MANATEE — The sight of 70 boys wearing football helmets and shoulder pads being coached by a handful of enthusiastic adult volunteers may not seem so unusual this time of year.
But the boys and adults joining forces Monday in a field behind Harllee Middle School are part of a historic groundswell, some say.
The boys are the Pride Park Packers, a brand-new team in the inaugural season of the YMCA Football League, or YFL for short.
The Pride Park Packers are special youths and the league has been created to help them. Each is at risk of joining Pride Park area gangs, says Pastor Jerry Parrish, who has recruited most of these boys to play.
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Giving them athletics is a powerful way to keep them out of the gangs, said Palma Sola Park resident Chuck McCampbell, 73, who presented the YMCA a check for $1,000 Monday night toward the football program, which requires $12,000 to be fully funded.
McCampbell’s donation brings the donations from residents and area businesses to $3,900, said YMCA executive director Sean Allison, who was at Harllee for practice Monday.
“I was a hoodlum growing up in Columbus, Ohio, but someone cared enough about me to get me off the wrong track and onto the right track,” said McCampbell, who owns Heritage Paper Company, which works with local Staples stores.
“If we can save some kids here, we should do it,” McCampbell said.
Manatee County YMCA has a gang intervention and prevention program that is working with local law enforcement to break the cycle of generational gangs, Parrish said.
“A lot of kids in Pride Park end up in gangs because they can’t get to the things they might like to get to,” Parrish said. “There is not a bus for them. Because there was this need that wasn’t being addressed, the YMCA stepped in. We are not going away. We are fighting for these kids.”
Parrish, the youth at-risk director for the Manatee County YMCA, said his job is to hang out in Pride Park like an old-time cop on the beat, getting to know the boys and girls personally.
“Pastor Jerry checks on us,” said Packer Nate Bassler, 14, who lives in the Pride Park area.
“Pastor Jerry is a good person, a good guy,” said the speedy Dantreal Waiters, 12, nicknamed D-Train, who wants to play pro football some day.
Parrish says the league is “a lot of good kids, a bunch of moms and 12 coaches.”
One of those moms is Lillie Trejo. Her son, Alexander “A.J.” Machuca, 13, is experiencing his first taste of football.
“At one point, Alexander felt that the gang was his family,” Trejo said. “I told him I was not going to let that happen.”
A.J. said he just wants to move forward and forget all of the gang temptations.
The YFL will have 12 teams this year. The Pride Park Packers, Bradenton Buccaneers, The Parrish Steelers and the Lakewood Ranch Colts each will have three teams: 8-to-9-year-olds, 10- and 11-year-olds, and 12- to 14-year-olds.
The games will be played at the county-owned Bradenton Prep field off 75th StreetWest, Parrish said.
The season kicks off Sept. 25. A Super Bowl in planned for December.
For information on signing up a youth for the league or volunteering or donating, call Parrish at 720-5256.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.