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‘People don’t believe it:’ Nyeem Powell is taking Philly’s youth football circuit — and the internet — by storm

Powell, who just turned 12 years old, already stands at six feet and weighs 340 pounds. And after footage of him dominating went viral, the world wants to know more about the phenom.

Nyeem Powell during a practice in West Philadelphia.
Nyeem Powell during a practice in West Philadelphia.Read moreMIGUEL MARTINEZ / For the Inquirer

Kids cry or just move out of the way. Parents yell and assume the West Philadelphia Panthers football team is cheating.

But six-foot, 340-pound Nyeem Powell is in the right age group. He recently turned 12 years old, and is the most dominant player in Philly’s 11U football system. His birthday was Aug. 7, meaning he blew out candles just after the July deadline.

“People don’t believe it,” said Nyeem’s father, Ricky. “Then they always want to take pictures with him and stuff.”

The viral moment for Powell began when defensive line coach Tahir Shoatz was up one night watching film and decided to post a one-minute highlight clip. He had a feeling it would be popular but couldn’t predict how Powell would be received.

Clips of Powell pancaking guys on offense and slinging ball carriers to the ground with one arm on defense hit the internet. He was a one-man wrecking crew as he dwarfed most players in size.

The video, created by Yea Sports, took off and has gained more than 564k views on Twitter in less than a week. Power Five College football schools started calling, including programs from the almighty Big Ten and SEC.

“He should have been viral. He’s probably the biggest kid in the country playing football at that age that I have seen so far, and I’ve been around football for five years,” Shoatz said. “I seen it coming.”

Powell got into football when he was eight years old. His parents initially sent him to the Overbook Monarchs, but he couldn’t play there. He had to go to a team with an unlimited weight count, which led him to the West Philly Panthers.

Where’s his birth certificate?

There’s not a game that goes by where someone isn’t complaining about Powell’s age. And while that can be nerve-wrecking, there’s another side to it, too. Powell is a rock star at the games. Opposing players and parents sometimes stay to watch his team play and take pictures with him. He’s already being asked to sign autographs. But he likes to tune that out away from the field.

“He’s the kind of kid when he’s done with the game, he’s done,” Ricky Powell said. “He doesn’t really jump into pictures and stuff like that. Real laid back.”

But Powell wasn’t always so much bigger than opponents. It wasn’t until he turned eight years old that he started to grow at a rapid rate, and that’s when the birth certificate checks became common. It became such a phenomenon that Powell goes by the nickname “Big Eight,” which is the name he was given when he played 8U.

One game from Powell’s 9U season stands out. The Panthers played in a South Jersey spring league where Powell and his teammates were set to play older kids.

Panthers head coach Nate Reed identified an opposing player who was too old and had him removed from the game. The opposing team’s parents obliged, and countered by pointing out the 9-year-old Powell. Before the opposing coach stopped the game, Reed warned that he was going to embarrass himself. Still, the game was stopped to check Powell’s birth certificate.

Once he saw Powell’s age on the original copy, the opposing coach walked off and yelled at his team’s parents, “He’s only nine years old! Are y’all satisfied now?”

“We’re in a league too young and I’m trying to save face with the coach, but they wanted to see his birth certificate,” Reed said.

Even referees are sometimes caught off guard by Powell’s size and ability. On one play Powell ran over an offensive lineman and stormed in the backfield so fast he took the ball out of the running back’s hands and ran for a touchdown. It was so surprising and sudden that the referee blew the play dead.

Coaches estimate that Powell blows up almost every play he’s in the game. At this point, their focus is having other players control the outside, because nothing gets past “Big Eight” in the middle of the defensive line.

“A lot of kids his size are kids that actually don’t want to play football,” Shoatz said. “Nyeem is starting to understand the game of football. His hard work and dedication is doing nothing but helping him.”

The mean streak

Opponents have started to fear Powell. He sat out one game against a much smaller team for that reason. At times it becomes almost comical as people laugh when they see him pulling on run plays and trying to block as opponents just run away.

If there was one way to get to him in the past, it was the mental side. Opponents called him names to throw him off. His parents recall him being ejected from a nationals game in Kissimmee, Fla. after kids taunted him.

The next year, the same team tried it again. This time he stayed composed and dominated. They didn’t mess with him after that.

“I was aggressive and ready to play,” Powell said. “Really, it was just putting them on the ground on offense.”

Powell’s success is rooted in more than his size. It’s not just that he’s big. Panthers coaches say they get a lot of big kids. Along with being bigger than most of those big kids, Powell loves playing football. If he has his way, his future will be on defense.

“I rather hit people than blocking,” Powell said.

When Powell is in a flow on the field, he doesn’t want to come off. He didn’t like when coaches tried to limit his playing time.

“He gets mad at me often because I have to take him out of the game,” Shoatz said. “He loves football. Everything he does is about football.”

» READ MORE: ‘He was out there balling’ ... in Crocs? How a Philly high school player’s shoe audible paid off.

Goals and plans

Powell sometimes plays up against the older kids, but his coaches often remind people that he just turned 12 years old. He likes math, and playing games like Madden, NBA 2K and Call of Duty on his PlayStation.

His coaches protect him by limiting his usage against overmatched opponents. They say that nothing good comes out of those games but potential injuries for him or opponents. That’s why the regional and national games that the Panthers play are important.

“It’s good to see him against better competition because then we get a truer assessment of where he’s at,” Reed said. “They still ain’t stopping him, but it’s better competition.”

A lot of the things commonly assumed about kids Powell’s size simply don’t apply to him. Yes, he is six feet tall and weighs 340 pounds, but Powell gets regular physicals and doctors say he’s in good shape. He’s picky about his diet, too. His favorite foods are fruits like bananas.

“You assume because you’re looking at his size, but it’s not even that,” Ricky Powell said.

Powell has three older siblings, a set of twins in college and a brother in the ninth grade. His mother says that even though he’s the youngest, he’s the biggest in the house.

Powell is soft spoken but has big football dreams. That doesn’t mean he talks much about the NFL, though. At this point, he says he’s not even ready for high school.

But Philly high school coaches are calling. The Panthers youth football team is one of the most talented in the city and has produced some of the best prep players around. The fact that Powell is considered one of the best to come out of the program says a lot. And after that recent video, all eyes are on “Big Eight.”

“Right now you can’t put anybody in the country in front of him,” Reed said.