During a recent Boston Raiders Pop Warner football practice at the program’s temporary home in Hyde Park, dozens of children from Dorchester and Mattapan could be seen on the field wearing epaulettes and engaging in football with enthusiasm. But the adults behind the program say the ideas of mentorship, discipline and structure within the game are what have produced a winning formula for the Raiders since 1974.
The Raiders have taken up residence at Franklin Field in Dorchester since the mid-1990s, but due to the gradual renovation of the site, they have had to temporarily relocate to Reservation Road Field in Hyde Park. Additionally, Covid-19 kept the program dormant last fall, with the Raiders skipping a season for the first time in years.
Last week, neighborhood kids aged 5 to 14 donned their helmets for the first time since 2019 and took part in conditioning exercises, turning to the many coaches who provided solid inspiration on and off. off the ground for decades.
There are nearly 180 kids enrolled in Raiders football and cheerleading, along with some 44 coaches – all volunteers and ready to keep the kids focused on and off the pitch. While they started at Roxbury in 1974 under the vision of the late Harry Wilson and his brother, Dennis Wilson, who still supports the league, the team moved to Franklin Field around 1995.
âPeople know the Boston Raiders,â league president Dameain Mims said during practice last week. âThe Boston Raiders have the most wins of any Massachusetts Pop Warner team – the most championships. It is also generational. Most of our coaches have played here and most of the kids here have a dad, parent or family member who has played here before.
In their final season in 2019, the program entered three central mass championships and two cheering teams competed in national tournaments. The Raiders’ third and fourth year team went to the national championships.
“Former Police Commissioner Willie Gross was a Raider and professional basketball player Wayne Selden Jr. was a Raider,” notes Mims. âThere are NFL players and college Division 1 players. Raiders are everywhere.
League Treasurer Lena Fields added, âEveryone knows Franklin Field belongs to the Raiders. We have a resurgence this year after no season last year. Covid-19 really has a lot to do with so many kids and parents who wanted to get out of the house and they wanted to get back to something normal. So this year we have a lot of freshmen as well, and we’ve expanded with a 5 and 6 squad as well. “
Just a few weeks ago, the new playground under construction at Franklin Field was named in honor of the Wilson brothers, honoring their vision for what many consider to be the best Pop Warner program in town.
Maybe that’s because of the product on the court – as the Raiders are consistent winners – but others would say it was the strong off-court mentorship the Wilson put in place that set the Raiders apart.
Coach Keith Thomason now coaches the 12U team, having twice been head coach at Nationals. He played for the Wilsons from 1977. In 1995 they recruited him again to coach the program, and he has been doing so for 26 years.
âA lot of these kids don’t have a father in their life,â he said. âWe are coaches, but we also intervene to guide them and give them advice. School is always more important than football. Football is just a game, and we check how things are going at home and if they are in school and we make sure they stay on track.
Coach Andre “Chip” DuBose, a resident of Codman Square, played for Harry Wilson at Cathedral High School, and then went to college. Wilson saw him in a suit 29 years ago watching a game after work. He handed him a whistle and a clipboard, and DuBose didn’t back down – winning nearly every conference championship in those 29 years and bringing teams to Nationals 15 times as a 14U coach.
âSchool is foremost,â said DuBose. âThe program is designed to teach these kids life skills in general and not just football. We try to prepare children for high school, university and the job market. Everyone wants to play in the NFL, but you need a college degree and a career that you can realistically fall back on. “
Parents such as Breanna Perryman, Tayla Douglas, and Alecia Morris all said they enjoyed the activity for their sons, as well as the discipline they all learned as Raiders.
âThe consistency of training and their focus on academics, along with the discipline and product on the field and the feel of community has the kids in a fraternity frame of mind,â said Douglas, a parent. first year. âIt’s deep and very different from the other teams. This is a great example of healthy brotherhood rather than other types of brotherhood we see, especially for our melancholy boys.
Treyvon Fields has been involved since he was 6 and has said he now plays as a quarterback for Team 14U.
âAll the coaches I’ve been with, they all believe in me,â he said. “It’s important because they feel I can move up to the professional level and it motivates me more because I was pretty bad when I started at 6, but I kept improving.”
Improving and bonding are common themes during practice four nights a week, as well as Sunday game days. All of the coaches, generous sponsors and league officials have said it’s the smiles they see on current players, as well as those who have moved on from the program into adulthood, that make it worth it.
âThe program is a lot of work, but it’s worth it when you see the smiles,â Mims said. “If these kids weren’t here with us, there are other places where they would be much worse.”
Longtime coach Ray Vega said returning alumni visits are a reward for volunteers like him.
âYou get them at age 6 or 7 and you see them as little smiling kids and then they come back at 20 and they’re successful grown men. That’s the payoff, âhe said with a smile.
The Raiders have said they will likely be at Hyde Park again for most of this season, but hope they can return to Dorchester very soon and name the new Harambee Park pitch on Talbot Avenue.
This year they will be back to compete in the Pop Warner Eastern Massachusetts Division after competing in Central Mass for the past few seasons.
If all goes according to plan, several Raider teams will find themselves later this fall hoisting championship trophies in the middle of their new Dorchester field.