- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 7, 2002

For six weeks, a small field in Temple Hills, Md., has been an object of curiosity for drivers passing by on Oxon Run Road where three nights a week several vehicles have shined their headlights onto a field for two to three hours.

The headlights have helped a group of 9- to 12-year-old boys, who are members of the Prince George's Outlaws, play football and become the Pop Warner state champion. This week the team is headed to the Pop Warner Youth Football Super Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

"We had no goalposts and no lights, and the coach came and shined the lights on us, and we made it this far," said Michael Wilson, 12, a kicker and linebacker for the team.

It is a simple explanation of what has been a wondrous year for a team that didn't even know whether it would have enough players to field a team back in August.

Ronald Gray is commissioner of the Prince George's Pop Warner league he started last April. The league is part of Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc. (PWLS), a nonprofit organization named after legendary Cornell University football player Glenn "Pop" Warner, who later coached several university football teams, winning three Rose Bowl championships.

PWLS, which was founded in 1929, offers youth football, cheerleading and dance programs in 41 states and several countries to approximately 360,000 young people ages 5 to 16. The organization requires participants to maintain academic standards.

Mr. Gray wanted a league that would help shape the character of youth through coaches who could serve as strong role models.

"We wanted to find coaches, not who necessarily coach football, but who had good moral values," said Mr. Gray, 38, as he stood in the freezing weather Wednesday watching the Outlaws practice. Mr. Gray, youth minister at New Hope AME Church in Waldorf, Md., said all the Outlaws' coaches, including head coach Derek Davis, 26, are involved in area churches.

The challenge for Mr. Gray's two-team league is that Prince George's County is Boys and Girls Club territory. About 20 Boys and Girls Club football teams in the county use all of the lighted fields.

The Outlaws had to wrangle with Hillcrest Heights Community Center just to get use of a small field with no lights. Once it began to get dark early, the headlights of Mr. Davis' truck and his assistant coaches' vehicles were used to light the team's 6:30 practices. Occasionally, a parent or two would help out with the lighting duties.

Mr. Gray started with eight boys in August and little advertising. In a three-week span, however, he had 51 youths and two teams, plus several female cheerleaders.

"It all came from word of mouth," Mr. Gray said. "We had no idea this was going to happen. It just happened."

He expects the league to have six teams next year and has already received several calls from coaches who want to work in the league.

This year, Mr. Gray's junior midget Outlaws team went all the way to the state championship, before losing 7-6 to a Baltimore city team. The cheerleading team competed in the national championships, placing seventh, and the peewee Outlaws are 13-0 and still playing.

After an undefeated 10-game regular season against other Pop Warner teams from across the state, the Outlaws ran over, around and through the state champions from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. They demolished their opponents all year, outscoring them 196 to 12, and those 12 points were scored by the New York team.

The team will take a charter bus to Orlando tomorrow and play their first game on Tuesday against a Miami team. A victory in that game would put them in the national championship against a team either from California or Texas.

Mr. Gray thinks the Outlaws' success on the field can be attributed to talent and is a byproduct of the league's emphasis on investing in the hearts and minds of the youth. He said many of the Outlaws' players have football futures in high school and college.

"The kids come out here to play football, but football prepares you for so much more. It gives them hope," he said. "Encouraging the kids and fostering them is a priority. Coaches call kids at home and check on their schoolwork. We want to be a constant force and let them know they're not alone."

Dortia Carter, 29, the "team mom," said the Outlaws have made a huge difference in the life of her son, DeMarquis, 12, who plays running back and linebacker.

"I've never seen a person transform like he did," said Mrs. Carter, who was concerned three years ago about DeMarquis' behavioral problems at school and home.

"He does what he's supposed to at school and at home all because he's looking forward to football," she said. "He comes out here with positive adult men who teach him the right roads to travel."

DeMarquis said he and his teammates were excited about their trip.

"It's a long ride, and I'm excited to see Orlando and Disney World," he said.

As for the obstacles the team faced, he said, "It's rough. We're out here with no lights, but we still won."

The team still faces a major hurdle in raising $18,000 for the trip to Orlando to pay for the bus, hotel rooms and meals. As of yesterday, they had raised only $4,200. Mr. Gray said they solicited local businesses for donations on Thursday but had no luck and were planning to go to Union Station bearing a banner requesting donations.

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