Fewer than 50 New York City public high schools have varsity football teams. Space in the city is limited and resources are often hard to come by, so thousands of fine student athletes miss out on one of America's favorite pastimes.
But the Jets, who visited I.S. 204 (Oliver Wendell Holmes) in Queens this week, are on a mission to provide more football opportunities for the city's children.
In a groundbreaking moment that bodes well for the future, Jets president Jay Cross and DE Shaun Ellis presented a $50,000 check to city schools chancellor Joel Klein on Tuesday. Finding a teammate in the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) Charitable Foundation, the Jets and the Department of Education (DOE) have helped support the C.H.A.M.P.S. Middle School Flag Football League and 75 schools will participate.
"Experienced teaching will give students the proper technique and the skills to go on to the next level," Cross said. "It is our hope that this league will be a quality feeder league for high school football and we can bring football back to its preeminent position in the Northeast."
Cross and Klein have a relationship based on respect and admiration. Since 2001, they have worked together on a variety of Public School Athletic League projects, including Heads Up! — the reconditioning of every helmet in the PSAL.
Also, the Jets have supported eight new and developmental PSAL programs. New York's AFC representative has hosted PSAL high school football coaches at team practices, created "Captain's Day" for the league's football team captains to spend a day at training camp each summer, and honored its football champions at a selected home game during the NFL season.
"Jay and others at the Jets really wanted to get football back into the school," Klein said. "They've supported some of our programs and they've been a really terrific partner for us."
"The chancellor's a huge football fan, so we've had him out to Jets games every season and he suggested we get involved in high school football," said Cross. "It's always great to get that kind of leadership and it makes that communication easier. He is a great, great asset to this city."
Ellis, who has spent his entire eight-year career in New York, continues to be a pillar in the community. He was active at I.S. 204 following the check presentation, playing quarterback when the kids ran through station drills and then acting as an all-time QB during a game inside the gymnasium.
"I had a good completion percentage until the kid picked me off and ran it back for a touchdown," Ellis said. "It was fun to play with the kids and interact with them, see their attitude and how exciting it is to play football."
Both Kevin Green Jr. and Carrissa Whittington were impressed by Ellis' presence — they had never seen a man quite the size of the 6'5", 285-pounder. Even though Kevin's favorite sport is baseball and Carissa's top love is hoops, they consider themselves multisport athletes who would like to see this new program succeed.
"I love all football. If they played tackle, I would play that, too," Carrissa said. "Hopefully they will continue to do it."
"They should keep on doing it. It's fun for the kids," Kevin said. "It's fun for people who play flag football. If you don't, just try it out and you'll have fun."
The C.H.A.M.P.S. program — the acronym stands for Cooperative, Healthy, Active, Motivated, Positive Students — features traditional and non-traditional sports and fitness activities. The Jets' involvement in flag football means there will be 75 programs this year instead of 20.
"C.H.A.M.P.S. was designed three years ago and it's about increasing physical education before and after the school day," said Lori Rose Benson, the DOE's director of the office of fitness and health education. "It's open to all students regardless of physical ability. It's really about helping kids find their niche so they can get excited about physical activity and hopefully incorporate it into their daily lives."
The enhanced flag program is off to a fantastic start. During an interview with Benson, a small group of children belted out the J-E-T-S chant.
"You hear from right behind me that it's a pretty exciting atmosphere," she said.
"It means so much when football players come and talk to these kids," Klein said. "You can see it. The excitement is palpable."
Before leaving for the afternoon, Ellis took the jersey off his back, signed it and handed it over to the youngster who earlier intercepted him. The Anderson, S.C., native wasn't worried about the turnover. In fact, he'd like to see more big plays at public schools throughout New York City.
"The Jets have really stepped up to the challenge to make it happen. It took a lot of people and a lot of work to push this thing through," Ellis said. "High school football where I come from is like a major sport. 'Friday Night Lights' — there's nothing like it in the world. It's the ultimate feeling you get, a rush. It would be good to see these kids to be able to experience that."