THE 9-YEAR-OLD football players of the West Philadelphia Tarheels have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving: A donor from Florida is giving their team an all-expenses-paid trip to Walt Disney World after reading about their crushed dreams last week.
"It's pretty amazing," said the team's quarterback, Kal-El Durham. "It's like one of my teammates said, this shows that people really care about us and they do want to help."
The donor is working with a former Philadelphia Eagles player - the Rev. Herbert Lusk II and Lusk's Philly-based nonprofit organization, People for People Inc. - to get the kids to Disney.
"There is somebody out there in this crazy world where people are killing each other, there is somebody out there who cares enough about these boys to show them they are not a number," Lusk said of the donor. "He's obviously a very generous man."
The donor, Tim Ranney, 60, of Clearwater, Fla., said he was moved to help the team after reading online about their story, which was detailed last week in the Daily News.
"I guess I'm operating on nothing more than it seemed like the right thing to do for the kids," Ranney said.
The Tarheels play in the Mitey-Mite division of Pop Warner football, and this season the team had an 11-0 record that included nine shutout wins.
When this season started, the two Mitey-Mite teams from Pop Warner's Eastern Region that got to play at Disney at the end of the year were to be chosen by a playoff system.
But on Nov. 7, after what was supposed to be the Tarheels' first regional game, the team coaches were told that Pop Warner officials had decided - midseason - to change the playoff system to an invitational, and the Tarheels weren't invited.
A Pop Warner spokesman told the Daily News that officials made the decision in the third week of October after receiving complaints that the division had become too competitive.
When the Tarheels players learned that the dream they had worked for all season was never actually theirs to obtain, they were heartbroken
"When the coaches said we weren't going to Disney World, everybody broke down and started crying," Kal-El said.
But even after finding out the devastating news, the team still played its game the next Sunday. And following in their children's footsteps, the parents of the Tarheels players began to fight hard too by reaching out to tell their children's story.
Kal-El's mother, Caiya Whitehead, said it was an important lesson for the children.
"We wanted to show them that if you work hard and what you're promised doesn't happen, you stand up for what you believe in and you keep fighting because something can change," she said. "Never give up."
The day the story ran, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady worked with the Eagles to secure 50 tickets to Sunday's Eagles game for the boys and their chaperones. Brady also paid for a bus to get the team to and from the game.
Meanwhile, Ranney emailed Lusk a link to the Tarheels story, asking if it was true and what he could do.
"They worked hard and did everything they were supposed to do and they got the rules changed on them," Ranney said. "It seemed like there was a disconnect somewhere, and however that happened, these kids were going to learn the wrong message."
Lusk, who had read the story on his own and was already trying to get a consortium of donors to send the kids to Disney, was overwhelmed when he received Ranney's email.
"I called him and he [Ranney] said loudly: 'I tell you what we're going to do, we're going to send every last one of them to Disney World - and also get 10 chaperones, we're going to send them, too.' " Lusk said. "I said, 'Oh my God!' "
When Lusk called Bryan Tucker, president of the West Philly Tarheels, and told him the news, Tucker began to cry.
"I said, 'Do you ever watch the Super Bowl when the game is over and they ask the most valuable player where they're going? Now that's going to happen to you - you're going to Disney!' " Lusk said he told Tucker. "Do you know how much joy it gave me to call him and deliver that news? It was one of the highlights of my work in Philadelphia."
Tucker kept the news under wraps until the players and coaches boarded the bus to head to the Eagles game on Sunday. Tarheels coach Duane Jones said the team went wild when they found out.
"You should have seen it, the bus was rocking, it was crazy. It was exciting. It was great" Jones said. "It gave the boys a renewed confidence in what they did and a renewed confidence in people."
Ranney, who founded Clarity Services, the biggest credit bureau in the country that specializes in capturing data on subprime consumers, is not only paying for the airfare, hotel and admission tickets to Disney for the 17 players and their 10 chaperones over Christmas break, his event team is planning the trip, as well.
"Herb said to me, 'We'll do this as cheaply as possible,' and I said 'No, I don't want that,' " Ranney recalled. "I said, 'If these kids deserve to have this done for them, they deserve to have the best we can do for them.' "
Kal-El, the Tarheels' quarterback, said he and his teammates can't thank Ranney enough.
"If I saw him I would say 'thank you' a million times," Kal-El said. "We're very grateful. That was an amazing thing that he did."
Lusk said Ranney's offer has reestablished hope for the players.
"Those kids' hopes were shattered and for something like this to happen to these kids, I think it will keep hope alive for the rest of their lives," Lusk said. "Now, no matter what comes their way or how low they may sink, this will at least be a memory that something good can happen."
As for Ranney, he deflected all praise to the Tarheels' coaches, mentors and players.
"It sounds like those kids worked hard and they have coaches and mentors trying to steer them in the right direction," he said. "If you want to talk about something special, that's something special."
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