When the South Side Wolfpack youth football team qualified for the national championships, the players were not sure they could attend. The program was short on money for travel and hotel expenses.
But it didn’t take long for a GoFundMe campaign to raise over $44,000 for the 13-and-under football team, surpassing their goal by $15,000. The players are now packing for Kissimmee, Florida, where the team will compete with seven teams from across the country.
“I’m ready. I’ve been preparing the whole season to get up to this moment, to go play on a national stage against all the other teams,” said Charles Gray Jr., the team’s quarterback.
The Wolfpack cheerleading team, the Lady Wolves, will also compete for a national championship title in Tampa. The additional money means extra gear and equipment can be purchased, and there will be a visit to Universal Studios, according to Wolfpack coach Earnest Radcliffe.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go and play in the national championships,” Radcliffe said. “Anytime you can continue to put our student-athletes in a positive environment, it’s going to give them hope and continue to let their dreams flow.”
Radcliffe has been a Wolfpack coach for 24 years. He’s seen how sports put children from the South Side on a structured and disciplined path. The children he works with are as young as 6, and about 98% of his former students have gone on to graduate from college, he said.
“We always look for solutions as it relates to gun violence in Chicago, and I do believe sports is a key part of that,” said Early Walker, founder of anti-violence group I’m Telling, Don’t Shoot. “If it wasn’t for sports organizations, such as the Wolfpack, some of these kids would literally be falling through the cracks.”
Walker led a public campaign to raise money for the football team this week; he’s also organizing a send-off on Friday before the team leaves for Florida.
South Side Wolfpack heads into the championships with an 11-0 record this season. The South Side Wolfpack most recently beat the Cleveland Raider junior league team in the American Youth Football regional playoffs, securing the midwest regional champions title and an invite to the American Youth Football national championships.
The team previously caught the attention of former President Barack Obama. In June, Obama visited a team practice during which he congratulated the players on their success and encouraged them to apply their athletic training skills to their academics.
Devon Armstrong, 13, an outside linebacker and a defensive end, has been part of the program for eight years. “Most of the team has been together for over four or more years, so we’ve built very good brotherhood. We all go to each other’s houses,” Devon said.
He played on the team that qualified for the championships in 2019. Since then, he said, the team has only grown closer.
“We know what it takes and how to communicate now,” Devon said. “We were all younger, like 11 years old, and we’re still communicating at the same level but in more advanced ways. We know how to play each other. We know how to motivate each other.”