Pay to Play

Three inner-city Pop Warner football teams won national championships. Then they got the bill.

In some Miami neighborhoods, Pop Warner football is a community rallying point. Weekend games for kids age eight to fifteen draw thousands of spectators. Families gather to barbecue chicken and watch with passionate interest as tiny players wobble down the field in oversize helmets. The events are "therapy," says one coach, in neighborhoods with few outlets for hope.

So when three teams from the Greater Miami Pop Warner League -- the Liberty City Optimist Club 90-pound Warriors, the Northwest Boys and Girls Club 105-pound Falcons, and the Florida City Optimist Club 120-pound Razorbacks -- advanced to the national championships in December, crowds cheered them on.

But the teams needed more than goodwill to realize their dreams: They needed fast money.

Unlike National Little League Baseball, Inc., which pays airfare, lodging, and food for teams that make the nationals, Pop Warner requires contestants to pay their own way. And it's not cheap around Disney World's Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, where the Pop Warner Super Bowl has been held the past four years. To make things worse the league required players to stay in Disney hotels or forfeit the right to play. Simply put, cost nearly kept three of the best teams in the country from competing.

"With the amount of money we had to raise, we could have run our program for two years, whereas we spent that money for one week," says Charlie Brown, director of athletics for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Miami and vice president of the Greater Miami Pop Warner League. The Northwest team, Brown recalls, scrounged up $20,000 in a last-minute fundraising frenzy.

The need for quick cash had everything to do with timing. Until the November 29 state championship game in Jacksonville, none of the three teams knew whether they would play in the December 6-12 Super Bowl. The teams don't have savings accounts. "Spare money? What spare money?" says Samuel Johnson, executive director of the Liberty City Optimist Club, recounting the emotional ups and downs he took after his Warriors beat the Lakeshore Raiders in Jacksonville. He was elated at the chance to go to the nationals, but when he considered the cost, roughly $18,000, to bring 32 boys and a cheerleader squad of 21 girls, his elation quickly morphed to worry.

A letter from the Pop Warner national office made it clear there would be little room to cut costs: "In order to compete, all football players and cheer squads must purchase one of the packages below at WALT DISNEY WORLD® Resort, except for local commuting teams." The cheapest package deal was $231 per player for three nights. The tournament was billed as a weeklong event, so the total cost would be even higher than that listed. In the end it averaged more than $530 per kid, including food and travel for the Warriors. To most of these parents this was not small change.

"It may sound exorbitant, but they get a lot for that price," says Jon Butler, Pop Warner's executive director, from his office in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. Most of the perks, however, had little to do with tossing the pigskin. For $231 a player shared a room (meals not included) with three others; received bus rides to the game with medical attention as needed; attended an extravagant pre-Super Bowl party at MGM Studios; and received a three-day pass to the theme parks.

The reason that teams were required to stay in Disney's resort, ironically, was to save money. The only way Pop Warner could negotiate a lower price (and Butler says the package deal reflects a 25 percent discount) was to assure maximum participation. With teams coming from as far as Hawaii and Canada, it makes sense to have the contest in a kid-friendly place, Butler explains.

Butler doesn't want to sound insensitive, but if a team can't raise the money, "there is always the option to choose not to go," he maintains.

Not all visiting teams came from economically deprived neighborhoods, but last-minute fundraising was an issue for everyone, Butler admits. Of the 38 teams that participated, he estimates a quarter are from poor areas.

For Miami's squads discounts didn't make the visit cheap enough. "If you took that same scenario, and we stayed outside Disney World, we would have saved $8,000 to $10,000," Brown says, conceding that "to the kids, especially the younger ones, this was very exciting. But they didn't understand everything that went into it. This happening right around Christmas, I'm quite sure some of these parents had to make sacrifices to send their kids to the game."

To play a championship game at Disney World was a strong incentive for the kids, who went after the moolah as if it were a fumble on the twenty-yard line. "It made us worried 'cause we had to come up with all that money," eleven-year-old Liberty City tight end Jeffery Colquitt recalls, his eyes wide under the brim of a baseball hat emblazoned with the neighborhood's initials. "But we knew we were going to win, nothing was going to stop us," he says.

By the time the Liberty City team began gathering money at the December 4 game between Northwestern and Plantation high schools, word was out. Radio hosts had publicized the kids' plight. So when players toted their helmets like donation plates through stadium aisles, the crowd gave generously. Middle linebacker Cyrus Patrick, Jr., filled five helmets with cash, according to his mom Vernette. "He said people were giving him fifties and twenties. They even gave from the [Plantation] side." Vernette herself hit up former employers and co-workers at the Department of Corrections, where she's a records specialist. It was exhausting. "I feel that if they're going to have [the Super Bowl] at those kind of places, they should meet us halfway. It's just too expensive," she contends.

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