Two hardscrabble teams that didn't have enough money to make it to the Pop Warner national football championships in Florida this weekend are going - thanks to the mayor and Philadelphia businesses that rallied for the cause.
"It's a blessing, it's just a blessing," North Philly Blackhawks head coach Derrick Williams said.
When news broke of the hard work and financial plight of the Blackhawks and the Frankford Chargers, Mayor Nutter got on the phone. He called the Eagles, sports-apparel retailers Mitchell & Ness, clothing retailer Villa, Comcast, CBS, and the law firm Bowman Kavulich. The firms donated a total of $26,500 to cover the teams' travel and lodging.
Now, both teams will be on the field Sunday.
"These children have worked to be something and become something," Bill Gambrel, the Chargers' cofounder and a longtime community activist, said at a news conference Friday at City Hall. "If we can keep them out of trouble, and do the best we can to make sure they get a good education . . . it's more than just football. We mentor these kids to have the right frame of mind."
Over the Thanksgiving weekend, the Blackhawks dominated the Pop Warner Eastern regionals in Division I Pee Wee and the team was headed to the league's ESPN-televised Super Bowl tournament at Walt Disney World in Florida but couldn't raise enough money to get there.
The Frankford Chargers team found itself in the same situation in Division I Midget. With time running out, Gambrel, 74, had prepared himself to go deep into debt to cover the shortfall and worry about the rest later.
Both teams - rooted in two of the city's roughest neighborhoods - had scraped together enough for their airfare but each team needed money for hotel rooms and meals for 20 players for seven nights.
"These young people and their parents," Nutter said at the City Hall news conference, standing with Blackhawks coaches and Gambrel, "both work hard during the season, both in their athletic work and their academic work."
The mayor called the citywide support for the scholar-athletes a warm example of a community coming together.
"These are good young people with bright futures," he said. "We want to help them in any way possible."
Then Nutter joked: "My only regret is that I didn't raise enough money to go with you."
Nutter delivered the news personally to Chargers players Friday afternoon in a meeting at City Hall.
"My smiles I done had," Gambrel said. "And I had a lot of them. Now it's their turn," he said of his team.
When the mayor told the Blackhawks Thursday that their expenses would be covered, the youngsters jumped and cheered, Williams, 28, said.
"Now the kids get to focus on football and not money," Williams said. "They get to be the best team they can be."