By David Gibbons
The results are in, and now it can be chiseled in stone: Once again, the Harlem Jets have had an outstanding football season.
Last week, for the second time in three seasons, the Jets sent two teams to the American Youth Football national championships in Kissimmee, Fla.
The Jets were founded by Harlem native Jamel Wright, spearheading a core group of fathers with 9-year-olds who were looking for a better-organized tackle football experience than what was available. Wright, known as “Coach Mel,” and his wife Twinique lead a team of about 35 volunteers—most, but not all, parents. In seven years, they’ve built the Jets into a significant community organization and national power, recently expanding their offerings to include not only off-season conditioning but wrestling, basketball and competitive cheerleading.
With six to eight teams of 5- to 17-year-olds per year, most of the Jets compete in the Empire State Youth Football League against metropolitan area rivals such as the Brooklyn Titans, Staten Island Cobras and Central Jersey Seminoles.
On Nov. 17, the Jets’ Junior Pee Wees won their Big East Regional playoff, advancing past the Morristown (Pa.) Bulldogs. The Jets’ Cadets lost a close game to Fox-Rok, a Philadelphia team, but were later awarded a wild-card berth for the finals. In Florida, both teams suffered disappointing first-round losses in the closing minutes but bounced back to finish third in their respective divisions.
Also on the 17th, the Jets’ Intermediates (17 and under), who play in the Pioneer League, capped an undefeated season by winning their so-called Super Bowl, held at McCombs Dam Park, the site of the old Yankee Stadium, over the Bronx Nittany Lions.
Wright sees football as “the carrot,” an incentive for inner-city kids to learn to act right, achieve in school, go to college and create opportunities they might not otherwise have had. “Football is the ultimate team sport,” he says, echoing his rousing pre- and post-game speeches. “It mirrors life, and it’s all about learning to deal with adversity, about picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, getting back into the huddle and going out to compete again.”
The Jets first burst onto the national scene in 2008 when their Pee Wees (12 and under) went to the finals as an unseeded team, knocking off the defending champions in the first round and eventually finishing third. That year, Wright’s assertions were put to the test in a tragic context: One of the team’s coaches, Andre Milliner, died suddenly of complications brought on by an attack of gout.
“We were at his funeral a week before we left for the national championships,” says Bruce Parker, who co-coached the Pee Wees with Milliner. “Going down to Florida was bittersweet. Trying to win a national championship with heavy hearts—that was tough on the kids.”
The Jets uphold strict academic and behavioral standards, regularly reviewing each of their more than 300 players’ report cards. Tutoring is arranged for those who struggle; head coaches have discretion to curtail playing time pending satisfactory conduct, attendance and grades.
For more information, go to www.harlemjets.org.
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