Ferndale’s New Football Program Scrambles to Fund Trip to National Competition
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Nov. 22, 2017)
Ferndale, MI – When Coach Jim Lewis and his wife Leri started the Ferndale Eagles Youth Athletic Association earlier this year, they had no idea how successful it would be. Their football teams and cheerleading squads serve kids aged 5-14 in preparation for middle school and high school athletics. Like other feeder programs, they are independent of the school district, but there is synchronicity because they provide a program that is not currently available by Ferndale Schools.
The success is that 160 kids have been taking part in the program. They have gotten so good that they won the state and regional championships, and are preparing to head to the national competition in Orlando Florida December 1st.
The challenge is that they don’t have the money to go.
“This is the first year of the program and we had no idea how many kids would get involved, let alone that we’d make it all the way to nationals,” Lewis said.
They have just about a week to raise the $25,000 necessary to charter the buses to get about 75 kids and chaperones to the big game.
Ferndale Police Chief, and avid supporter of youth sports, Timothy Collins has become a metaphorical cheerleader for the program “When he first came to the city with this idea, I was skeptical. I didn’t think they would get the number of kids they said they would or how it would work out. Of course I wished for the best, but I didn’t think much would come of it,” he said. “Luckily I was proven wrong,”
Proving themselves was an ongoing theme for the Eagle’s first year. They practiced in Garbut Park but had to rent a field in Royal Oak in order to host home games. Lewis said people from the school district and the police department would come to watch how the practices and games were going. “I had to prove I wasn’t fly by night,” Lewis said. “But what I realized about Ferndale is if you work hard, they will work hard with you.”
He remembered Chief Collins coming to one of their earlier spring practices as they were wrapping up and all the kids were eating dinner. “When kids come to practice on Fridays, we feed them. No kid leaves hungry,” Lewis said. “That impressed the Chief, but to me it’s just part of what we do. We don’t know all these kids situations. But in any group this size we know some are coming from homes where their families are struggling and getting enough to eat is a challenge. So we make sure everyone is fed before they go home. No questions.”
Lewis is also proud that academics are a part of his program. “All my kids have to bring in a progress report from their teacher before they can play. I don’t care if you’re five years old and your kindergarten teacher writes ‘so and so was good today,’ they still need to bring something to show that they’re doing right in school,” he said.
The Lewis’ worked with other youth football and cheer programs in the Pop Warner League before deciding to starting their own Pop Warner team. Jim’s father started the Oak Park Trojans years ago, and Jim helped those programs grow. “A we grew in popularity, we had kids from two schools fighting to get into the program because Oak Park has some in Oak Park Schools and some in Ferndale Schools. Oak Park and Hazel Park had programs but Ferndale didn’t. I wanted to start my own because I knew the need was there, and I know Ferndale is a community that comes out to support their kids,” he said. “Plus there’s a lot of talent here.”
They planned on 130 kids, but ended up with 160 because they didn’t want to turn anyone away.
And in their very first year all four teams have met with great success.
“Our Unlimited Football Team (ages 12-14) and our 8U Football Team (ages 7-8) are State Champions for the Southeast Michigan Pop Warner Football League, advancing them to the Mid-America Regional Championships. Our Junior Pee Wee Football (ages 9-11) was selected to represent Michigan as well in the Mid-America Championship. Our Pee Wee (ages 9-11) Cheer Team won 1st Place in the Regional Cheer/Pom Competition and our Varsity Cheer/Dance Team won 2nd Place in Dance Theme and 3rd Place in Cheer Hip Hop. Our two cheer teams and the Jr. Pee Wee Football teams have been chosen as the Midwest Regional representatives at the National Championships held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida from December 2 – 9, 2017. The Unlimited Football Team has 2 games left in Michigan City, Indiana to make it to the National Championship. These games are being played consecutive weekends in November now,” Leri said.
The couple invested about $40,000 of their own money up front to start the club and be part of the Pop Warner League. “Football’s an expensive sport,” Jim said. “There’s helmets, pads, uniforms, insurance. There’s a fee for the kids to participate, but it’ll take a few years before we get good at fundraising and get back up to that break even point. We weren’t prepare to make it to nationals our first year. We’re kind of victims of our own success.”
On top of the disappointment to the kids, not being able to attend would mean forfeiting their place in the league altogether.
“I’d really like to see this program stick around and be successful, and anything the community can do to make this happen would be appreciated,” Chief Collins said.
Collins is a wrestling coach and runs the Eagle’s Nest booster program which helps support football at the middle and high school levels. He grew up in wresting and football, as did his own three sons.
As Police Chief he knows the value of giving young people something productive to do with their time and energy, and the structure that extracurricular activities can provide. But he’s also seen the impact football can have on a young person’s life.
“It gives kids a team environment where you have to rely on each other. There’s 11 people on the field and all 11 people need to do their job at the same time. They learn they have to depend on each other to accomplish their goal. There are 100 to 115 plays in a typical game. So they learn over and over to do their part and trust others to do their part,” he said. “They also get to make friends for life. Kids I played football and wrestled with in high school are still my friends today. It gives them stability. And if you have a good set of coaches, these kids get these relationships where they can look up to coaches as a mentor. They don’t just learn how to play good football, they learn how to be a good person. They learn about life.”
Learn more about the program at http://www.ferndaleeagles.org/.
Donate to their GoFundMe page at https://www.gofundme.com/feyaa.
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