It is a frigid night at Moakley Park in South Boston as Orchard Gardens gears up to play cross-town rival Edwards in the Boston Public Middle-School football championship. Although a wind has swept in from Old Harbor bay, dropping the temperature below freezing, players from both teams fail to notice; there are more important things tonight than weather.
Despite only being middle schools, both teams act collegiate. Without prodding or hesitation, they run warm ups like military drills. While some players run routes, others are crouched face down going over the fundamentals of tackling and blocking. No one stands ideally by.
Though warm-ups are run with precision and accuracy, the game is anything but that.
Whiffed blocks give way to whiffed tackles as each play turns into huge gains or massive loses, with no in between. But while players slip and slide across the field, one thing is decidedly clear: these kids are having fun.
It is hard to believe that only three years ago, the concept of middle school football was less than a pipe dream. Because of city budget cuts, the only sports available to these students were basketball and track and almost all of them had never played in an organized league.
But thanks to the Play Ball Foundation, Boston middle school student now have more opportunities to be active than ever before
Founded in 2005, The Play Ball Foundation is a non-profit charity focused on expanding sports opportunities entirely for Boston public middle schools. It is the brainchild of founder Mike Harney, a senior vice president at FBR Capital Markets, and his friends who wanted to give back to their community, but didn’t have the time to dedicate as coaches.
Harney knows exactly how important sports are for adolescent students. A three-team varsity athlete in high school and a college lacrosse player at Georgetown, he said sports played a major part in making him the successful businessman he is today. So when the chance came to give back to his community through an outlet he knew and loved, he jumped at the cause.
Part of the problem Harney and his colleagues saw was a disparity in after school sports offered in Boston Public Middle Schools versus those offered in neighboring suburbs.
“I was someone who grew up playing every and any sport I could,” said Harney, a graduate of nearby suburban Concord-Carlisle High School. “It really helped define who I was before I understood who I wanted to be. So the fact that so little was offered to these kids seemed like a big hole we could work towards fixing.”
According to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, in 2009 the city allocated just under $4 million dollars for after school athletics, less than one-half percent of the total budget and far less than the statewide average of 3 to 4 percent. In addition, about 81 percent of all the students from the Play Ball Football league schools are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, almost three time more than the state average
But getting more kids to play sports is only part of what makes Play Ball such a success. Rather, the more impressive feat is the effect it has had on them in school.
According to Darlene Knight, the Athletic Support Coordinator for the Boston Public School system, each student’s grades and school behavior are tied directly to their playing time. And the opportunity to play, she said, has proved to be a powerful motive.
Knight said she has heard from principles and teachers that kids involved with Play Ball sports are trying to keep their grades up. “It gives them more of an incentive to come to school and try hard,” she said. “It doesn’t just make a difference for them in school, it makes a difference in their lives,” knight said.
Gladys Walker, the mother of Orchard Gardens quarterback Day-mone Peoples, is one of the parents that has noticed the positive influence football has made in her son’s life.
“Football means the world to him,” she said. “It shows him discipline, but more importantly, it gives him a dream.”
For the students and faculty at Orchard Gardens Middle School, football has brought about a cultural change. Not has it made students more focused on academic, but it has also raised school spirit.
According to Sarah White, the student counselor at Orchard Gardens, “bringing new sports like football has helped change the culture of the school,” she said, pausing to chase an Orchard Gardens player down the sideline for a touchdown. “It has really built their self-esteem and school spirit. It doesn’t matter how big or small they are, they all feel good about themselves.”
Principle Andrew Bott sees the difference too. Although he has only been at the school for two years, he was formerly the principle at Rogers Middle School, another Play ball affiliate, and noticed the same rise in school spirit there. The kids, he said, now have something to rally around that previously wasn’t there.
While Play Ball sports leagues have made students more engaged in school, it has also made teachers more responsive as well. According to White, teachers are more likely to confer with each other on individual students behavior then ever before.
“If a student, let’s say, didn’t turn in his homework, teachers are more likely to discuss that student’s behavior because they now have a way of disciplining [that student] in a way that’s meaningful to him,” she said.
As the addition of new sports has positively influenced participating schools, Play Ball has no intentions of slowing down their mission. To date, the foundation has raised almost a million dollars for middle school athletics. And this year, they plan to focus that money on reaching more girls by expanding its sports repertoire to include volleyball and competitive double-dutch jump rope. Already, 10 schools have sign up for each and they hope to increase that number to 12 by the following year.
“Our whole thing is that we want more kids playing sports tomorrow than there were yesterday,” said Harney. “If PlayBall can help make sure kids get to school every day, keep up a grade point average that is acceptable, and avoid punching someone in the face, that alone to me is a huge success.”
The final score reads 20-18 Edwards Middle School. But the fact there even was a game is more important than the outcome. For both teams, it has been a long journey to get to this point. And to remind them just how far they have come, both teams give one final shout: “Play Ball!”
This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.