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A Bronx Tale

The problems with inner city football and what is being done to save the game.
by: Roger Rubin
New York Daily News
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It is said that New York City is like no other place on Earth. To its public school football coaches, the phrase takes on an entirely different meaning.

The Big Apple is, in many ways, high school football's final frontier. The sport somehow is managing to survive in an environment where all too often it seems the forces are aligned to squelch it out.

By and large, high school teams in the city are under funded and many operate with no money provided by the Public Schools Athletic League. Some teams are playing in decaying facilities. Others have no home field and must scrounge for any open patch of park land to hold a practice. School spirit is in decline. Pep rallies are a rarity. And the fastest growing component of the population is new Americans who think football is a game played with a round ball and two big nets.

"You look around and sure, you see high school football. Some of it isn't bad either, but don't let that fool you,'' says Jerry Horowitz, head coach at John F. Kennedy High in the Bronx. "Football in New York City is dead. Almost nobody is playing it."

Football has never been more popular. The NFL's Neislen ratings (113 million weekly viewers) have never been higher and its television broadcast rights have never been worth more (the last deal was for $17.6 billion). But if you look at public school football in New York, the sport appears to be very much at risk.

It's why the NFL, in association with the players' association and Ford, has launched an $100 million initiative to stem this red tide. The NFL is running prototypes of its new Junior Player Development Program at two New York sites, in the Bronx and in Brooklyn.

JPD could accomplish many things to the different people involved. It could serve to revive football in places where basketball and soccer have become the games of choice. It creates a standard for instruction that assures adults will know the NFL's method of teaching and that youngsters will learn to play the game the right way and in a positively-framed environment. And for the NFL, the seeds are being sown for another generation of pro football fans that might keep the league on top of the sports world.

Youth football programs are the dinosaurs of the city. Some 30 years ago, one could find a team playing in every city park on every weekend. Today only a handful are left in the country's biggest city, they're practically extinct. "You couldn't throw a stone without hitting a bunch of kids playing football," says Al Tong, an assistant coach at August Martin High in Queens. "I've been involved with city football for 28 years and there have been a lot of changes. Youth football is very hard to find today because only a few programs have survived."

And with the kind of popularity that filled those parks, high school teams flourished. "In the 1960s, you had to fight to make the cut on a football team," Horowitz says. "Today almost anyone who comes out makes the team and many of them have never even played before."

According to the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations, the number of football players in New York State declined 11.5 percent between 1978 and 1997. It's worse in Pennsylvania (46.8%), Massachusetts (29.1%) and New Jersey (38.9%). But in the city, the situation is much worse than the rest of the state. Each year as many as five teams in the 39-team Public Schools Athletic League flirt with not having the 18 players required to compete.

The reasons are numerous and as many have to do with what kids today are like as have to do with the lifestyle in urban environs.

"We do studies that show that kids don't play sports as much as they used to," NFL director of youth football programs Scott Lancaster says. "There are video games like PlayStation and MTV. These are things kids didn't do 20 and 30 years ago."

"There are people who are afraid to have their children playing on the street," says Tyrone Murray, an instructor at the Bronx site. "They'd rather they stay inside."

Poverty is a major factor, too. "Hey, look at all the equipment you need. It's an expensive game to play," Horowitz says. "Basketball is a lot cheaper. That's why you see so much of it."

City government has been an equal contributor to football's demise here. The public school system doesn't allocate money to keep up the facilities where football is played, nor does it provide adequately for the equipment players need.

A sampling of some of New York's football facility horror stories:

• At John Adams High in Queens, the artificial turf was pulled up by police helicopters during an operation where the police used the field as a base of operations.

• At Beach Channel High in Queens, there is one shower for 20 players and rocks cover the field. This season a receiver caught a pass and fell to the ground without being hit and bruised his kidneys so badly that he was urinating blood for a week and required a three-week hospital stay.

• At Memorial Field, the home of Flushing High in Queens, spectators cannot sit in the decrepit concrete stands because the city condemned them 10 years ago and hasn't repaired them yet.

• At South Shore High in Brooklyn, there are metal gratings covering sewers in the end zones of the football field.

• At John F. Kennedy in the Bronx - city champions three times in the past 15 years - the team has been homeless the last three years. Their field was condemned by the city as unsafe and it has only just had a new $3 million surface installed. "When we won the city championship three years ago, we were practicing in the parking lot and one of the parents bought us portable lights to workout under."

• On the night before games at Far Rockaway High in Queens, you can find gangs of youths drinking and throwing bottles on the field. The players complain they can't come through a game without a few deep cuts.

• And at Manhattan Center, the team has no home field and must practice on the patch of grass in front of the school building, dodging a statue during most every play.

"You go to Long Island and New Jersey and you see beautifully manicured fields," says Joe Capuana, head coach at Bayside High in Queens. "They have sprinkler systems that turn on right after the game. In the city, you get nothing, not even someone who is paid to care for the field. Nobody cares."

Adds Tommy Salvato, coach at South Shore: "For someone who comes into New York and sees a football game, imagine the impression they must get. Teams where the uniforms don't match. Fields in terrible conditions. No one in the stands. They'd have to believe that no one gives a damn about football here."

The apathy is contagious. Students at schools seem less interested in how their high school teams perform and fan support is pathetic. Most teams are lucky to draw 100 fans to a game. Less than 12 miles away in suburban New Jersey, high school football games attract as many as 10,000 spectators. The impact on the psyche of players is apparent; the loss of gate money is detrimental.

With all this going on, it's easy to understand why kids don't want to be a part of this environment. Football is treated like a loser. No one wants to be a loser.

Junior Player Development is something very fresh with the potential to re-invigorate football in it's urban decline. The NFL likes what it has seen in the prototypes in New York. It intends to take the program nation-wide.

"We talked to a lot of people to figure out what the program would need and one thing that I always heard was people saying that something like this could never work in a place like the Bronx," says Lancaster. "That's why we chose the Bronx as the place to launch it. We figure most every obstacle we might face is right here. If it works here, it can work everywhere."

JPD is open to boys 12- to 14-years-old. Unlike other youth programs, it does not place limitations on players because of their weight and gives every participant a chance to learn the skills involved with playing every position.

"No one walks in here and is told right away they will be a lineman based on their size," says Horowitz, who Lancaster has employed as a consultant in designing and implementing JPD.

Players are divided into teams. Initially, it serves as the perfect small group for taking instruction. By the program's finish, they will be a real team.

It's an eight-week program that includes three sessions a week. Each session has specific skills that the players work on. One week it is the center-quarterback exchange. Another is handoffs. A third is run blocking.

Every kid gets to learn every skill.

Then, as the program enters its second half, the players begin to put the different lessons together. Suddenly, they are executing a running play from snap to handoff to lead block.

"There are youth programs where kids are expected to line up and start hitting on the first day," says instructor Tyrone Murray. "That's not sound. Here they get the instruction slowly. And build up to the point where they start hitting."

"The idea is to get them hitting in an environment where they feel safe doing it," says Jeff Olender, Bronx site coordinator.

The final portion of each session is a competition of sorts between teams where every player is graded on how well he learns the day's skill. In the beginning, how they score on the handoff, for example, will determine which team wins. By the end, the teams are playing complete offense and defense and go against each other.

"These kids are playing more sound football than some high school programs," says Tong, who is one of the instructors. "They learned the right way to do it."

The sites are staffed with young high school assistant coaches who must pass a rigorous screening process the NFL conducts. The league then instructs them to teach football to its standards and in its style.

"We want to get away from the traditional images of football," Lancaster says. "You won't see a coach yell at a kid. Everything is framed very positively."

The NFL publicized JPD at junior high schools in Brooklyn and the Bronx - stressing that it sought youngsters with no football experience - and the response was enormous. The Bronx site had to turn more than 100 people away and enrolled 150.

"I came to sign up two hours early," says 14-year-old Antonio Feliciano. "I always liked football, but no one in my neighborhood plays. I liked the idea of getting to play and my mom liked that the NFL was going to be my teacher."

The league picked up the tab for all the needed equipment, making it possible for any kid to participate. At the Bronx site, one player commutes to the field from a homeless shelter. "What they are doing here is great for my Luis," says Nancy Diaz, the players' mother. "I could never afford something like this and he really wanted to be a part of it. They made it possible by making it free."

The JPD is not a finished product quite yet. It schedules the eight-week sessions for spring. In the works is a plan for a summer refresher course and a fall league for the junior high-aged kids. The high school assistants won't be available then, so the NFL is yet to find out if it can get the kind of qualified adults to run the teams in the fall league.

There is an enormous amount of enthusiasm among the men who staff the sites because they are participating in something new an exciting, but there also is apprehension. Will the enthusiasm wane after a few years? Can the NFL find coaches who are willing to discard current teaching methods in favor of those the NFL requires? Will the NFL be able to find the same enthusiasm in other places? New York needs a program like this desperately; what will be the response in places where it isn't as needed?

Says Lancaster: "I have no doubt the people are out there. The only thing I heard for a long time was that this would never work in the Bronx. Now look."


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