area known for its crime and poverty. Williams points to where a dirt bike tore a swirl into the grass.

"It's not even something kids should have to play on," he says. "We make do with what we've got."

At practice, Williams runs through plays with his offense. It's a pretty good group of athletes -- for pre-teens. Some of the smaller players are swallowed up by all the gear, but Williams still pushes them to be great on -- and off -- the field.

Twelve-year-old Lamaj Gans is the Blackhawks' smallest player, but he has confidence that, in part, comes from his reputation of being fearless on the field. He thinks he knows how he gained his nickname, Shortstack.

"I'm short," he says. "[But] I always have heart, and I never back down from nobody."

Williams and the other volunteer coaches manage to do a lot with their modest resources. Many of the players on this 120-pound weight limit team were on the 105-pound team that made it to the semifinals of the Pop Warner tournament last year, losing to the eventual national champions.

Giving Kids A Safe Place To Play

Football helps structure the boys' days. Williams singles out Brian Harvey as one of the team's hardest workers. Without football, Brian says, "I'd probably just be sitting at home, watching TV and playing video games."

There's a grade requirement for participation, and several of the players say they work harder in school so they'll be able to play. A single mother of one of the Blackhawks, Janet Salley, says that football helps keep her son off the streets. She's glad the coaches help teach her son important lessons.

"As well as good sportsmanship, they teach them patience, perseverance, fair play. And that's a quality that a man's supposed to have," Salley says.

"I've seen a lot of things happen to a lot of people that I love and care about out here, and I don't want that for my son."

Williams says the best part is letting the kids just be kids. "Some of them may be 12, but they've got five younger brothers and sisters, and their mom works two jobs. They've got to watch the kids all day long, and they never had a chance to be a kid." Copyright 2011 "WHYY, Inc. ". To see more, visit http://www.whyy.org.