Fund­ing fight leaves kids in the dark

As of­fi­cials wrangle over fi­nanc­ing city rec pro­grams, ath­letes en­dure and play on

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Jeff Barker

As the pint-sized play­ers in mis­matched uni­forms ran their drills, dark­ness closed in on the foot­ball field in lower Park Heights.

The field had no lights, but the North­west Bull­dogs needed to prac­tice. So, in a familiar rit­ual, the youth team’s coaches edged their cars onto the field and turned on their head­lights.

“We’ve got a game Satur­day whether we prac­tice or not. It’s sur­vival,” said Ty­rone John­son, a coach in the Bull­dogs pro­gram. He’s also an ad­min­is­tra­tor, fundraiser and con­fi­dant for many of the 100 5- to 13-year-old play­ers in the pro­gram — even long af­ter foot­ball sea­son ends.

As John­son pre­pared a team for its fi­nal game on Satur­day, he hoped the mayor and City Coun­cil would re­solve their dif­fer­ences over how to fund $60 mil­lion in re­cre­ation pro­gram im­prove­ments — in­clud­ing rec cen­ter up­grades and fields — that both sides agree are crit­i­cally needed North­west Bull­dogs coach Ty­rone John­son says he’s spent about $10,000 of his own money over the past sev­eral years to keep the youth foot­ball pro­gram afloat. to pro­vide kids with more coach­ing, men­tor­ing and pro­grammed ac­tiv­ity.

The Bal­ti­more area has as many as 50 youth foot­ball pro­grams, each typ­i­cally field­ing five or more teams of about 25 play­ers grouped by age. The pro­grams of­ten pro­vide much more than foot­ball in­struc­tion. Many coaches rou­tinely take play­ers to movies or the bar­ber shop, buy them cleats, read books with them, mon­i­tor their grades at school, or even see them off on prom night.

The Park­side War­riors, one of the city’s largest pro­grams with 350 play­ers, started book clubs this sea­son for all of its 13 teams. When the weather was warm, the play­ers sat on the grass dis­cussing their books.

Now they con­vene in­side a re­cre­ation cen­ter.

City foot­ball coaches like John­son, a for­mer North­west­ern High School foot­ball player who is now a so­cial ser­vices case man­ager, also fre­quently cope with worn equip­ment such as hel­mets and pads, and patchy prac­tice fields with lim­ited avail­abil­ity and no lights.

City Coun­cil­man Bran­don Scott said he asked the Police Depart­ment to put up spot­lights dur­ing the sea­son so the War­riors could prac­tice.

“We have to have bet­ter fa­cil­i­ties,” he said. “I’ve been try­ing to get the coun­cil pres­i­dent and the mayor to come to­gether around this.

Mayor Stephanie Rawl­ings-Blake and City Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Bernard C. “Jack” Young both have called for build­ing new rec cen­ters and ad­ding lighted fields, but they dis­agree on the scope of the projects and the fund­ing sources.

Young fa­vors “su­per” re­cre­ation cen­ters in East and West Bal­ti­more, mod­eled on the 135,000-square-foot Boo Wil­liams Sport­splex in Hamp­ton, Va., named for the for­mer col­lege basketball star and prom­i­nent youth sports ad­vo­cate. The Rawl­ingsBlake ad­min­is­tra­tion has ar­gued that smaller neigh­bor­hood re­cre­ation cen­ters are a bet­ter fit for Bal­ti­more.

In 2015, Rawl­ings-Blake pro­posed spend­ing $136 mil­lion for park, pool and rec cen­ter up­grades that in­cluded $20 mil­lion for four out­door ath­letic cen­ters.

The city says it cur­rently op­er­ates eight fields that can be used for foot­ball. Only half of the fields have lights, and they also are used by soc­cer and lacrosse teams. That leaves many teams ei­ther sharing prac­tice fields or with­out a place to play.

“We don’t have sup­ply to meet de­mand,” said Rashaan Brave, the city’s di­vi­sion chief for youth and adult sports and special fa­cil­i­ties.

The mayor’s plan in­cludes sell­ing four city-owned park­ing garages and us­ing the re­sult­ing $60 mil­lion to fund a big chunk of her proposal. While some im­prove­ments have moved forward, the down­town garage sales have been blocked by Young.

The Off-Street Park­ing Com­mis­sion, a panel of may­oral ap­pointees, ap­proved the garage plan this month, but Mayor-elect Cather­ine E. Pugh, who takes of­fice Dec. 6, North­west Bull­dogs as­sis­tant coach Tony Mck­iver ad­justs a player’s gear. City rec pro­grams of­ten strug­gle to come up with the $250 it can cost to outfit a player. will make the fi­nal de­ci­sion.

While Young agrees that the city owes it to play­ers and vol­un­teer coaches to pro­vide bet­ter fa­cil­i­ties, he con­tends that the garages are “money mak­ers” for the city and shouldn’t be sold. He said money for bet­ter fa­cil­i­ties could come from pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships and the city.

John­son pointed out that the end of day­light sav­ing time in the fall means that it gets dark be­tween 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. He said it’s “ex­tremely important” that the is­sue be ad­dressed.

“Hope­fully there can be some pos­i­tive res­o­lu­tion,” John­son said. “We start prac­tice at 6 o’clock, so we’re lit­er­ally start­ing in the dark.”

Pugh has said that she would have her eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment team study the “fea­si­bil­ity” of sell­ing the garages and that she won’t make a de­ci­sion be­fore a “care­ful eval­u­a­tion of the eco­nom­ics.”

The Rawl­ings-Blake ad­min­is­tra­tion and City Coun­cil mem­bers cited the ben­e­fits of kids con­nect­ing with coaches as men­tors as a rea­son teams de­serve bet­ter re­sources — even if they are at odds over how to pro­vide them.

“Most of the coaches teach these kids like their own kids. What they do is very, very important,” Young said.

“Foot­ball re­ally saved me, giv­ing me struc­ture and male fig­ures to look up to,” said Tony Mck­iver, 27, who coaches the Bull­dogs’ 8-year-olds. Mck­iver was a Bull­dogs player be­gin­ning at age 5, and John­son was among his coaches. “It was that coach say­ing, ‘I want to see your re­port card.’ ”

Joe “Ya Ya” My­ers counts his team among the for­tu­nate few. He is an as­sis­tant coach for the 9- to 11-year-olds of the Charm City Buc­ca­neers, a West Bal­ti­more pro­gram that draws play­ers from around the city to Leon Day Field, which has lights.

“When it gets late in the sea­son and the play­offs start, we’ll have a few teams that need to come down to use our field,” My­ers said.

“Some­times the city kids get slighted” be­cause of a lack of re­sources rel­a­tive to other parts of the state, My­ers said. “All we can do is what we can.”

The value of the Buc­ca­neers pro­gram ex­tends well be­yond the sport, said Dawn Scott, the mother of two for­mer play­ers.

Troy and Travon Hol­lis, both lineback­ers on foot­ball schol­ar­ships at Fair­mont State Univer­sity in West Vir­ginia, re­cently re­called how My­ers ac­com­pa­nied the broth­ers on col­lege vis­its, greeted them be­fore their prom and at­tended their high school grad­u­a­tion.

“Once you play for this man, he will al­ways stick with you,” Travon Hol­lis said. “If things are go­ing wrong, you call him and talk to him about any sit­u­a­tion.”

Many big area pro­grams are non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions af­fil­i­ated with Amer­i­can Youth Foot­ball, Pop Warner or other leagues that hold re­gional and national tour­na­ments. Other teams are spon­sored by rec coun­cils or rec cen­ters.

USA Foot­ball, a gov­ern­ing body for the am­a­teur game, has pro­vided grants — $1,000 in one year, $500 in another — to help the Bull­dogs pay for equip­ment. Other Bull­dogs spon­sors have in­cluded the Abell Foun­da­tion and Park Heights Re­nais­sance, a com­mu­nity im­prove­ment group.

Bal­ti­more’s Depart­ment of Re­cre­ation and Parks also pro­vides sub­si­dies to each of the 19 city-based youth foot­ball pro­grams for ref­er­ees’ fees.

The help is welcome, but it’s rarely enough. A team’s an­nual ex­penses can to­tal thou­sands of dol­lars — some­times tens of thou­sands. Teams spend up to $250 to outfit a player in a uni­form, hel­met and pads.

John­son es­ti­mates he’s spent “up­wards of $10,000 out my own pocket for the past10 to 15 years” to cover the pro­gram’s costs.

Youth foot­ball pro­grams also rely on player reg­is­tra­tion fees. John­son said Bull­dogs par­ents were asked this sea­son to pay a $55 reg­is­tra­tion fee — if they could af­ford it.

“We’re not go­ing to turn any kids away,” John­son said.

By com­par­i­son, the Tow­son re­cre­ation coun­cil’s youth foot­ball pro­gram, the Spar­tans, charges par­tic­i­pants a fee of $180, plus up to $75 for uni­forms. They also prac­tice on a lighted grass field, of­ten along­side other teams, and play games on an ar­ti­fi­cial turf field at Mead­owood Re­gional Park in Lutherville-Ti­mo­nium.

On a re­cent night, the Bull­dogs con­vened at one of the fields with lights, ad­ja­cent to the C.C. Jack­son Re­cre­ation Cen­ter on Park Heights Av­enue. It turned out the field was be­ing used for a game, so the play­ers — in hand-me-down jer­seys and hel­mets that didn’t al­ways match their team­mates’ — prac­ticed on a thin patch of worn grass nearby.

As the sun went down, they con­tin­ued to work on for­ma­tions and pass pat­terns, though the lights didn’t ex­tend quite far enough for them to be able to see the ball.

KARL MER­TON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

KARL MER­TON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

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