Miami's Best Youth Football Team Beats Violence, Gambling, Turmoil, and Opponents

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After the game, Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver presented Nay'quan with an MVP award made out of crystal. He and his teammates also got individual medals and Super Bowl rings, courtesy of Flo Rida.

To get to the Orange Bowl championship, the Bulldogs pounded the Helping Hands Youth Center Bulls of the National Youth Football League 40-6 on November 24. A week later, the Patriots, Super Bowl winners in the Extreme Youth Football League, qualified to play against the Bulldogs in the Orange Bowl by beating the Belle Glade Youth Panthers.

At 1 p.m. on December 8, Wallace and his team poured onto the Florida International University field, pumped to finally claim an Orange Bowl victory; after Terrence's electric run puts them up for halftime, they sprinted into the locker room delirious to finish off the game.

And soon after the second half whistle blows, the rout is on. Terrence adds two more touchdown runs. Nay'quan caps the scoring with a 90-yard run near the end of the third quarter. In the end, the Bulldogs pound the Pats 38-14 to claim their first Orange Bowl trophy.

As Wallace watched Nay'quan and his teammates triumphantly strut onto the winner's stage, he couldn't have cared less about the adults ruining youth football with illegal gambling and violence. "We try to win the right way," Wallace says. "We took our licks and went through some hard times. Now look at us. We're winning."

The Bulldogs' triumphant end to the season masks the looming problems uncovered by ESPN and the Broward Sheriff's Office, many of which have yet to be addressed.

Cops, experts, and some coaches say systemic problems in the leagues and a lack of oversight led to the scandal in the first place. Meanwhile, as medical science brings more evidence to light that concussions in young players can lead to lasting damage, Florida is among 41 states that put tighter controls on the sport.

All in all, youth football has never been in a more tenuous place even as more kids than ever sign up.

Lead BSO investigator Barnes says the leagues should start by making it tougher for convicted criminals to volunteer as coaches. Bivens, for instance, had been found guilty of grand theft auto, possession of marijuana with intent to sell, and carrying a concealed firearm in the 1990s before he founded the Hurricanes. But there was no rule preventing him from starting a team.

"He controlled a private entity that was renting city facilities and using the park," Barnes explains.

Three of the other Hurricanes coaches implicated by BSO — Darren Brown, Brad Parker, and Vincent Gray — had previous convictions for delivery of cocaine, dealing in stolen property, battery on a law enforcement officer, and grand theft.

"You would weed out a lot of bad people," Barnes says, with tighter rules on coaches.

Some cities have tried. Deerfield Beach started doing checks when Broward deputies informed officials about their investigation in May. Miami Gardens also had a rule prohibiting anyone with two or more felonies from volunteering. But Mayor Gilbert, a former state prosecutor, says the rule was routinely ignored.

So last year, while he was a councilman, Gilbert championed an ordinance exempting longtime coaches, noting that 15 out of 52 coaches at Bunche Park would not qualify otherwise. The Miami Gardens City Council approved Gilbert's measure by a 3-2 vote. Gilbert says coaches who have reformed themselves shouldn't be prevented from mentoring kids. "They have paid their debt," he says.

The City of Miami has also tried to tackle violence at youth football games; the Department of Parks and Recreation sent notice to all leagues in September asking them to start games by 5 p.m. so they'll end by sundown to discourage the kinds of shootings that leveled the Bulldogs and struck again at Overtown's Gibson Park last year.

Dade County and the SFYFL also face a new lawsuit from Eduardo Barnes, coach of the SFYFL team that was caught in crossfire at West Little River Park in July 2011. Barnes alleges the county should have done more to protect the park, where his daughter was shot along with three boys.

Gambling and violence aren't the only problems bedeviling the game, though. Medical experts and parents have raised increasing concerns over concussions and whether kids should be playing in full pads. An ESPN survey in August of more than 1,000 parents nationwide found 57 percent are less likely to allow their sons to play because of the research; two-thirds said concussions are a serious issue.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.