Germantown’s Pop Warner team heads to their Super Bowl this weekend

The Northwest Raiders are about to do what their hometown NFL football team will most likely not this year: Play in the Super Bowl.

This weekend, the team of 28 boys aged 13 to 14 will travel from their home turf in Philadelphia’s Germantown section to the plush grass of the ESPN football complex in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. to compete in the Pop Warner Super Bowl.

“It’s national or nothing. It’s that simple,” said Rich Williams, the fired-up assistant coach of the team who was once a Raider himself. “We’re going to put on for our city, our state, our Eastern region, Pop Warner, Liberty and, most of all, for Lonnie Young in Germantown. That’s what we do. That’s where we’re from.”

How they got there

The Raiders, a venerable Pop Warner organization now in its 40th year, practice at the Lonnie Young Recreation Center on East Chelten Avenue. The center is named after Lonnie Young, a Germantown amateur boxer and member of the U.S. Olympic boxing team, who died in a plane crash in 1980 en route to an international boxing competition in Poland when he was 21 years old.

The Raiders advanced to the Super Bowl after going 6-0-1 in the Liberty Division this fall. They won two local playoff games, then moved to the regional round where they won a semi-final and a final game. In Florida, they will represent the Eastern Region as one of the eight regions competing in their age group.

Last Tuesday night, while rain and wind whipped across the streets outside, the team gathered inside the sprawling, city-run recreation center in East Germantown to finish up drills. Then came the viewing party.

The boys, their families and coaches gathered around an ESPN feed to watch their team’s name displayed in the Pop Warner Super Bowl brackets. As the name was announced, the small room of about 75 people erupted into cheers and the players chanted at the top of their lungs.

The Northwest Raiders organization, founded in 1971, has been successful for many years. It counts among its alumni Aaron McKie, a former basketball player for the Temple Owls and Philadelphia 76ers player who now serves as an assistant coach, and Jerome Allen, the University of Pennsylvania’s head basketball coach.

Williams credited the Raiders’ success this season to their double-wing offense, which relies heavily on the ability of running back standouts Nasir Bonner and Yusuf Tribble, one of the team’s captains.

More than football

For the players, though, the Raiders organization is more than just a sports team. It is also family and a way to avoid the temptations of the street.

“We are all a family. Every weekend we are at the same houses, we eat Thanksgiving together, we do everything together,” explained Bonner.

Tribble, who heads to football practice every day after school lets out, said he can confide in his coaches if he’s dealing with any issues.

“I just come here all day, every day and just be with my friends and my coaches,” he said.

As they look to the weekend competition, it’s not only first downs and touchdowns that are on the players’ minds, but also an opportunity to see another place. Many have never been outside Philadelphia.

“It really means a lot to them,” said Keisha Mickens, a cheer coach for a junior midget squad, whose son plays football. “Some kids don’t have the privilege to go certain places.”

Not an inexpensive trip

Even as the team celebrated its Super Bowl bid, team officials were still hustling to raise additional funds for the trip.

“We’re trying to raise enough money so our kids don’t have to pay for the trip,” said William. “We cannot afford to miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime because of cents and dollars. You can’t put a price on these kids’ faces when they take that trip.”

The cost, according to team officials, is about $800 per person. While the team has raised private donations, it needs more and has turned to local government for help. At 5 p.m. today, Mayor Michael Nutter will host a press conference to announce a public/private partnership is helping the Raiders and several other local teams cover the travel costs.

Treasurer Kim Guyton, who is helping in the effort, said he tells the boys, “You gave this (the Super Bowl bid) to us, so we want to give this (the trip to Florida) to you.”

The Raiders, who play their home games at nearby Martin Luther King High School, lost in the local championship last season, but returned this season determined to win it all.

“The kids just want it,” said Williams.

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Jeffrey Flax and Matthew Spezialetti are La Salle University students who write for GermantownBeat, a local student-produced news site. NewsWorks features articles from GermantownBeat on its Northwest Philadelphia community sites and contributes multimedia journalism training to the program.

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