by Alexa Zizzi and Zuri Hoffman |
Despite the lack of seating, parking, concessions and resources like lighting, bleachers, goal posts, etc., tons of families bring their lounge chairs, sunglasses and energy as they cheer on their young, practicing athletes each week.
One dad shouts from his station at the playground area, “Come on, you’ve got this son!”
It’s a small park along Chelten Avenue with no benches or bleachers—yet these young athletes, coaches and parents make the most of what they’ve got. The Northwest Raiders Athletic Association has served the community since 1971 and the Lonnie Young Rec Center continues to uphold that legacy of athletics and mentorship.
The small, open space also serves as a field to Imhotep High School, a nearby community-based charter school. On practice days like this, the Lonnie Young playground is swarmed with supportive parents and spectators.
No doubt these players are worked to the best of their ability, “Come on, let’s go!” The coach hollers as he claps at a slacking player.
For many of these players and coaches they have one goal in mind, which is a three-peat victory at the Pop Warner Super Bowl Championship. Beating out nearly 32 teams for the past two years, these players are hungry for more victories. Although the team’s success is not in question, the players, coaches and parents all wish to one day have a field to call their own.
Thankfully the Raiders midget and varsity head coach, Duane Watson, is working to make that happen. A man who wears several hats in the city—a 20-year police officer, 16-year sports coach, and eight-year vice president of the Raiders—Watson is extremely devoted to the team and improving the community.
“We practice here at Lonnie Young, but as you can see this is not a legitimate football field, we actually play our home games at Martin Luther King (High School),” Watson said. “We’ve seen from other teams how having their own field helped change the program around and get more kids involved.”
“We’ve been around close to 45 years and it would greatly benefit not just this organization, but this community—I think that our mission is to now get that done,” he added.
“I’ve set a lot of goals when I came into this organization, a lot have been completed. The last one is getting the field.”
So far, Watson has plans to develop the team’s field at Awbury Recreation Center, only two blocks away from Lonnie Young. Hoping the money generated from Philly’s soda tax will help fund the initiatives, Watson is currently meeting with council members and other higher ups to discuss his plans.
As a 16-year coach for the Raiders, Mr. Watson’s investment in the team is crystal clear. His top priority is not winning the game; instead he’s more concerned that these kids win at life.
“It’s been over 20 years that I’ve been dedicated to the team. The joy I get seeing the kids in the program and going through high school is priceless,” he said.
“We currently got kids in college going to D-1 schools on scholarships, that’s the end result for me.”
Due to all the recognition the Raiders have received from their championship success, Watson is simply pleased that these young men are able to be exposed to things going on outside the barriers of Philadelphia. For 15-year-old Donovan Ragsdale, he called his time at the Pop Warner Super Bowl a “once in a lifetime experience.”
“A lot of people don’t get to be on TV just by doing something that they love,” Ragsdale said. “It was fun to be able to look on TV and say—that’s me!”
15-year-old Amir Wakefield from North Philadelphia is spending his summer as a camp counselor at Lonnie Young Rec Center. He believes that being part of the Raiders has inspired his goals.
“Being on this team helped me grow and taught me about teamwork,” Wakefield said.
“It made me think about playing on the next level, because now I play for my high school, Central High, and the coaching staff teaches you a lot, they don’t just put you on the field,” he added.“They teach you not only the basics, but how to get better, as well as the importance of hard work and dedication.”
For years the Northwest Raiders have made their community proud, through winning streaks locally and nationally. However, the real win for this team is the fact that many of these young inner-city athletes will use their love and talent for the sport as a path to most likely any college or university of their choice.
With a strong mentoring staff, dedicated players and supportive families, the Northwest Raiders seem to be doing it all right. Now all they need is a home field advantage.