A youth football team from Reisterstown competing at the World Youth Championship in Canton, Ohio, this weekend has the support of dozens of fans, including at least one Ravens player.
“From the athletes I saw, they should be pretty good,” said wide receiver Willie Snead IV, who met the Reisterstown Mustangs during an autograph session at an area restaurant. “I heard they had a pretty good record. I definitely expect them to take advantage of the opportunity because they didn’t have it before and they’re blessed with this one. So I just expect them to handle their business.”
The Mustangs’ 11-and-under team took a six-hour bus ride Thursday to the Pro Football Hall of Fame where the championships are being held and opened their schedule that night against the Crunchtime Seminoles from Missouri.
“I’ve been dreaming about this for a long time,” said right guard Timmy Johns, an 11-year-old sixth grader at Westminster Middle School. “And I’ve been playing football since I was 4.”
Just reaching this stage seemed an unlikely proposition after the Mustangs’ six teams were banned from the Carroll County Youth Football and Cheer League in October. At the time, the league issued a vaguely worded statement about “behavioral concerns,” but parents and fans of the Mustangs, who are majority black, said racism might have played a role in the decision by the league, in which the 10 other members are majority white organizations.
Media coverage of the Mustangs’ plight brought widespread attention, and the players and coaches were invited by Morgan State to watch a home game against Delaware State on Nov. 10 as well as attend the autograph session with Snead. They also received trophies from the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland and 92.3 WERQ-FM, where they were taken for a tour and introduced themselves on-air.
Marquita M. Melvin, the Mustangs’ president, said the squad has sought to put the controversial end to their season in the Carroll County league in the past.
“We’ve just been moving forward,” Melvin said from the bus carrying the team. “We’re trying to leave that ugliness in the past and making sure that wasn’t the end of their season, making sure that the last thing they experienced was not someone treating them badly.”
The organization’s predicament soon caught the attention of John Bittner, the co-director of the Frederick Storm, another youth football program in Frederick County. As one of three directors of the Maryland Hall of Fame World Youth Championship team, Bittner brought the Mustangs’ case before World Youth Championship officials and convinced them to grant the Mustangs a “scholarship” to avoid qualifying via regional tournaments so they could proceed immediately to the championships.
“We saw this story, and it could have ended really negatively,” Bittner said. “But we really wanted their story to be highlighted in a positive way, and if there was any way to do that in any way, shape or form, we were hoping that we’d be able to do that. I think just the fact that they’re going to the Hall of Fame and are going to have this sort of experience, it’s an impact on these kids.”
Faced with a price tag of more than $8,000 for the bus to Canton, lodging and meals, the Mustangs set up a GoFundMe page and raised funds in various communities. Their efforts were rewarded when Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis made a $1,000 donation, sparking a surge that pushed them to the amount they needed.
Melvin said parents and coaches were encouraged by the kindness of strangers.
“People would just come up to you and say, ‘I heard you’re from that team,’ and they would hand you money or put it in your donation jar,” she said. “It’s been overwhelmingly supportive, and that’s meant a lot to us, and it’s definitely meant a lot to the kids.”
The Mustangs can now concentrate on the Xs and Os. Utilizing a spread offense and a 3-5-3 base defense, the 11-and-under squad went 9-0 in the regular season. Assistant coach Daniel Holmes said the team played in a tournament in Delaware two weeks ago, but lost in the title game.
“We understand the challenge ahead of us,” said Holmes, who along with assistant Daniel Johns backs up head coach Michael Gibson. “We are the only team out of Maryland going to compete in this tournament. So we are proud to represent Maryland.”
Bittner noted that the Mustangs, who are playing in the unlimited weight division, will compete against some of the best teams that advanced through regional tournaments from around the country.
“We don’t know how successful they will be, but we also know that the overall experience of just going to the Hall of Fame and being around all of the great teams from the nation will be a great way for them to end their season,” he said. “Whether or not they win a game or win the championship, I think them just going is a testament to what we’re trying to do here.”
Count Snead as one fan who is hoping for a successful outing for the Mustangs. He said the Mustangs have demonstrated how to overcome adversity.
“When I met them, I heard about their story and how unfortunate it was,” he said. “But when I met every kid, they were so genuine and humble. They were obviously upset, but I just kept telling them that things don’t always go your way in life, but if you just keep positive vibes and a good mindset, things will happen, and obviously it did. That’s pretty amazing.”