2001-12-08 / Columnists

From the G-Man

By Gary G. Toms
Pride of The Panthers

Hey people! I have to tell you that I am really excited about the Far Rockaway Panthers making the playoffs. I have thoroughly enjoyed the games as a spectator and as a journalist. It’s been a wonderful experience watching parents and children of all ages show up at games in support of the teams. The Panther teams have created a loyal following heading into the playoffs, and they have also created something that is seldom seen in the Rockaway community these days. It’s called unity.

Back in September, when the season was just starting, I met the coaches for the Pee Wee and Junior Pee Wee teams. John Zabala and Bill Blakely told me how they have been working with kids in the age range of eight to eleven since 1994. As the years passed, it became more and more of a challenge to find funding to keep the program going. Zabala even came close to losing his own house because he was paying team expenses out if his own pocket in effort to keep the program going. Both coaches have also had to cut kids from the program over the years because there just wasn’t enough money to facilitate many of the new players. They have applied for various grants and sold refreshments during the games as a way of gaining financial support for the Panther program.

Assemblywoman Pauline Rhodd-Cummings has earmarked money for the program, but for some strange reason the money has been held up at the state level for years. I feel confident that the Assemblywoman has put forth every effort to help the teams, and at this point all she can do is follow up to see that the funds are released. She has assured me that her office will be doing that. Other political representatives have not given me assurances of any kind, and perhaps the changing of the guard at City Hall will have a dramatically positive financial impact on the future of the Far Rockaway Panthers.

It is simply amazing that despite these hardships, the teams now find themselves in the playoffs, with a strong possibility of playing for the championship. It is especially remarkable in the case of the Junior Pee Wee team because they had no prior knowledge of the game or each other. They are mostly minority children from the poorest sections of Rockaway, where the drug dealer on the corner is an example of the American dream for many kids.

These teams use jerseys and helmets from teams of previous years, while most of their opponents take the field with brand new equipment.

The Panther teams play their home games at Bayswater State Park, which is worn, charred and full of broken glass, and when they travel to an "away" game, they often play in communities where the fields are very well kept or immaculate.

The Panther teams often have to scramble to find ways to get to games outside of Far Rockaway, and if it were not for the sheer love and dedication of coaches and parents, cramming the players into several small cars, they would not be able to play on any given Sunday. Their opponents have the luxury of bus service to and from each game they play away from home.

I’m making these points for one simple reason. The Panther teams have found a way to prosper through all of these hardships. The kids show up for practice each week. They show up for games each Sunday, and they play their little hearts out. They don’t do it because they have to. They do it because they want to. No matter how banged up or bruised, they take the field with a sense of purpose and pride. This ethic comes from good parenting, coaching and guidance, and it has gotten the Panthers to the point where they are now.

I have stood on the sidelines as opponents teased them endlessly about their uniforms and their heights. The Junior Pee Wee team is quite small. What the opponents didn’t realize was that these little guys have heart, and they eventually found this out with each hit a Panther player delivered. No team, in either league, is laughing at the Panthers now.

This weekend, both teams will start the second season, and to me, it really doesn’t matter how it all ends. I have never been prouder of a group of young boys like I am of the Far Rockaway Panthers. I hope that the coming year will provide them with financial blessings, so that the legacy can be maintained. The program is great for the kids; it’s great for building character; but most of all, it’s damn great for the Far Rockaway community. Go Panthers!!!

See you next week.

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