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Feature

A League of Their Own

Coach Don Ferges and the Baltimore-Linwood Football League Take the Game off the Streets

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Football Hero: Natisha Alexander shows off her game face
Coach Don Ferges rallies the players before a game.
Drop and Give Me 20: The Gold Wildcats work out.
Wildcats Coach Brian Schanbacher gives De'Andre Edwards some pointers.
Ferges paces the sidelines.
Team Players: Banner executive director John Huppert and league commissioner Ferges.
Class Picture: The 2002 Baltimore-Linwood football league in Patterson Park

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 11/13/2002

Ask Brittnay Hardy what she wants to be when she grows up, and she'll tell you without hesitation: "A player in the WNBA."

A lofty goal, but one that may not be too far-fetched for this athletic, 12-year-old Southeast Baltimore girl who is standing on the sidelines of an intense Wednesday-night football practice in Patterson Park. She is tall and strong for her age, and cuts a pretty formidable figure in her football uniform: heavy shoulder pads, kneepads, white pants, red football jersey, and a white helmet she's holding in her hand. Though she's politely listening to the questions she's being asked, she doesn't take her eyes off the action on the field for a second, not even to answer.

"Yeah, I wanted to be a player on the WNBA," she repeats, reconsidering. "But I think I would maybe like to play on the WNFL, if they start a WNFL." (For the record, there is an NWFL--the National Women's Football League--but it has not yet partnered with the NFL.)

Hardy is one of two girls who play on the Baltimore-Linwood Community Football League, a four-team, 100-plus member league for 11- to 13-year-old boys and girls who live in the neighborhoods surrounding Patterson Park.

Every Wednesday night, Hardy comes to the park to practice her running and blocking and tackling. And to play on a team. Before she joined the Baltimore-Linwood league, Hardy had never played the sport for real, on a field, with all the proper equipment and rules. Like almost every other kid in the league, the only real sports experience she had was playing impromptu ball games with friends out on the streets of her neighborhood.

"I always wanted to play football, but there was no place for me to play [before this]," Hardy says. "The reason they made up this team was to keep us off the street and stay out of trouble. I like it. I like having fun."

Since she's joined, Hardy says she's learned "how a team all works together" and the value of playing organized sports from her coaches, Coach Joe, Coach Shane, and Coach Mike. And she's learned a number of valuable lessons from the man she calls Coach Don--Don Ferges, the commissioner of the league and the man who started the process of luring at-risk kids from the surrounding neighborhoods off the streets and into a more structured and positive activity by dangling a pigskin and some fatherly concern.

"Coach Don, he teaches me to know my position [on the team]," Hardy says. "He teaches me how to run a different route [each time] as a tight end. And he makes sure I feel good about playing."

Though she's one of only a handful of girls in this league, she says no one makes fun of her and she's not intimidated by playing with the boys at all--"I think I'm just as good as them," she says without batting an eye.

Possibly even better. Ferges, a 58-year-old former high-school football star, thinks the girls in this league can give the boys a run for their money. "The boys, they play with their brawn, but the girls play with their brains," he says. "That can make them better players."

And though Hardy's team, the Redd Doggs, is in last place in the league right now, she's not letting it get to her: "The goal of the game is to do good and to have fun," she says. "We lost two games by one point. But we don't worry about it. We'll just play harder the next time."

You don't hear that kind of good sportsmanship from a 12-year-old very often.

Don Ferges is not a physically imposing man, but his presence on and around the playing fields is always palpable. He's stocky in a gray sweat suit, sneakers, and black baseball cap embroidered with a capital d, and it's not hard to imagine him 40 years ago as an 18-year-old running back. For the most part, he talks quietly with the kids or their parents, many of whom approach him as soon as they see him and greet him with an outstretched hand and a respectable but bright "Hey, Coach Don," or "Mr. Don, can I ask you a question?"

But when something catches his eye--which is almost always trained to the action on the field--his voice booms above those of the cheering parents and young children on the sidelines. He's in the middle of thanking a player's mother for bringing water to the game for the teams when he notices that one of his kids is down on the field. He immediately shifts gears.

"Leave him there, don't take off that helmet! Never take off the helmet!" he hollers to a bunch of coaches and players who have gathered around their teammate. Ferges rushes off to oversee the problem and pushes through the crowd surrounding the boy.

An air of nervousness sweeps the sidelines, and all eyes turn to the boy who's fallen near the 50-yard line. A volunteer medic--there's one at every game--and Coach Don lean in to confer with the downed player.

"Oh, he's just got the wind knocked out of him," a parent on the sideline mutters to herself hopefully.

"Or he got a twisted muscle," another woman standing near her replies.

They watch intently as Ferges reaches down and grabs one of the kid's legs and starts massaging his shin and calf. After a couple of minutes, Ferges helps him to his feet. The kid limps off the field, and the coach follows him with a hand resting lightly, fatherly on the boy's shoulder. The tension lifts, and parents and players alike cheer and encourage the player as he takes a seat, obviously disappointed, on the edge of the field.

"I told you it was just a twisted muscle," the second woman yells out to no one in particular.

"He just got a little stinger," Ferges says after making sure the boy is settled down and not too discouraged with having to sit out of the rest of this quarter. "A pulled muscle. He'll be OK."

Now that the crisis moment is over, Ferges is ready to relax and talk a little bit about the football team that's changing the neighborhood.

"In this area, we need a whole lot of help with the kids," Ferges says. In Baltimore in general, and in the Southeast neighborhoods in particular, children are fast becoming victims of street violence. Every year in Baltimore, about 10,000 juvenile arrests are made (in 2001, the number was 10,122, according to statistics from the Baltimore City Police Department) for offenses ranging from petty nuisances to property crimes to drug-abuse violations. In 1999, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported 75 violent deaths (deaths by accident, homicide, or suicide) of kids aged 10 to 19 in Baltimore City; the rate of violent deaths per 100,000 kids in the city was more than double the rate of violent death for kids in the entire state. Earlier this year, city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson told TheSun that juvenile homicides and infant mortality were the two largest causes of death among the city's children.

Ferges and the other people involved in the Baltimore-Linwood Football League--co-commissioner Gary Pinsky, a volunteer with the Patterson Park-area nonprofit organization Banner Neighborhood Community Corp. (which obtained the funding to get uniforms and safety equipment for the kids), plus a slew of volunteer coaches, medical personnel, neighborhood residents, and parents--are trying to reach these kids before the streets do.

"We need to save our kids from drugs, from drug dealers," Ferges says. "Give a little kid $500 [and a] a new pair of tennis shoes and they think they own the world. The streets are just not safe."

For example, Dominique Byrd, the 11-year-old boy who was one of three kids shot on a Southeast stoop over the summer by a man who thought they were dealing drugs in front of his house, played on the Baltimore-Linwood Football League until recently. Ferges says Byrd's mother came to him shortly after the shooting. "She called me and she begged me to take him," Ferges says. "I told her OK. Send him on down to me." Byrd played for a while, but Ferges says he recently dropped out again.

While Byrd was playing, he was expected to live up to the rules of the league: no cursing, no playing ball in the streets, no skipping school, no failing grades, no violence, no disrespecting coaches or other players, and no hanging out in the streets. Every kid who wants to join voluntarily signs a contract agreeing to these rules. Any kid caught breaking a rule first gets a talking to. Then he or she gets a second chance. By the third violation, that kid may well be kicked off the team. It's a simple system, but it seems to work. The kids manage keep their cool before, during, and after the games. Coaches look at progress reports and report cards to make sure their players are succeeding in school. And parents and kids are cooperating when it comes to keeping league players from hanging out on the streets. Of the 100 or so kids in the league, only a couple have had to leave for breaking the rules. And neighbors say they've seen a change.

"Since this league started, there's been a big difference in the kids," says Glenn Ross, president of the McElderry Park Community Association. "It's not as loud, there's no more kids playing ball in the streets, bumping into cars, whatever."

Ross claims he's seen a significant shift in attitude for many of the kids in his neighborhood, too. He says he sees less aggression and bullying, more cooperation, and the kids are more respectful of the neighborhood.

"There's a vacant lot on North Port Street," Ross says. "It's a green space, and we had some kids [not in the league] who would come over and trash it real bad. We noticed that the football-team guys who would practice their football in the lot, you could hear them telling the other guys, 'Don't mess this field up, this is the only field we got to practice.' We used to have a cleanup day one Saturday a month to clean that field up. But once the kids started using it, we didn't have to anymore because the kids who played there would be out there all the time keeping it clean."

It all started with a feud.

Every night, it seemed, residents of the 100 block of North Streeper Street found the area besieged with youths. Dozens of kids as young as 9 and as old as 18 would flock to the narrow alleys and streets to play, disrupting the quiet, damaging property, and getting in trouble.

"Those kids were the source of hundreds of calls to the police," says Lauren Abramson, an assistant professor of child psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and director of the Community Conferencing Center of Baltimore, which helps communities find solutions to conflicts without resorting to drastic measures such as police intervention or violence. The adults living in the neighborhood were angry and intimidated by the kids who were hanging around their front steps, Abramson says; likewise, the kids were angry and frustrated because they felt they had no other place to play. "For a long time, neighbors--even Don--were calling the police on these kids," she recalls. "The adults were yelling at the kids, the kids were yelling at the adults. Nobody was happy."

Tensions in the neighborhood reached a boiling point in fall of 2001. Banner Neighborhood Community Corp. got wind of the situation and thought it was time to step in.

"Our original intent was to resolve a conflict on a particular street," says John Huppert, executive director of Banner. "My staff suggested a community conference, and I thought they were just crazy--get all these kids and adults in a room together and it's just going to be ugly."

But in October 2001, 44 people--including 13 of the kids who had been hanging out on Streeper Street--showed up for the conference. The gathering began as a yelling match, in which angry adults lectured the 13 sullen children, most of whom were not yet even teenagers. But as the conference continued and some of the kids spoke up in their own defense, conference facilitators noticed that most of the kids had the same complaint: There were no safe places for them to play. Indeed, there was very little open space in the neighborhood, with the exception of Patterson Park.

"And Patterson Park itself is a little dangerous for the kids," says Paulette Robbins, a first-grade teacher and mother of two boys who participated in the 2001 conference. One of her sons, Jerrod Butler, plays on the Purple Kings. "The children would sometimes go down to play ball or whatever, but things would happen; they'd get beaten up or taunted by older kids," she says. "So the kids ended up playing on the streets and disrupting the neighborhood."

Huppert says the conference delved "a lot deeper" into the psyches of the children than anyone had imagined it would. "It came out that there was really nothing for these kids to do," he elaborates. "They would go to school and come home. That's it. What else are they going to do?"

Ferges, one of the most vocal complainants at the conference, offered a simple solution. He agreed to accompany a group of kids to Patterson Park for a couple of hours at a time so they could play with adult supervision. The day after the conference, 13 kids showed up to go with him to the park. The next day, 24 kids showed up. Within two weeks, he had 60 kids who wanted to take part in his field trips to the park, and Ferges helped them organize informal football games. By Christmas time, there were nearly 100 boys and girls showing up to play ball with the man they dubbed "Coach Don."

By January 2002, Ferges had recruited the help of more adult volunteers from the neighborhood to organize the kids into teams and give the playtime in the park a little more structure. One of the kids on the team, who had once been part of Banner's Neighborhood Youth Employment Program, took the initiative to ask the organization if it could give Ferges and the kids "money for football."

Huppert says Banner met with a handful of players and Ferges to discuss the teams' needs in early January. Later in the month, the organization hosted a neighborhood party in Patterson Park that attracted many of the kids and adults who took part in the Streeper Street community conference. The Community Conferencing Center videotaped interviews with many of the kids who were playing on the informal football league that Ferges and the other adult volunteers were supervising. In the course of one interview, a boy said, "If it wasn't for Coach Don, I'd be selling drugs."

Huppert says it was clear that the football league was literally keeping some of these kids from a life--or death--on the streets. Banner began to look for ways to fund the league, and "the Baltimore Community Foundation was very helpful," Huppert says. The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation stepped forward with a sizable donation shortly thereafter. By the end of the summer, Banner had raised $14,000 with which to purchase uniforms and safety equipment for 100 kids to play in the league. Each kid was asked to come up with just $5 to pitch in (and even that amount was waived if a kid simply couldn't come up with the money), and on Sept. 29, 97 kids from the Patterson Park area played their first official games in new uniforms and full equipment.

During the first few weeks the league was getting off the ground, parents were somewhat skeptical when their kids begged them to play on one of the teams. Other organizations who sponsor sports teams for kids usually charge a lot more than $5 to let a kid join. "One mother didn't believe there was any way her kid could play football for $5," Huppert recalls. "She came down with her son and the $5 just to prove he was wrong--that there was no such thing as a football league that would have teams and uniforms and equipment for $5." She was startled--and pleased--to find that her son was correct and signed him up on the spot.

"This is almost football weather," Ferges says and breathes deep. It's 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning in November, and he's approaching the field in Patterson Park where the Gold Wildcats, the league's undefeated 5-0 team, is about to take on the Black Knights in the first of the day's two games. Though the sun is shining, there's a brisk breeze and a bite in the air, and about 50 kids are on the field waiting for the start of the game. "But this ain't quite football weather yet," he says. "Not cold enough. When the ground starts getting hard, and Thanksgiving is coming and Christmas is coming--that's football weather."

It's apparent that Ferges loves the game. In high school, he was a running back for his Baltimore Polytechnic Institute team. Though he didn't play formally after he completed high school, he started coaching.

"Before I did this league, I was coaching, more like a semipro team," he says. "That was about a year ago. We didn't make it, but that's what I did. We were called the Black Rhinos."

When he met the kids that now make up the Baltimore-Linwood league, his coaching instincts kicked in. Fortunately, Ferges laughs, "they seemed to take a liking to me."

Which is obvious to even a casual observer. The kids listen to Ferges. They respect him. They take his direction and seek his advice. "He's amazing with the kids," Robbins says. "Coach Don does a lot--more than most people."

Earlier this spring, a heart attack forced Ferges to give up his day-to-day coaching activities with the league. "Yes, I had a heart attack, and I still have sugar--I'm a diabetic," he says. "I didn't know that before. I couldn't do anything. That's why I'm a commissioner now and not a coach."

But even a heart attack couldn't keep him from being involved. "That's why I hung in there," he says. "The kids are more important than anything else. That's our next generation that's growing up out there. If we don't look after them, nobody else will."

Ferges feels a little awkward talking about himself and his own role in the founding of this league, so he has a habit of redirecting the conversation back to "his" kids.

"We take the kids who the Boys Club won't," he explains. Many of the kids in this league are from low-income neighborhoods around the park, and their families can't afford to pay the dues required to be a player on the local Boys Club team. Some didn't have any concept of playing an organized sport according to the rules ("They knew how to play street ball," Ferges says. "And that's not the same as real football."); others had been in trouble in school or in their neighborhoods; still others are simply too physically out of shape or underdeveloped to meet the requirements of other organized sports leagues. "Our kids might be overweight or underweight, or--what some of the kids say--is we take the kids who can't play," Ferges says. "I say they can play, and I let them play. Some of these kids didn't know nothing about football when they started here. But look at them: They're really enjoying it now."

Just after the end of the first game of the day, Ferges is sitting in a lawn chair on the sidelines with uniforms and equipment just turned in by two players.

Black Knights player Elgin Baylor's mother told Ferges this morning that her son was not going to be allowed to play on the team any longer because she knew the boy had broken some league rules. Another player for the Gold Wildcats was thrown off the team by the coaches for consistently disruptive behavior. Ferges is clearly disappointed that he's going to be taking two empty uniforms home with him today.

"That one boy, he told me he couldn't play no more, but he still wanted to play," Ferges says. "I asked him, well what do your parents say? And he said they said no. So he's not playing. I gotta do what the parents say. But I hate to lose a kid. I just hate it."

One more kid off the team means one more kid on the streets.

Fortunately, the league hasn't lost very many players--no matter how "hardheaded" or "stubborn" they may be, Ferges says. Despite the fact that they may have to do homework for an hour before they're allowed to even touch the ball, or that they will be reprimanded for letting an "s" word slip out once in a while, or that they might have to take part in conflict-resolution or anger-management sessions in order to participate in the league, the kids for the most part stick with it--though it wasn't easy to get them to cooperate at first.

Parents of two players--one 11, the other 13--turned in their kids' equipment early on, when the two were arrested. Both boys were given the option of working out terms they would live up to so that they could stay out of trouble and in the league, and one has since followed up and returned. And some of the coaches faced challenges on the field, as many of the kids were simply not accustomed to working out their problems nonviolently and cooperatively.

"When we first started, we immediately noticed that some of these kids had absolutely no conflict-resolution skills," says Brian Schanbacher, a Baltimore City math teacher who lives near Patterson Park and is a coach for the Gold Wildcats. "At our first practice, some of [them] were trying to kill each other, arguing, fighting."

He and the other Gold team coaches--Jeff Staggs and Earl Millet--had a HIPP (Help Increase the Peace Program) counselor from Baltimore City Recreation and Parks meet with the kids to discuss alternatives to violence and anger management. On a recent Wednesday night, HIPP counselor Thomas McCargo spent an hour with the Gold team players for their third session.

"I told them the first time they were here, this course may be the difference between life and death for you," McCargo says. "They actually listen. They really are interested in this. I think they're really interested in social change. . . . I think this [football league] is really good for them."

Certainly the HIPP intervention seemed to be good for the team. "At first, our team was the team everybody wanted to get off," Millet says. "Partly because we were tough and because of the HIPP program." Now the Wildcats are undefeated, and everyone wants to be on the toughest team.

What keeps the kids coming back more than anything else, Ferges says, is the love and sense of community, respect, and support all the coaches, parents, Banner representatives, and neighbors are offering them.

"The first thing is, I love them," Ferges explains. "They know I love them. I tell them I love them as my own. I approach them with that first. 'I love you. I want you to love me. I respect you. I want you to respect me.' And when I say something, I mean it. If you don't abide by the rules, turn in your equipment. . . . I have a lot of other kids waiting to play. You gotta use that with them and you gotta mean it. You have to. They can tell a phony."

It must be a labor of love, Huppert says, because no one in this league is getting anything out of it besides gratification. No one--none of the numerous coaches, medics, commissioners, parents, or assistants--is paid for the time they put into the games. And every week, at games on Sundays and practices on Wednesday nights, every volunteer shows up to do his or her job.

"And it is a job," says Ferges. "This is my job. I'm here every week, and I'm out every Wednesday. And I tell these kids, seven nights a week you can knock on my door. And they do. Even at night. They come, they knock on my door, they say, 'Coach Don, I got a problem.'"

But Huppert is worried. After all, this was a fast-and-furious startup, and it gained momentum so quickly that it outspent its modest funding almost as soon as it got off the ground. "I expected this league to start next year," he laughs. But the unexpected generosity of the Weinberg Foundation kicked the plan into gear ahead of schedule. "The Weinberg Foundation gave us this money, and I got my staff together, and I said, 'Well, what do we do?' The staff said, 'Let's do it'--so we did."

The problem Banner and league face now, Huppert says, is finding the money to keep the momentum--and to keep the league alive next year. Huppert has put out feelers to a number of community-development groups and nonprofit organizations, but he says he hasn't had any bites yet. He worries that the "bricks and mortar" community-development programs are more appealing to funders because the results are more tangible and easy to demonstrate: "It's easy--you have a building, you fix it up, you see where the money went.

"We raised $14,000 this year . . . that was all I thought we'd need. But things cost more than I thought. . . . For example, the cheerleaders. I didn't really think of that at first, but of course someone said, 'We have to have cheerleaders.' So we spent money on that because the girls needed pompoms and shirts."

Banner exceeded its funding for the league by $6,000 this year. And it's got to find more funding sources to keep it alive for next season. "Now I'm trying to beat the bushes for more," Huppert says, estimating that the league needs about $7,500 for another season. If he doesn't, he says, the primary impact "is on the kids. But there were a lot of kids on the corner before, and there's a lot less now. A lot less kids on the street . . . helps the Patterson Park Community Development Corporation sell houses."

Even the upbeat Ferges exhibits some anxiety about the funding pinch facing the league.

"We need help," he states, flat out. "Every Sunday, we borrow some equipment--safety pads [to go around the goal posts], 10-yard markers, mats--and we bring it back when we're done. We need more money so we can get our own. We need a whole lot of help."

But in the meantime, neither he nor Huppert stop discussing "next year" and ways to increase the offerings for the kids currently on the league--and the growing list of kids they hope to accommodate in the near future. Right now, at least 40 kids are waiting to join.

"Next year, we want to coach a girls' team," Ferges says. "We want to be the first league to have an all-girls' team in the city of Baltimore" so that girls like Brittnay Hardy can perhaps realize a dream of playing for a WNFL someday.

And he'd like to get some of the younger kids involved in flag football. And he wouldn't mind entering the league in the national Pop Warner kids football league at some point, "to show that our kids are as good and can be as disciplined as any other kids." An awards dinner for some of the younger players would be nice, too. And maybe a field trip to watch the Ravens play--most of these kids have never seen real professional football before.

Huppert is talking about the possibility of starting a basketball league, too, if things go well. And if enough money comes along.

"We work so hard for these kids, but we just don't have the room for them all," Ferges laments. "We want them to see that people do care."

No matter how good it feels to play a Sunday morning game, these kids still have to face the problems most inner-city kids do: drug dealers on the street corners, parents with substance-abuse problems, crime in their neighborhoods, violence on the streets.

"I would say a lot of [the] kids are very challenged in terms of the support they have in their lives," Abramson says. "And given the neighborhoods some of these kids live in, they may have a tough time getting through things. . . . Research shows that what's important for young people is to have a caring and supportive adult in their lives. This is laying the groundwork that somebody cares for them."

And the way this league has blossomed since the teams played their first games in September, it's obvious the kids have more than one adult who has shown he or she cares: from the Banner staffers and volunteer coaches to the parents who religiously attend the games to a bunch of random neighbors and spectators who come every week just to soak up the ambience in the park every Sunday morning.

Carol Hartke, president of the nonprofit Patterson Place community organization, for example, isn't much of a sports fan. But she comes out to the Baltimore-Linwood games from time to time just for the experience.

"There have been other initiatives to help kids, like the Southeast Teen Center," she says. "But this is larger than anything else we've ever seen. And who would've thought? It's always the little things that pop out and make it."

Right now, all four teams--the Black Knights, Redd Doggs, Purple Kings, and Gold Wildcats--are getting ready for the playoffs for the league championship. Ferges and Huppert stress that every team in the league has a shot at the title. No matter how many games a team lost during the season, if they win during the playoffs, they get to play in the championship games, which will take place Nov. 16 and 17. Banner has secured Patterson Park's Utz Field for the games; the kids will play under the lights while their parents, families, friends, and neighbors watch from the tall bleachers.

"This will be a big deal for them to play on that field," Huppert says. "It'll be the biggest game any of these kids have played."

And though that one game--or this one season--won't necessarily turn the world around for every kid on the league, organizers know they've had an impact on kids like Brittnay Hardy.

"For so many kids, the future is just blank," Abramson says. "Now these kids are able to paint their own pictures."

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