The Rogers Middle School football team was on its way back to Hyde Park in a black and yellow charter bus. The lights had been dimmed for the ride home on this frigid November night.
But the noise level was booming, just like most of the players’ confidence and excitement. The sounds from iPods were blaring, as the players smiled, soaking in the win.
Liban Abdilahi sat stoically on the bus, his face emotionless and his stare blank.
He had just scored two touchdowns for his team in a 28-12 semifinal playoff victory against Orchard Gardens under the lights of Harvard Stadium last fall to advance to the championship game, slated for six days later at White Stadium.
Abdilahi tipped a pass over a defensive back to himself, snared the ball out of the air and then juked a defender for a score. But as his teammates laughed and joked in the postgame euphoria, he wouldn’t say a word.
Finally, after some prodding from co-head coach Kasim Shavis, Abdilahi spoke.
“I really just caught two touchdowns,” said the lanky eighth grader. “I never even thought I was going to make the team.”
Abdilahi then thanked Shavis for giving him the opportunity to play on the team, to which Shavis replied, “Dude, you got the ability. You made it.”
Prior to 2008, Abdilahi couldn’t have played football for Rogers, or any of Boston’s more than two-dozen public middle schools. None offered the sport.
He couldn’t have taken a field trip to Boston College for a football game. He couldn’t have played under the lights at Harvard Stadium. He couldn’t have sweated with his teammates in August, gone undefeated in the regular season throughout the fall or pushed them to the brink of a city championship in November.
A Boston-based charity called Play Ball!, which was founded in 2005, addressed the budgetary deficiency in the middle school sports area of the Boston Public Schools.
Eight years later, there are 22 Boston public school middle schools with teams funded by Play Ball!. Overall, there are 40 teams that have been created and funded by Play Ball!, in Double Dutch jump roping, football, baseball and volleyball.
Rogers is in Hyde Park and is one of 10 middle schools with a football team. Most of the schools that are part of the program are similar to the Rogers; more than 90 percent of the students are eligible to receive free and reduced priced lunch, according to school principal Corbett Coutts. As of 2006, DataPlace.org had the state average of students eligible in Massachusetts at 28.2 percent.
For principals like Coutts and schools such as Rogers, the program transcends sports. Football gives kids a reason to go to school at an age when skipping classes becomes a temptation. It raises school spirit, as raucous cheerleaders line the sidelines and game days become a social event for kids and parents.
And most importantly, it changes the educational dynamics of the school, as kids have to keep a minimum C grade point average, meet attendance standards and attend weekly study halls during the season.
Just six days after winning the semifinal game, Abdilahi would realize that his receiving skills – discovered by coaches during the final regular season practice – could help him get accepted to a top-notch private high school. That news left him nearly speechless as well.
How it started
Mike Harney, president of Play Ball!, works in the heart of Boston by day at FBR Capital Markets. At night, Harney spends time working out logistics – mainly fundraising – for the charity.
In 2010, Play Ball! raised a net-revenue of just more than $81,000, according to tax filings. A large chunk of the proceeds ($45,530) came from contributions, gifts and grants. Fundraising has increased and the charity now spends $250,000 per school year on the 40 teams it funds.
Pat Arcand, who has been instrumental on the board of Play Ball! since 2009, is a well-known intermediary between Play Ball! and people inside the middle schools. She remembers when the partnership between Play Ball! and the Boston public schools started.
“Before I met Mike (Harney), I’d met a principal who needed some funding to be part of a four-school football league,” she said.
Chris Lynch, the director of the Boston Youth Sports Initiative, thought Arcand and Play Ball! could team up with the Boston Public Schools and help out the principal whose school needed funding assistance.
“Mike and I had lunch,” Arcand said. After the two sat down and talked, Play Ball! ended up providing funding for the football team in need. “Then,” Arcand said, “we were off and running.” Continued...