It is a sunny Saturday morning in the cool April air that marks the long-awaited and coming return of summer. With the large white roof of the Coliseum and Alliant Energy Center in full view just a mere football field or two away, players and their families gather at Quann Park. They’re there for the first set of games from the Southside Raiders Youth Football Program. This spring, they’re playing flag and low contact football.
This marks the first time the Raiders program has been able to put on a football game in well over a calendar year. The Raiders, like so many other youth and high school football programs in Dane County, had to suspend its 2020 fall football season due to COVID-19. With the pandemic, football was sidelined until the spread slowed and outdoor sporting events could be played safely.
But now, with slowing infection rates and rising vaccination rates, the Raiders program and its players can finally return to the playing fields. The program had its first spring games on Saturday April 17th with league practices starting just one week prior. This has been a big adjustment for many as the Southside Raiders program has been a mainstay in the Southside community for over 50 years now. First formed in 1970 by Will Boyd Smith, a resident of South Madison, the Raiders program has served as a physical, social and emotional outlet for countless third through eighth graders.
Head Coach Art Bonomie works with players while also helping to coordinate all of the league’s weekend games. He says that the role the program plays for its youth players is much bigger than just the wins and the losses.
“It’s very important to outline the fact that middle school sports, especially youth football, it’s about smiles, high fives and juice boxes. We’re not winning super bowls, we’re not creating super athletes. We gotta continue to remove barriers of entry to this sport. It is a sport that’s critical … So we’re trying to justify the game; we’re trying to make it easier for moms and dads and families to understand the types of benefits that football brings.”
Coach Bonomie says the program gives kids structure, and teaches them about the importance of discipline, resiliency, accountability and teamwork.
Coach Bonomie is also the interim varsity head football coach at Madison West High School. As a feeder program for West High School, the Southside Raiders runs with the help and support of the West High School football program. The ultimate purpose of this partnership is to have these youth players prepared for the eventual jump to high school football at Madison West – the high school attended by many who live on Madison’s south side.
Coach Bonomie feels that this is one of the most important roles that the Southside Raiders program provides to its middle school and particularly eighth grade players.
“We create the type of structure: mentoring, leadership development, and expectations that a lot of kids are going to have at the high school level … One of the hardest transitions that you’re going to see out there, in terms of not only expectations, but the one that students tend to struggle with the most is typically that transition between 8th to ninth grade.”
This emphasis on developing youth football players both on and off the field is central to the program. Isadore Knox is one of two Southside Raider co-directors and also serves as a board member for the program. He says that the program was first founded with the goal of providing structure for young people in the South Madison community.
“Our program, it’s not just a football and cheerleading program, it’s really an intervention and prevention program. We’ve had a lot of success over the years … Our program has always been about setting priorities for young people. Our whole thing is to teach them teamwork, teach them respect – not only for each other but for their community – and positive self-esteem. We really do a lot talking to kids about avoiding anti-social behavior…”
Knox also says the program is seeking to broaden its reach to provide more mentorship and tutoring programs to further help kids beyond just the football field. For families who can’t pay the $50 entry fee, the program works with families to offer alternative payment plans or scholarships.
Many of the program’s coaches also went through the Raiders program themselves. Sherman Lightfoot is the head coach of the Raiders’ seventh grade team. He says that having his son come through the program now is something that will help them bond for years to come.
“It means everything because next year I’m coaching him – he’s in third grade. So, it’s father and son time. With us, that’s a bond that we have that can never be broken. He’s gonna remember for the rest of his life that my dad coached and I played under my dad. So, you know, football is just the game of life and it’s beautiful.”
Nowadays, the program provides an even more important social component for these young kids who have been deprived of many of the peer-to-peer interactions they are used to.
Tyler Douglas is an assistant coach on the Raiders’ seventh grade team. He says the social activity of football is crucial for these young players who have had to deal with the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I work in mental health and I work with people that have been going through isolation and decreasing socialization throughout this whole COVID process and these kids are no different. They’ve been out and about and they’re running around and seeing each other for the first time in a year.”
Delilah Shaw’s son Delontae is on the third and fourth grade flag football team for the Raiders. She says that the program is providing kids with a valuable outlet from the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s essential because these kids, whether we know it or not, these young children got depressed. They started suffering depression and anxiety because they haven’t been around their friends. They haven’t been able to partake in sports, they haven’t been able to just communicate with kids their age, so this is very important for them and this is very good for them.”
The Southside Raiders program has been able to work with a number of other youth football programs in the county to safely stage these weekly “All City” flag football and passing leagues. Working with youth football programs like the Madison Memorial Spartans, the Madison Eastside Sharks, and Janesville Youth Football, the Raiders have been able to give youth players a wide variety of competition. The Raiders were also able to absorb some players from another developmental youth football program, the West Regents Youth Football program, which did not have enough players to field a full program for this spring.
The nature of flag and seven-on-seven passing league football also helps to cut down on the amount of close contact between players from opposing teams. Both of these styles of football are low-contact, eliminate hitting between players, and so are played without pads. Keeping the program safe for parents and players alike is crucially important to Knox, and others involved in the program, who hope that the weekly games can help bring back a sense of normalcy.
“We’re very conscious of making sure that we’re doing a safe event, so we’re asking all the parents to wear masks – the players are actually wearing masks as they’re participating as well – and then we also encourage people to social distance. ”
Marisa Sarbacher was initially unsure about signing her son Aiden up for the spring league due to concerns about COVID-19. She feels that the precautions put in place by the Raiders so far have really helped to put those worries to rest.
“I was really concerned, actually, about signing him up for flag football even though it’s outside and it’s distanced. But, I know that the Raiders program has been taking a lot of the precautions and it’s been a really good experience so far. So I’m really pleased that we were able to do this.”
The Raiders program is not exclusive to young boys; it also includes a youth cheerleading program for girls. Girls who are interested can also get involved in the football side of the program as well. Knox says that the program does not want to leave any kids out as young boys and girls both have a need for the social outlets of football and cheering.
“The cheerleaders have always been a mainstay of our program … we have a tradition for the Southside Raiders cheerleaders as well … So we feel really good about that too, that we’ve had some outstanding young ladies also playing football as opposed to cheering.”
This on-the-field activity is currently limited to just flag football and seven-on-seven passing leagues. The program’s usual fall season would include full contact and tackling. The program’s coaches and directors decided against this for the spring season due to the lack of practice going in and the priority to keep these games safe from the physical risks inherent in full-contact football.
Outside from the pandemic, the coaches keep track of another pressing health issue. As new data emerge about the science of concussions and head injuries, football programs are making changes to minimize those risks.
The Southside Raiders are no different. Knox says that the program has changed a lot over the past few years to stay up-to-date on preventing head injuries.
“USA Football has connected with youth football across the country and that’s been the thing: heads up football,” — that’s a technique that uses alternative tackling methods to avoid head to head contact — “better safer techniques. We do a lot less full contact practices than we used to do. So, those are things we’re learning from all the reports on the concussions and that, so we’ve already implemented a lot of those.”
The spring league features flag football for kids in the third through sixth grade levels and seven-on-seven passing leagues for the seventh and eighth graders. The program also has athletic trainers on hand at all times in case there are any on-the-field injuries.
This spring, Lineah Richardson’s son Khalee is playing his first season in the Southside Raiders program, playing on the third and fourth grade team. She says that this introduction through flag football has been beneficial for her son.
“It’s really good that they’re still doing it and allowing them to be safe with the masks and doing flag football instead of having so much contact with each other because he’s actually learning the fundamentals of football and learning basically how to play football at the same time.”
For the players in the program, the flag and passing league games provides an opportunity for them to get back to the thing they love: playing football. Brian plays in the eighth grade passing league on top of playing his favorite sport basketball. He says that football however helps to build strong connections with teammates that he cannot get anywhere else.
“There’s a great bond that you make while playing sports and there’s no other thing that can make the same brotherhood as football does.”
Tristan also plays in the eighth grade passing league. He says that his favorite part of playing football is how it brings all sorts of people together.
“My favorite part of playing football is the good sportsmanship and coming together as a community, playing together, meeting new friends … playing around passing the ball. We a family – we lose together, we win together.”
Ezekiel is another player in the eighth grade passing league. For him, playing football is also just a great way to connect with friends in a fun and active way.
“Just being out here, it’s also good for your health. It’s just good to be out here and just enjoy being with your friends.”
The Southside Raiders program relies largely on volunteer coaches and personnel to organize and run their teams. Coach Bonomie hopes to continue to grow this program by bringing in new volunteer coaches as well as through charitable donations and sponsorships from local community members. Those interested in providing either for the program can learn more on the program’s online Facebook and GoFundMe pages.
For now, the spring passing and flag football league will continue to run through the month of May. While the Raider program hopes, COVID-willing, to return to a full-contact, tackling league this upcoming fall, they will still look to provide the same consistency and important life lessons to players both on and off the field for many spring mornings to come.
Reporting for W-O-R-T news, I’m Ryan Wollersheim.