Travon Terry is a 12-year-old seventh grader from P.S. 4 in Jersey City who used to play flag football. But when the opportunity arose for Terry to play organized football with full equipment and colorful uniforms, Terry jumped at it.
“It was nice,” said Terry, a wide receiver/cornerback for the Hudson County Dolphins. “I knew that playing for the Dolphins would get me to better places.”
Iquan Lynn is also 12 and is a seventh grader at Dr. Lena Edwards School in Jersey City. Lynn also has aspirations.
“I’m going to try to make it in the NFL,” said Lynn, a running back/fullback. “I want to be one of the greatest players ever in Jersey City.”
Zyire Ballon is 13 years old and attends the Jersey City Community Charter School, where he’s in the eighth grade. Ballon is a sensational quarterback and definitely a player to watch. He’s already planning to attend St. Peter’s Prep next year.
Ballon knows that he has an important role with the Dolphins.
“Yes, sir, I know it’s important,” Ballon said with an air of class and dignity. “If I’m not a leader, then I’m not doing my job. I have to make sure that everyone steps up and tries to act like an adult.”
Ballon has been a player in the Dolphins’ organization for four years, since its inception.
“I used to play football in the park, but I wanted to be a part of what Uncle Ike was doing,” Ballon said. “It’s going to prepare me a lot for high school. I’ve had a lot of good training.”
The “Uncle Ike” that Ballon is referring to is none other than former St. Anthony basketball standout Ike Williams, who played for some of the fabulous Friars teams in the 1990s that captured back-to-back NJSIAA Tournament of Champions titles.
The Hudson County Dolphins’ organization is Williams’ baby. He is the one who conceived the idea, giving kids from the inner-city a chance to play football at a high level with proper instruction and proper equipment.
Williams got into coaching football – ironically the first sport he played as a youth – six years ago, working with the Jersey City Recreation program.
But then Williams got the notion to branch off and go on his own, teaching kids how to play football the right way, working with approximately 80 youngsters from the ages of five through 13 on three different levels of competition.
There are the eight-and-under players, those 10-and-under and finally the top team, the 12-and-under (a player can turn 13 during the course of a season).
So there are three different teams playing under the Dolphins’ banner. Williams oversees the entire organization, got coaches to work with some of the teams and raises the money to pay for it all – including post-game and sometimes post-practice meals.
And ready for this? All three of the Dolphins’ teams have won their respective championships in the New York/New Jersey Metro AAU Youth Football region and have qualified for the AAU National Championships that will be played this week in Davenport, Florida.
It marks the second straight year that Williams has taken at least two of his teams to the nationals, but this year, all three squads are going. It’s quite an accomplishment for a grass roots organization that receives no funding whatsoever from the county or state governments. All of the money is raised with private donations.
There’s no question that the high school stars of tomorrow are practicing daily at the new Berry Lane Road facility in Jersey City. These youngsters are extremely skilled for their ages, especially the young Ballon, who possesses a cannon of an arm.
“I truly believe that if you give us a kid, we’ll turn him into a star,” Williams said. “That includes even first-year kids who don’t know how to tie their cleats. It takes a lot of time training the kids, but I’ve seen them do it. It’s all about their growth as players. I know the coaches well. We all support each other. But we have a lot of talent here.”
Kenny Williams is one of the coaches who is known better as “Coach Pasto.” Don’t ask Williams why he’s known as “Pasto,” because he doesn’t even know.
“My mother told me that it means ‘good blessings,’” Coach Pasto said. “I’ll go with that.”
He’s also a nephew of Ike Williams, but got involved with the program because he has a son on the 8U team. Coach Pasto is the head coach of the Dolphins’ 10U squad.
“I never played football before and never coached it before,” said Williams, a graduate of Ferris High School. “But I came to a practice, liked it and figured I could coach it. I’m big on discipline. I watched my Mom [Natasha] deal with kids, so I figured I could follow in her footsteps.”
Coach Pasto said that the kids follow his lead very well.
“I think they feed off my energy,” Coach Pasto said. “They love it.”
Coach Pasto must be doing something right, because his team went 18-0 last year and own a 12-0 record as they head to Florida as District and Regional champion. Yes, that means his team has won 30 straight games dating back to last year.
There’s also another key component to the Dolphins. Williams monitors every single one of his players’ performance in the classroom. It doesn’t matter that they attend different schools. Williams gets report cards and progress reports on every single one of the Dolphins’ players –and the Dolphins’ cheerleaders for that matter.
“They have to maintain a B average in all of their classes,” Williams said. “If your grades slip, then you cannot play. If you get back to a B, then we’ll let you back on the team.”
How strict is Williams with the grade rules? Well, it even applied to his own son. Last year, the younger Williams went below the B average requirement, so he was unable to play and join the team in Florida.
“This year, I pushed myself to get the better grades,” said 10-year-old Terrence Williams, a fifth grader and a running back/middle linebacker with the Dolphins. “It was a very tough lesson to learn, but I learned that lesson.”
“I never went to Florida before, so I’m looking forward to going this year,” said Lynn, who was left home last year because he didn’t reach the academic requirements instituted by Williams. “When I wasn’t playing for the Dolphins, I was having trouble in school, but now I’m getting better grades.”
Keyshawn Buchanan is 10 years old and he owns a football player’s name already. Keyshawn is a fifth grader at the Empowerment Academy Charter School. You can’t make any of this up. With a name like his, how can he fail?
“My father used to play basketball in New York and I like basketball,” said Buchanan, who is a center/defensive end. “But I watched the game of football and liked it a lot. I figured I had a better future in football.”
Some of the Dolphins were reluctant to play at first.
“After my Mom signed me up, I was nervous and a little scared,” said 11-year-old Kamal Rouse, a running back/outside linebacker and a sixth grader at the METS Charter School in Jersey City. “I was small and didn’t know how to play. But I learned it could be fun. I learned that teamwork helps. Every time I make a tackle, my team hypes me up. Every time I make a block, they hype me up. We all motivate each other. If we follow the rules and do what we’re supposed to do, this could be a lot of fun.”
Other teammates agree.
“It’s a lot of fun for me,” said 8-year-old Jamar McRae-Ikner, who is a tight end with the 8U squad and a third grader at the Jersey City Community Charter School. “I get to play football with my friends. I love playing football.”
“I get to play football every single day,” said Caleb Reid, another budding 8-year-old grid star from the second grade at P.S. 3 in Jersey City.
So the Dolphins load up the bus and take the long drive to Florida this weekend. Limited budget means low cost transportation.
“We’re still a work in progress,” Ike Williams said. “I don’t feel like we’ve hit our peak yet. There’s room for development, room for change. But I know the coaches and they all support each other.”
If only a lot of other people would agree.
The Hudson County Dolphins, a non-profit organization, has a GoFundMe account if anyone is willing to contribute to their much worthy cause.
You can visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/aau-metro-youth-football-championship or contact Williams at (201) 814-5812. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com