It's Mighty Mites in a cloud of dust! Boys football league provides new life to inner city playground

September 28, 1995|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

Photo captions in Thursday's editions misidentified two football players in the Sandtown-Winchester Pop Warner League. The teammate of the Broncos' Kwame Walker was Davon Strong; the player running with the ball was Shawn Wooden.

The Sun regrets the error.

The Broncos' last football game of the season began with Coach Sean Stevenson offering a prayer in the huddle: "Lord, win or lose, we're going to have a good time out here. Amen."

The coach outlined his game plan: "Let's see if we can go the whole game without a mouthpiece violation." Then assistant coach Troy Gaither knelt down to tie a player's shoe.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

This is the Sandtown-Winchester Pop Warner League, the first in BTC the city to focus exclusively on 7- to 9-year-olds. The four-team league, whose slogan is "The Mighty Mites Doing It Right!," recently finished its inaugural six-game season.

The field of play is a dusty West Baltimore playground flanked by the backs of vacant rowhouses. The coaches are volunteers who think children need to see men doing the right thing. The players are pint-sized gladiators for whom just wearing real helmets and shoulder pads is the stuff of dreams.

A huge man shepherds the tiny athletes on and off the field in the 1300 block of N. Stricker St. He is Lemuel Thomas, 6-foot-4, 268 pounds and, by all accounts, every inch and ounce a gentleman.

Mr. Thomas, known to Mighty Mites and adults alike as D. D., his childhood nickname, is the founder, commissioner and chief fund-raiser of Sandtown Pop Warner. As if that weren't enough, he's also the referee.

"We're trying to teach some self-respect, respect for others and discipline," said Mr. Thomas, 38, a recreation leader at the city's Lillian S. Jones Recreation Center, the league's home base. "We don't keep score, we don't permit trash talk, we make sure they do homework before they come here, and the kids shake hands after the games."

Mr. Thomas has been a volunteer football coach for 17 years, but he concedes that teaching the game to 7- to 9-year-olds is a challenge. The fun starts with ensuring that players wear their protective mouthpieces on each and every play.

easier to start a 1929 tractor, it's easier to catch an eagle than to get them to keep their mouthpieces in," Mr. Thomas said.

Then there are the plays themselves.

"These kids are used to running around, doing what they want to do," said Coach Stevenson, 29, a reading tutor. "It's kind of hard to have all 11 on the same page at the same time."

Mr. Thomas found that five plays were about enough for a team to master.

Even so, surprises are a staple on the Mighty Mites' gridiron.

Such as when Kwame Walker, the Broncos' little No. 1, grabbed the ball in a recent game and sprinted 40 yards in the wrong direction until an opponent did him a favor by tackling him short of the goal line.

"He was gone!" Mr. Thomas said. "And it didn't matter to him when he was tackled. He was laughing, and he jumped right up. That to me was the joy of the whole season."

When the season ended, Kwame reluctantly confessed that he was only 6 years old. He had become the spirit of Mighty Mite football, fearless when blocking boys who tower over him.

"My favorite play is to bowl people over," Kwame said. "I ran the ball last week. I got knocked down."

Was it fun?

"No, but it was a fumble," he said with a giggle.

Sometimes parents got swept up in the competitive spirit.

Mr. Thomas said one mother whose son was running for a touchdown joined him in a sprint down the sideline. "She jumped up like she had scored!" he said.

LaVonne Smith, whose nephew Darien Robinson played for the Tigers, was president of a parents' group that sold hot dogs and T-shirts to raise funds for the league.

"I think it worked out perfectly. It seemed like everybody's happy. This is the future right here," she said, gesturing to the youngsters.

The only disappointment was a lack of money. Youth football is costly.

Mr. Thomas drew up an $11,200 budget, including 72 helmets at $58 apiece, shoulder pads at $31 each, game pants at $17, jerseys for $15, insurance premiums of $1,200 and so on.

He raised about half of that, which bought helmets and pads enough for only two teams.

When one game ended, players quickly peeled off their equipment for the other two teams to use.

Mr. Thomas heard one question over and over: "D. D., when can we take our equipment home?"

The league's sponsors were First National Bank of Maryland and New Song Community Church.

"D. D.'s a great coach," said Allan Tibbels of New Song's Habitat for Humanity affiliate. "Kids don't respect somebody they can walk over, and they don't respect somebody who doesn't care about them. They respect him."

Everybody involved hopes Sandtown football will keep youngsters out of trouble.

Ms. Smith acknowledged she had seen some corner drug

dealers "play football just like this" not so long ago. But many rec center alumni have gone on to college and careers, too.

After the last game of the season, Coach Wilbert "Butch" Williams, 54, a hospital employee, gathered his team around.

Like several coaches, he now lives in the suburbs but comes back to West Baltimore "because I felt I needed to contribute something."

"We didn't have many successes, but we had a whole lot of fun," Mr. Williams told the team. "Now everybody put your hands together and we're going to holler Cougars for the last time."

"Cougars!"

Sandtown Pop Warner will hold an Oct. 6 banquet at the rec center. That, of course,prompted the Cougars' James Lewis to ask a season-ending question: "Why can't we get trophies right now?"

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