Longhorns football program helps youths build confidence, self esteem
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
Tyrone Williams Jr. used to be so shy that his father wondered how to break him out of it. He found the answer in a new youth football league.
“He used to be an introvert, but now he is quarterback of his team,” said Tyrone Sr.
The Tallahassee Longhorns started five years ago with just two teams. Coach James Neal wasn’t deterred, though. He figured as long as he continued recruiting children from neighborhoods where there is little or no organized sports for them to do that he’ll succeed.
Today he is up to five teams, all in his mission to give back to the community. He formed an affiliation with the American Youth Football governing body, giving his team a means to qualify to compete for a national title.
He said it’s the perfect fit because the affiliation allows players to participate primarily by age – not weight which has kept many out of the city’s other football programs. Neal’s teams play in divisions between the ages of 5 to 13.
“It’s about giving the kids a chance to play sports,” he said.
The Longhorns play a schedule of six games this season, three of them on the road. Traveling makes it a pricey undertaking because there are no sponsors.
Neal defrays the cost of traveling with a $40 entry fee and money they bring in through fund-raising. What the program does for his players is worth the sacrifice, he said, even if it means going into his personal budget.
“I’ve had some kids that came into the program with a little bit of low self esteem, but we try to get the kids to police themselves and build leadership skills,” Neal said. “We go over and beyond.”
Parents like Shereka Green appreciates that she had a choice for her sons, one who has already aged out of the program. They especially like the opportunity to travel, something they didn’t do until they joined the Longhorns.
She vividly remembers the day they took their first road trip.
“They were excited,” she said. “It was definitely a wow moment. They were so excited and they had their stuff packed ready to go the day before. They were really, really anxious.”
When all five teams aren’t on the road, they play their home games at Godby High School’s field. Practices are held four days each week at FAMU DRS.
Neal said he won’t let some of the growing pains – such as not having sponsors for the team – set him back. He’s also driven by parents like Green who continually tell him how much being a part of the Longhorns’ program has changed her boys’ lives.
“They have gained a lot more confident,” Green said. “They also have a lot more respect for themselves.”