For the Bronx Buccaneers, a Norwood-based youth football program, the mission means more than the game.
In the last 11 years, the club has found itself functioning more as a vehicle for cultivating the lives of young athletes, and espousing life lessons intended to enhance critical thinking and athletic abilities.
The program throws a veil on the students, general manager Tasha Andrews admits proudly, saying the sport is used to “develop responsibility and focus” for the program’s boys and girls.
Andrews calls the program a bridge that brings players “together and to focus on creating young men who are going to be active and positive members in society; to have love for their community; to have pride in where they come from and to have unity.”
And even in the face of seasonal hurdles (the team occasionally practices without adequate lights in the fall), the Buccaneers, or “Bucs” for short, seem to get by.
Bucs head coach and owner Dennis O’Neal, a Norwood resident for more than 20 years, says the players’ coming-of-age path starts the moment they hit the field. “Team discipline comes first and individual discipline comes second,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal once coached the Harlem Giants of the Pioneer League in the Concourse section of the Bronx, but the team dissolved after construction of the new Yankee Stadium on the Giants’ home field at Macombs Dam Park. “The location was great because of the subway and buses,” O’Neal said of the Concourse park. “There aren’t a lot of [football] fields in New York, so we ended up moving to the north Bronx.”
Forced to relocate, O’Neal left the Bucs in Norwood in 2006, sticking with the Pioneer League. The Bucs practice at Williamsbridge Oval Park, doubling as the home field. Players can be seen running drills Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The Bucs originally began as an 18 and under team called the Bronx Rebels. The team has a roster of 101 players and cheerleaders in four age divisions: 10 and under, 11- and 12-year olds, 13- and 14-year-olds, and 15- and 16-year-olds. Since then it has gone on to win several recognitions, including Program of the Year by league organizers in 2015.
Throughout the program’s inception, friendships have formed. “They always hang out at the park, practice or not, and are always there for each other,” O’Neal said. The mantra seems embedded in the team’s motto: “Once a Buc, always a Buc.”
The organization uses Facebook to promote itself and has recently partnered with St. Joseph’s School in Tremont and MS 80 in Norwood to directly recruit.
Recruitment is up, allowing staffers to watch their players grow and play a major role in their adolescence, which has been described as “amazing” and having a “serious” impact. Mentoring goes beyond the field. O’Neal frequently asks his players to bring their report cards, and periodically checks with players’ teachers to determine how well students are doing.
Life coaching is a common practice for Leslie Alvira, assistant general manager and Norwood resident. “The kids are staying off the street and can be productive and have a place to go,” she noted. “The best part is being so close [to Norwood] and seeing them outside of football. I go hard on them about being involved, doing positive stuff and staying out of trouble.”
Indeed, staffers have firsthand knowledge of what could happen if players go down the wrong path. One former player become involved with gang activities after leaving the Bucs and was arrested for his connection to a murder. “Up until that point [when he left], there were no issues with him,” Andrews said. “It was one of our biggest heartaches.”
An ongoing issue the Bucs face at the Oval is practicing with subpar lighting, forcing the team to move to DeWitt Clinton High School and to Evander Childs Educational Complex in the Olinville section of the Bronx.
“In the summertime it’s easy to practice, but in the fall we can’t go past a certain time,” O’Neal said. “We don’t want the kids playing [football] in the dark because it’s dangerous, and we also don’t want them in the park after dark.
The cost of new lights at Oval Park is estimated at $1.5 million, according to a figure the New York City Department of Parks provided to the Norwood News in November 2015.
“Not having lights is discouraging and disheartening because we consider Williamsbridge Oval our home,” Andrews said. “It might actually add a little more security with lights because of such a big abode of darkness in the middle of the community.”