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City’s youth get athletic boost

Play Ball! to fund middle schoolers

By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / October 16, 2009

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Opening a new chapter in the renaissance of sports in the Boston schools, the city yesterday plugged a major void in its athletic system by launching a middle-school football league aimed at keeping hundreds of youths on the fields, off the streets, and in the classrooms.

The city’s cash-strapped school system kicked off the league thanks to vital funding from the nonprofit Play Ball! Foundation. The launch coincides with a comprehensive overhaul of Boston school sports after a Globe series in June detailed serious inadequacies in opportunities, equipment, facilities, and academic eligibility in the system’s chronically underfunded programs.

“This is historic because it’s putting sports back into the lives of these kids and making it accessible to them at their schools,’’ said Stalin Colinet, an educational adviser and former NFL and Boston College player who tossed the coin before the league opener at White Stadium.

The new league reflects the city’s stepped-up commitment to improving conditions for students at Boston’s 22 middle schools who have been denied the opportunity to participate in interscholastic sports. For many years, the only interscholastic sports available to Boston middle-schoolers have been basketball and track.

“This was really a no-brainer in terms of the impact it could have on a lot of kids,’’ said Mike Harney, a former lacrosse star at Concord-Carlisle High School and Georgetown University who founded the Play Ball! Foundation to address the disparities between athletic opportunities for children in Boston and the suburbs.

The foundation donated $30,000 to launch the football program and expects to contribute as much as $100,000 over the first three years as the league expands to additional middle schools. The grant covered nearly all the expenses, except transportation, which the city will fund.

Like several other nonprofits committed to urban youth sports, Play Ball! will effectively supplement a multimillion-dollar partnership Mayor Thomas M. Menino created between Suffolk Construction Co.’s Red & Blue Foundation and the school department to address deficiencies cited in the Globe series. Play Ball! had previously contributed about $100,000 since its inception in 2005 to improve afterschool activities in Boston.

“To be able to have our fingerprint on the creation of a program like this will go a long way toward being able to do more things within the Boston public schools,’’ Harney said.

The football league was the brainchild of principals at the four middle schools participating in the inaugural season: the Edwards in Charlestown, Gavin in South Boston, Irving in Roslindale, and Rogers in Hyde Park. The season will end with a championship game on Thanksgiving.

Gavin principal Alexander Mathews said the program serves as a constructive resource for youths who otherwise receive little opportunity to engage in extracurricular activities. The league may be particularly helpful for at-risk youths, and, unlike Pop Warner football, there are no weight restrictions.

“We have a lot of students on the team who had disciplinary issues in the past,’’ Mathews said. “They still aren’t angels, but this gives them a reason to come to school, a reason to not have horrible behavior, and it serves as an example of how hard work and dedication can pay off in an arena outside school.’’

The opening game turned into a thriller, with Irving eking out a victory over Gavin, 30-22.