Play Ball! initiative, middle schools team up to make football a reality

Dever-McCormack team in action last Friday at Harvard Stadium. Photo by Billy Owens

The lights were ablaze and the stands abuzz at Harvard Stadium last Friday afternoon and evening as four local teams took to the historic gridiron for a couple of championship games. The Crimson squad, however, was not among them – the players all hailed from the city’s middle-school system.

For the record, the boys from Dever-McCormack in Dorchester topped the team from the Ohrenberger School in West Roxbury, while in the city championship tussle, it was Roxbury’s Timilty School over the Frederick Pilot School. But the games were about more than wins and losses.

Four years ago there was no football program in Boston Public middle schools; the only after-school sports available to the 12,000 middle school students were basketball and track. Since then, thanks largely to the support of Boston’s Play Ball! Foundation and the cooperative efforts of teachers and school administrators, Boston Public Schools have introduced football, baseball, volleyball, and soccer across 19 middle schools.

The Play Ball! Foundation raises funds to provide transportation, field and gym space, referees, and coaching salaries for Boston middle schools that want to host more sports teams. The schools manage team logistics, and organize a coaching staff from their faculty ranks.

The playoff games on Friday offered loud testament to the energy and support – from teachers, administrators, families, students, and three cheerleading squads – that have grown up around the teams.
By many accounts, benefits of the new teams are seen beyond the playing field.

“The coaches work well with the teachers to make sure the kids have the grades to play, and they hold them accountable,” said Lani Trumble, an eighth-grade teacher at the McCormack, who attended the game and watched two of her students compete. Trumble said she is in constant contact with the coaches to ensure that her students are meeting the academic requirements that will let them play football.

Randy Seymour, a math teacher and the offensive coordinator and special teams coach at the Frederick School, confirms Trumble’s account: “The goal is for all of them to be on the honor role. They have tutorial services and homework help before the actual practice,” he said.

The Play Ball! Program was co-founded by Michael and Patrick Harney, who grew up in Concord, MA, and for whom athletics have been an indispensable vehicle for personal growth since early childhood. They believe in both the teaching power and the pure fun of team sports.
“A coach can say, if you’re not showing up to school, you can’t play. If you’re not getting your work done, you can’t play. And you know, that’s what the rest of your life is like, that’s what it will be like for teams at the high school, that’s what it will be like at a job,” said Patrick Harney, adding, “This isn’t a social experiment…this is very simple. We want them to have a great time. We want them to make friends, and have fun…if they’re too tired and can’t get into trouble after, that’s even better.”

Looking forward, Play Ball! wants to expand its impact in the city’s public schools, where it currently supports over 1,000 students. “As we look out three to five years, we’d like to easily double the amount of kids that we’re serving,” said Michael Harney.

As for these plans, raising school-interest should be no challenge. “I think [football] has improved student motivation tremendously,” said Naeomi Krakow, the principal of the Ohrenberger School. “For kids who might have been on the borderline for grades, this has been the tipping point for them,” she said. When asked whether it was difficult to get the faculty involved in the new sports teams, Frederick School Principal James Brewer pointed to the screaming fans all around him – many of whom are teachers – and said, “I think the proof is right here before us. It wasn’t a hard sell.”

Aaron Hawkins is in the eighth grade and is a running back for the McCormack team. He attests to the manifold benefits of team sports: Football “shows me how to be social…how to be a team player, and also how to be a leader and help others.” Plus, simply, “it’s great to win a championship,” he added.