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By: Kate Beispel, Graham Dickie, and Lucas Lostoski
It so happened that the first football game of the year was occurring on one of Austin’s hottest days of the summer. The heat simmered off both the artificial turf and the black rubber of the track surrounding the field.
But the hellish weather conditions did not fit the mood for the day. For the newly-minted Reagan Football Academy and its 16 youth football players, today was a cause for celebration. Today the Reagan coaching staff would figure out if their two months of preparation had paid off.
They had scrambled to assemble their roster. Head Coach Kelton Malone spent much of his summer at East Austin recreation centers recruiting players and selling parents on his vision. At first, he met resistance and doubted whether he would even find enough interested kids to field a team.
His team certainly looked like a real football team today– all of the players wearing their Carolina blue jerseys over their shoulder pads, their heads adorned with white helmets that matched their pants.
Excited chatter could be heard during the pregame stretching:
“First game coming!”
“We got this!”
“Let’s get this ‘W’ and just keep getting ‘W’s!’”
The game did not go as well as the team had anticipated. It was a brutal 90-minute slugfest that ended with Reagan defeated 19-6.
After the game, the winded Reagan Raiders assembled along the sideline on one knee. Carl Frye, the Vice President of the Westlake Football Academy – Reagan Football Academy is a subsidiary of the Westlake Football Academy – spoke to the team.
“How many kids in your neighborhood are playing tackle football?” Frye said. “You gotta own that, you gotta respect that, and you gotta be proud to be a Reagan Football Academy player.”
The Westlake Football Academy is an early development program that begins training football players and cheerleaders as young as first grade. The goal is to familiarize young athletes with each other and the concepts utilized by the high school football coaches in order to make the team more competitive in the future.
For the first time ever, kids living in the Reagan High School area will have a similar opportunity.
“The idea of a feeder system in youth football – to me, it’s genius.” Reagan High School football coach Keith Carey said. “It’s going to bring us back to where we used to be 10, 20 years ago when kids knew where they were going to go to school and the heartbeat of the community was strong.”
Carey left McCallum High School, also in Austin, TX, four years ago in order to head the football program at Reagan. He knew it would be a tough task – nearly monumental. He inherited a team that had gone 9-71 in the eight seasons before his arrival. In addition, many of his players faced economic hardship and had larger worries than whether or not the team was winning.
“[At first] people laughed at us and expected to score 70 or 80 points every time they played us” Carey said.
In Carey’s first three seasons at Reagan, his team won three games. Last year, they made the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
Carey described the feeling in Texas on Friday nights as “electric.” Shows like “Friday Night Tykes” on Esquire Network expose the crazed culture behind youth football in Texas. Carthage High School located in Carthage, TX spent upwards of $750,000 on a scoreboard, and voters in McKinney, Texas recently approved a bond that included the construction of a $63 million high school football stadium. Meanwhile, Carey is forced to work with a relatively small $12,000 budget and relies heavily on donations from the Booster Club. His budget was $6,000 when he arrived at Reagan.
“It’s no secret that facilities and resources are a key to any program being very good,” Carey said. “We don’t want people to feel sorry for us, but there are inequalities in sports, in high school football here in Central Texas, and everywhere, and it’s something that matters.”
Football academies and other development clinics for youth are a vital aspect to a successful and competitive high school sports program. However, these don’t come cheap.
The Westlake Football Academy approached Carey with the idea of creating a league where kids from all over Austin would have an opportunity to play each other, while creating a consistent and strong feeder program for the East Side.
Reagan Football Academy might one day strengthen football skills in East Austin at the high school level, and help bridge the resource gap that exists for students on the different sides of town.
Enter Kelton Malone.
Malone, head coach of the Reagan Football Academy, can be seen standing on the practice field, wearing his hat backwards and a smile that never leaves his face. He is an unrelenting optimist, despite the multiple difficulties that have come with building a team in Northeast Austin.
Malone notes that it is often tough to get 100 percent attendance to his practices that he holds three nights a week at Reagan High School. Since some of his players’ families don’t have internet access or a cell phone, he has to be mindful about how he communicates.
“I do this thing where I call every parent on the team every day to tell them about the practice because it is the only way to get any peace of mind that I will get 100 percent attendance, and even then we don’t get 100 percent attendance all the time,” Malone said.
Malone often drives two to three kids to practice, and he’ll often drive three to four kids back home.
The immediate goal of the program is to simply finish the year with a sixth grade tackle team and build from there. In richer areas, participation on various sports teams is often taken for granted, whereas in poorer areas, time and money are big deterrents, according to Carey.
“If we have kids that are growing up in a system where they are not receiving the same things that other kids are, it is not okay,” Carey said. “I’m here to be an advocate for my school and my community.”
The shadows descend upon the Reagan practice field as the sun sets for the night. The field is dark, except for the faint glow of street lamps coming from the parking lot.
Malone calls his team together in the end zone. Surrounding them are multiple fire ant hills, which dot the field.
In the distance behind Malone, beyond the chain-link fence that separates the field from the school’s campus, is the large athletic building. At the top of the building the school’s motto is spelled out in gothic lettering: “Not Without Honor.”
As the moon begins to rise on the practice, Kelton tells his team to stand up. They raise their hands to the sky together.
“Reagan on three,” he says.
The team responds:
“One! Two! Three! Reagan!”