In the universe of Madison-area youth football, the Southside Raiders have dueling reputations. The positive view owes to the big-name athletes who grew up in the program, like St. Louis Rams wide receiver Derek Stanley, former NBA guard Reece Gaines and former Badger linebacker Jeff Mack. But a negative view is just as prevalent, says Nick Williams, a volunteer coach of the Raiders' eighth-grade squad.
"The other teams believe Southside teams aren't disciplined because we're predominantly black," says Williams, who used to coach with the Westside Spartans, a rival squad. "We don't want to listen, we don't focus and we don't have commitment. When I coached with Westside, we didn't really think that much of Southside. We didn't really think they would be competition. We knew they had talent, but talent without guidance is really no talent."
Williams thinks building a disciplined football team can improve perceptions of south-side kids, particularly boys, on and off the gridiron.
"I played sports, and that kept me out of so much trouble," he says. "Nowadays, all the kids have is Xbox or the telephone. I've got a son, and I want him to go the positive route. Football teaches you that. Discipline, how to listen to your coach, to finish things and not quit because it's hard."
Anyone who has played organized football will testify that leg lifters are hard, and that's what a few dozen Raiders are struggling with at Penn Park last Wednesday afternoon. As the players lie on their backs, straining to keep their feet off the ground and their legs straight as they count to 10 - together, loudly - they strengthen their stomach muscles and learn a lesson about how shared misery can help bring a team together.
At the opposite end of the field, older kids are engaged in a similarly unpleasant exercise. Two players lie on their backs, head to head. A coach flips one of them the ball and both scramble to their feet and meet each other in a head-on collision. Both are exhorted to "Drive! Drive! Drive!" before they wind up in a heap under a settling cloud of dust. A whistle blows, they hustle to their feet and are replaced on the ground by two more kids.
A tardy player strolls up to the field, causing a disapproving mother sitting nearby to remark, "They should make you run a lap for every minute you're late." He's soon spotted trotting a circuit around the field.
Similar scenes are playing out on thousands of football fields across the country as youth football clubs prepare for the coming season. The difference is that this particular football field is in the middle of Penn Park, which has its own reputation problems to overcome, due to a history of violent crime and drug activity on its premises.
"We are doing everything we can to really destroy that reputation about Penn Park as being a negative place," says Wayne Strong, a Madison police lieutenant and co-director of the Raiders. "MSCR has some programs here, the Boys & Girls Club uses it, we use it. We've got a couple celebrations: Juneteenth, the Johnny Winston block party. We figure the more positive things we can flood the park with, the less negative activity will take place here."
The Raiders field three separate teams in the Dane County Area Youth Football League, with a total of about 50 players. They practice at Penn Park three nights a week and host home games there on Saturday mornings. Most players live nearby, but some come from as far away as Middleton and Sun Prairie, partially due to the Raiders' low participation fee.
"Most programs start at $175 to $200 dollars," says Strong. "We're at $50, which is what it's been since I started in 1995. And a lot of kids who come from economically disadvantaged families can't afford that. We struggle with it. Next year, we may have to go up to $75."
That fee gets a player the use of a full set of equipment, including a helmet with the imposing Raiders logo and a uniform for the season. It also includes three months of football tutelage under guys like Williams and Strong, whose enthusiasm for the game is infectious and perhaps transformative.
"What we're trying to do over here is to bring a culture of commitment, discipline and doing your job," says Williams. "The philosophy of the Southside Raiders, truthfully, is to prove everyone wrong."