HOLLYWOOD, Fla. - Eric Harris stood behind a fence at the Boggs Field in Hollywood. That is where he learned how to play football with the The Hollywood PAL Eagles. He said his dad was in prison and never went to see him play.
Harris, 28, said he stopped playing football for the Eagles when he moved and "lost the way in the streets." He had two tear tattoos under his left eye. They were in honor of two relatives who died. Harris said he felt he was on the right track now.
The field's lights made his gold teeth sparkle when he smiled. He was there to watch his six-year-old son Eric Jr. play his first game with the Eagles. The boy was a fast runner, but did not tackle his opponent.
"E.J., you have to go low and grab him," Harris said, as Eric looked up to him and walked back to the field. "He listens real good. Discipline ain't no problem."
The Hollywood Police Athletic League has been sponsoring the Eagles since 1990. When Harris played with the Eagles, the team was with a different league.
The team now belongs to the Miami Xtreme Youth Football League, founded in 2000. The league's philosophy underplays competition and prioritizes child safety, the leagues' president, Miami-Dade Homicide Detective Richard Raphael said.
After Raphael shook Harris's hand, the Eagles scored a touchdown against the Kendall Hammocks Warriors, which traveled to Hollywood from Devon Aire Park, 10411 SW 122 Ave., in Kendall. Harris jumped. "Yes," he shouted, and he smiled.
"When I see the reaction of the parents, I get goosebumps," said Raphael adding that he is giving back what was given to him. His father was not around. His two "surrogate fathers" were in law enforcement.
Raphael said he was concerned that the "the little ones" were wearing old helmets that are not as safe and "could crack." The league gives the Eagles' a special rate, because the kids are in need. The Eagles have about 150 players, ages 4 to 17. Each helmet can cost between $45 to $50. Neither the league, nor does Hollywood police have the $7,500 to spare.
Supporting the Eagles is a team effort. The City of Hollywood maintains the football field. About 70 percent of the kids are playing on a scholarship and get help with their uniforms, Hollywood Police Detective Wilbur Fernander said.
"We are doing all we can to keep these kids safe," Fernander said, as he held a broom.
Fernander had been cleaning a recreation room that is part of the park's 8,500 square foot building, where kids have an area to do their homework, an area to play pool, a boxing gym and a weight-lifting room.
To build it, Hollywood police allocated about $1.3 million in forfeiture funds, which come from seizures, Fernander said. Hollywood police accepts public donations for a program that strives to help kids who make it to college with $500.
"The ultimate goal is to keep the kids off the streets and teach them orderliness," Raphael said. "They are exposed to street level narcotics and opportunities to get involved in burglaries, theft and other low level crime."
Relatives of Eagles players have to buy them football cleats, make sure they get a physical exam and get them to practice on time. Five-year-old Javaros Carson was sitting on the sidelines crying. Partly because he "got in trouble" for running around and because he couldn't play against the Warriors. He was missing the physical exam.
"I'm hurting," Javaros said. He wiped a tear. "I love football. You get to take other players down. You get to be fast and be strong and you can even be a hero on TV."
Minutes later, Javaros met Raphael and a "big, tall, real muscle man" -- former NFL tight end Troy Drayton, who is 6'3" and 263 pounds. Javaros said he had never met someone like him. Drayton played for the NFL for about a decade. He started playing when he was growing up in the projects in Steelton near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Javaros reminded him of those days, Drayton said.
"I was watching him earlier. I used to be just like him. As long as he is playing, he is happy," Drayton said. "When I was his age and my brother was playing, we used to pile a bunch of cups and throw them around. We made a ball out of anything."
Drayton said he never had the opportunity to watch an NFL football game at a stadium as a child. It wasn't until the NFL drafted him in 1993 and he stepped into a field wearing a Los Angeles Rams uniform during a pre-season game that he was able to visit a football stadium.
This week, Drayton made arrangements for the NFL to give the Eagles' youth football team 500 tickets to watch a Miami Dolphins pre-season game. The kids welcomed the announcement with cheer. Drayton also talked to them for a few minutes about the importance of education. Eric and Javaros listened.
"The Miami Dolphins player [Drayton] talked about 'Youuucation' but I don't know what that is," Eric said. "I don't know. I think we won. Or I think we lost? He is taking us to a game. I love football."
FOR DONATIONS: Hollywood Police Athletic League program director Wil Fernander can be reached at 954-927-3401 or at the park, 2311 North 23rd Ave., in Hollywood.
MORE ABOUT DRAYTON: He played nine seasons in the NFL from 1993 to 2001, and was a Miami Dolphins' tight end from 1996 to 1999. He is in the leadership of youth football programs for both the Miami Dolphins and the NFL. And he is also a master trainer for USA Football and a mentor for the Miami Xtreme Youth Football League.
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