Coaches for the Garfield Park Gators Football Program know what a difference football can make in the lives of inner city kids.
Gang violence is all too real for the players.
Last August, their teammate, Lavander Hearnes 14, was shot and killed just blocks from their practice field. It’s the program’s goal to break the cycle of violence and show kids there is life outside of the inner city.
“We try to have the kids keep a C+ average. That’s really below the norm, but we try to iterate that they need to get good grades,” said Timothy Hall, Director of the Garfileld Park Gators. “There’s so much trouble in Chicago now so it’s hard.”
The St. Raphael Football program, a Naperville league for players in first through eighth grades, recently invited the Gators out to scrimmage with them during a season kick off jamboree.
Both programs believe sports can be used as a catalyst to change athletes’ lives.
“If you can imagine every kid he saves from being in a gang. That’s leveraged many times over as far as his impact on society, and he does that,” said Jim Brown, President of St. Raphael Football. “I can’t believe it. He does that day in and day out.”
Brown became familiar with the Gators a few years ago through the American Youth Football League and started a collaboration by inviting them out for an exhibition game last summer.
This event allowed the athletes to practice the game they love in a safe space.
“This is just to give the kids a different experience other than the inner city,” said Hall. “Like today, they said ‘coach we haven’t heard one siren.’ And that’s a big thing. It’s nice out here and we’re just enjoying ourselves.”
For the past six years, the St. Raphael program has held this jamboree a week before their first game allowing the players from their seven traveling teams to play full contact football.
“With safety in the forefront of everybody’s mind, at practice we try to limit the amount of full contact,” said Frank RIbaudo, Program Director for the All Saints Traveling Program, which is part of St. Raphael Football. “We just teach them technique and how to play the game. At some point, they need to be exposed to the speed of the game.”
After a full day of tackles and touchdowns the Gators said they feel like they have a second home field out here in the suburbs.
“The St. Raphael family engulfed us and made us part of the family. It’s like they’re our uncle now,” said Hall. “We have something to look forward to every year now.”
All the teams at the jamboree are now in action for the regular season, to catch a game visit StRaphaelFootball.org for a full schedule.