League works on building community

Published 12:46 am Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Fullback Nicholas Hardison follows the blocking of his Washington Dolphins’ teammates Eric Main, Logan Craft, Mark Halbert, Isaac Paul, Braxton Phelps and Nate Brimmage in a game against the Bath Smugglers. (Contributed Photo)

When the Washington Parks and Recreation Department announced in 2006 they would no longer field a youth football program, Brian Jones and Walt Gerard decided to step up and start one themselves – the Washington Youth Football League (WYFL).

“It’s been a white-knuckle ride since then,” Jones said with a laugh, “but it’s been fun.”

Jones and Gerard were confronted with several challenges as they started the league.

“The most pressing need we had was to replace the equipment,” said Jones.

Most of it was old and potentially unsafe. Since then, they’ve gradually replaced all of the equipment and now have enough to outfit 250 kids. Their second challenge was getting the number of participants up.

In its first year, the WYFL had 110 kids participating. That has doubled to 222. With assistance from the Washington-Beaufort County Chamber of Commerce and Executive Director Catherine Glover, they’ve been able to lower registration fees so more kids can participate.

Jones also attributes the growth to the quality of volunteers who are dedicated to the kids and have a positive attitude and approach to things.

“I think the positive attitude has really helped increase our numbers … The kids have really responded to that,” Jones said. “They go out and tell their friends in class.”

The league is up to 11 teams this year: four teams for the five and six-year-old flag division, four teams for the seven to nine-year-old tackle division, and three teams in the 10 to 12-year-old tackle division.

The WYFL is part of the Community Youth Football League, so these teams face opponents from Bath, Belhaven, Chocowinity, Greenville, Aurora and the South Creek Community in Martin County (although Aurora and South Creek are not fielding teams this season).

Jones credits the success of the WYFL to a long list of people, but none more than Walt Gerard.

“Walt has been a board member and president of the Washington and Community football leagues since we started. He has an idea about how the league should look and function, and he is committed to making it a reality,” Jones said.

Gerard has been instrumental in more than just an administrative capacity, however. He and his father, Bubba Gerard, have served as corporate and team sponsors and have not hesitated to help with any of the manual labor.

“If buildings need painting or walls and foundations need repairing, they make it happen. There were mudholes surrounding the concession stand, so they hauled in gravel. Those two have made sure that no need has gone unmet,” Jones said.

Erin Riddick, Lindsey Harris, and Jimmy Davis are board members whose services have been invaluable, each lending their skills and experience to the teams and helping the league grow. Ray Pippin has helped the WYFL tremendously, as well.

“Ray volunteers to paint the fields, move bleachers, and get the fields ready for practices and games. He’s out here late at night and early in the morning,” Jones said.

Many people are not aware that the WYFL isn’t funded by the city.

“Not a week passes without a parent or grandparent telling me that they are surprised to learn the WYFL is a volunteer group not affiliated with Parks and Recreation,” Jones said. “I tell them that we operate on registration fees and donations, and I point to the donor board attached to the press box at Kugler (Field). We simply could not operate without our sponsors and many volunteers.”

While the WYFL has received generous donations locally for which it is grateful, perhaps one of the most high-profile endorsements is that of Terrence Copper – the Washington High School and ECU alum who now plays for the Kansas City Chiefs. According to Jones, Copper  “recently contacted Walt and indicated he was giving the WYFL $5,000. Because of Mr. Copper’s generous gift, we received a letter from the National Football League Youth Football Fund informing us that the NFL was pleased to award the WYFL a grant in the amount of $5,000 for the purchase of new football equipment. So good things are happening and children will benefit from Terrence Copper’s generosity.”

Despite it’s sometimes stressful nature, Jones and Gerard enjoy their work with the WYFL.

“It’s having a major positive impact on many of the kids playing,” Gerard explains. “It’s teaching them the value of teamwork and coming together for a common goal.”

Gerard makes an effort to instill what he calls “the four D’s” in the kids – dedication, determination, discipline, and dignity – building character to benefit the future of the community.

“Football is kinda like life,” Gerard says. “You get knocked down and you have to decide whether to get back up or not. I see a lot of kids learning life lessons from this.”