A North Philadelphia youth football team is headed to Florida to play this weekend in the Pop Warner Super Bowl.
But for the kids, the coaches and the parents, the North Philly Blackhawks are about a lot more than football.
“Real fast, we’re gonna do a nice little walk through, nice and easy,” directs head coach Derrick Williams.
Wearing a black sports visor, Williams led his offense through some plays at a Blackhawks practice shortly before heading to Florida. Williams told his players to keep working hard.
“Focus, focus, make me believe. Buzz, you gotta sell it. Roll out with it, good, good,” he encouraged his team. “Go pro set right. Twenty-three lead. Four back in the slot.”
Williams played for the Blackhawks as a kid. Now he works at the airport. He said there’s a good reason he does this coaching for free.
“I like tryin’ to help them be productive, strong young men in the community,” Williams said. “They might not have the father figure or the big brother figure at home. It tends to help when they have someone to come to or call and talk about issues that they don’t have a man at home to talk about, or a brother they can call. That’s my payment right there.”
Nothing comes easy for the Blackhawks, who practice on a rundown field near Temple University.
Williams pointed to a stretch that’s part grass, part dirt.
“Somebody was riding a dirt bike in here,” he said. “People walk dogs … with the broken glass and the rocks, it’s not even something kids should have to play on but I mean we make do with what we got.”
Williams and his team of volunteer coaches have managed to do a lot with their modest resources. In fact, they’re building a bit of a football powerhouse.
Many of the same players on this 120-pound team were on the 105-pound team that made it to the second round of the Pop Warner tournament last year.
Lamaj Gans, 12, is the Blackhawks smallest player, but when he’s decked out in the team’s trademark black and gold, he’s got a surplus of energy. He thinks he knows how he gained his nickname, ShortStack.
“Because I’m short and, you know, what can I say? I always have heart and like I never back down from nobody,” he said.
Assistant coach Stevie Draper says football breeds leadership on the field and in life.
“It transfers to school. All our guys get good grades. You gotta maintain at least a 2.5 average to be on the team to play in Pop Warner period,” he said. “We ask our guys how they’re doing in school, we got miniature report card checks.”
Brian Harvey was singled out by one of the coaches for his work ethic. He said he thinks he knows what he’d be doing if he weren’t part of the Blackhawks.
“I’d probably be just sittin’ at home, watching TV and playing video games.”
Janet Salley, the mom of one of the players, said that as a single parent she’s glad her son, Yasin, is learning from the Blackhawks coaches,
“As well as good sportsmanship, they teach ’em patience, perseverance, fair play. And that’s a quality that a man’s supposed to have,” said Salley. “This is what I love for him, to be with these men out here… I just don’t trust the streets like that. 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 said the players ask him all sorts of questions about football, school, peer pressure and, yes, girls.
“A lot of these kids come from some of the roughest streets we gonna come across,” Williams said. “They may be 12 but they got five younger brothers and sisters and their mom works two jobs and they gotta watch the kids all day long.
“They never have a chance to be a kid. Like out here, they get a chance to be a kid,” he said.
Eleven-year-old Daeshyne Hill said being a Blackhawk is fun but hard at the same time. “We have to run the steps and run for a long time and my legs be killin’ me,” he said.
Daeshyne said the Blackhawks are winners because they know they have to stick together — whether they lose or win.
The team’s been desperately trying to raise $30,000 to pay for airfare, housing and food for the Florida trip.
To contact the Blackhawks about donations call 215-232-3130 or write to: Blackhawks Athletic Club, Inc., PO Box 34435, Philadelphia, PA 19101