For 25 Years, Liberty City Optimist Club Has Nurtured NFL Talent, Helped a Neighborhood

Twenty-five years ago, coach Sam Johnson and I launched an organization dedicated to providing a place where Liberty City kids could play baseball and football while learning they didn't have to sling drugs on a street corner. For close to three decades, the Liberty City Optimist Club has mentored African-American boys and girls (we have a topnotch youth cheerleading program too).

More than 100 volunteers give their time for free because they love the program. The club has also benefited greatly from the support of former board president and ex-Miami-Dade County Public Schools Police Chief Gerald Darling.

I agreed to sponsor Johnson's baseball program as long as he helped me establish a football program at Charles Hadley Park at 1350 NW 50th St. As a kid, I was bused into Miami Beach to play organized sports. I wouldn't get home until 11 p.m. during football season. One of my life goals was to provide a place for Liberty City children.

Over the years, the Warriors (the club's nickname) have put out a procession of NFL talent such as Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (who leads the NFL in touchdowns), Seattle Seahawks cornerback Cary Williams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David, and Cleveland Browns rusher Duke Johnson. Warriors alumnus Kier Thomas, a defensive tackle for Miami Central Senior High, is rated best in the nation at his position.

But we don't just churn out future pro football players. Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon is proving Liberty City can produce leaders too. Last year, he found funding to finish a youth center and other improvements at Hadley Park, as well as at Gibson Park in Overtown. Years ago, I lobbied then-City Manager Joe Arriola, who earmarked $16 million for Hadley and $24 million for Gibson. By the time the city broke ground on the projects, $20 million for both went missing in typical banana-republic fashion.

The youth center, scheduled to open next year, will be named after Sam Johnson, who passed away in 2011.

Today, the Warriors receive a little more than $30,000 in city and county grants annually. Unfortunately, we have been unable to convince entities like the Children's Trust that Liberty City is worth funding.

But the Warriors will continue to prove the doubters wrong long after I am gone.

Follow Luke on Twitter: @unclelukereal1.

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