2001-07-21 / Columnists

From the G-Man by Gary G. Toms

Hey people! Much has been said about how the local politicians, on both ends of the peninsula, have ignored the concerns of those they represent. Some have even gone as far as to say that many promises have been made and no one has ever really delivered. Although many of the concerns are adult oriented, I truly believe that no one suffers more from these broken promises than the children of Rockaway.

I had the privilege of attending one of the practice sessions for the Far Rockaway Panthers Football Team in Far Rockaway. The team is comprised of young boys in the age range of 7-13 years old, who join the program because of their love of football and the opportunity to be part of something positive.

These boys are from some of the poorest areas in Rockaway, and many are searching for an identity, inspiration and a father figure through the program.

The coaching staff, lead by John Zabala, provides the leadership and guidance that these children seek. For many of these kids, the coaches are the only positive male role models in their lives.

"If you’d seen how some of these boys were before they got into this program, you’d be surprised at the turnaround. I’ve had kids tell me I was the father they never had. That’s why me and the staff do what we do," says John.

As I watched the boys go through their intense training regiment, I could not help but notice how determined and dedicated they were. If they got knocked down from hitting the tackling dummy, they got right back up. If they had to do 20 push-ups, they struggled to complete the task. If they had to run seven laps around the park, as winded as they were, they made it across the starting point. There were no quitters in the bunch, and I was very impressed.

To see the heart and determination of these kids touched me in a way that’s hard to describe. As an African-American man, I was touched on a deeper level as I watched the young Black boys give it their all. It probably affected me the way that it did because I know how easily they could become statistics in any given crime report, without the proper guidance.

The cash and flash of the community drug dealers and gang-bangers are the heroes to many of them, and unless they have an outlet or positive element in their lives, you can bet that Rikers Island will eventually be the place they call home. The Rockaway Panthers Football Program is an outlet that can help make the difference.

With a program as wonderful as this, it is an absolute shame that they are having a difficult time obtaining funding. John, along with other members of the coaching staff, point out that they have to rely on small contributions from community businesses. However, as kind as the merchants have been to the program through their donations, they are not meeting the projected amount needed each year to effectively run the program.

"It’s really disheartening to see these kids enter the program and I know that I may not be able to keep it going or would have to scale it down. It’s just not right, and it’s really unfair to the kids," John states.

Coach Zabala notes that he has gone to many of the local politicians, such as Congressman Gregory Meeks and Assemblywoman Pauline Rhodd-Cummings to ask for funding, but no money has been provided to the program to date.

"It’s amazing to me how there is money to go around for other local sports organizations, but somehow we are always passed over. This program has survived because I have actually paid for some of these kids to be in the program when their parents could not afford it. I did it because they deserve to have a chance, but it’s getting to the point where I can no longer do that. It’s time for Meeks and Cummings to show me the money," replied the Coach.

I can verify the statements made by Coach Zabala. I have attended a number of town hall meetings where Meeks and Cummings, or those sent to represent them, have boldly stated that they will provide the funding necessary to help the program flourish. They have not received one thin dime in support, but another prominent coach in the area has received over $40,000 in funding from one or both political representatives. With this kind of money being thrown around, there should definitely be enough to go around for other sports organizations like the Panthers.

If Meeks, Cummings or any other local representative were to come out and witness the heart and soul of these kids, it may give them more incentive to act on the Panther’s behalf.

A program that serves as a sanctuary from crime and negative behavior deserves to succeed. For every kid that is not allowed to take part in this program, and others like it, they run the risk of becoming affiliated with the community drug lords and gangs.

The more this is allowed to happen, I can assure you Congressman Meeks and Assemblywoman Cummings, it will not bode well with those who put you in office or the children who need this program.

If you would like to contribute to the Far Rockaway Panthers Football Team, please contact them at (718) 318- 4990.

See you next week!

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