Metro Youth Football sign-ups
5-7 p.m. Friday at Bunche Elementary, Towles Intermediate School, Brewer Park, McCormick Park, Fairfield Elementary, Village Middle School, Kettler Park, Weisser Park, McMillen Park, Tillman Park.
8:30 a.m.-Noon at Weisser Park Recreational Center
Provided by Chi Eta Phi Nursing Sorority and African American Health Care Alliance
When the Metro Midget Football League started in 1974, the organizers never dared guess how many dreams it would help Fort Wayne children fulfill. They were just trying to provide an opportunity for kids to be the best they could be.
"Our primary focus has not been football, but providing the leadership so that the children believe in themselves," founder Jim Winters said.
Now, as Metro Youth Sports celebrates its 40th anniversary football season, the organization has been around so long and been so successful, it's easy to take it for granted.
It's too easy to point to alums like Trei Essex, Bernard Pollard, Rod Woodson, Vaughn Dunbar, Lamar Smith and James Hardy who all played in the NFL and say Metro has been a successful football program. There are probably 10 current players ages 7 to 12 who might have a chance to follow them, too.
But that's too easy, and missed the broader picture of how effective the organization has been. It's so much bigger than football and has meant so much to Fort Wayne that the effects are almost immeasurable.
There's no way to quantify all the teachers, coaches, lawyers, doctors and business owners who were sparked for the first time by Metro coaches who told them they could be anything they wanted. All they had to do was try.
"I didn't just learn the game I learned how to become a better man," said Javon Barnes, Fort Wayne Community Schools' Student Admissions & Programs Coordinator. "Those coaches mentored me. I had a ton of father figures along with my dad. That is something I'll never forget.
"The life lessons that we learned back then are what we can pass down to the future generations. I remember I wanted to quit football because I got hit too hard and I was sore and all that. Neal Simmons our coach said if you are going to quit, you are just going to quit in life. I didn't quit and I had a pretty decent career."
Barnes grew up as Javon Witherspoon and played college and eventually a little professional football, too.
"They taught us at a young age to be responsible and work hard and we could achieve anything," South Side teacher and assistant coach Walter Raines said. "We were never told that because such and such is a better athlete that we couldn't be good at something. The only way to achieve was to work hard and take no shortcuts. And it wasn't just on the athletic side, either."
Virtually every male in Raines' family has or currently coaches in Metro. About 40 percent of the current Metro coaches played in the league, as did a large percentage of Summit Athletic Conference coaches.
Jason Barnes, Javon's cousin, still uses the things he learned from Metro as a scout with the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. He understood very early that Metro coaches weren't concerned about developing football players as they were with making men.
"They taught the toughness part and the mental aspect, too," he said. "More than anything Metro made us more mentally strong because of the way we were coached and the way our coaches brought everything back to life situations. You didn't feel entitled to anything. You had to earn it."
Of the league's original founders, Jim Winters and Tom Macon are the only ones left, but everyone involved picked up the chance from John Autry, Eugene White and Archie Lunsey who started with four teams and then grew to eight and now more than 30. Cheerleading and basketball were added.
"In the 40 years serving the youth in the Fort Wayne area, we have learned that recreation and physical activities are particularly important to helping the youth understand the realities of life in their transition to adulthood," a Metro flyer says.
As Metro celebrates its 40th anniversary, more than 12,000 children have participated and another group is just starting.
There are still a lot of opportunities and dreams to encourage.