CARROLLWOOD — Parents and young football hopefuls from Carrollwood to East Tampa are struggling to begin their summer youth leagues after thieves stole thousands of dollars in equipment from two separate organizations.
In East Tampa, almost 200 children sign up to play football for the Highland Pines Cougars every season.
Coaches, parents and children hold bake sales, wash cars and sell dinners to raise money for uniforms and equipment. The extra funds keep registration costs down, making it affordable for more families.
But in late May, someone broke into the team's storage shed and stole more than $2,000 worth of football gear. It was a crushing financial blow to the youth football program, which had just purchased new shoulder pads, footballs and kicking tees for the start of practice July 9.
"We took a tremendous hit," said Kelvin Williams, the Cougars' commissioner. "They just wiped us out."
Then just days later, north of the city, someone pilfered more than $6,000 worth of football equipment from the Carrollwood Cardinals' equipment room. Their season may be over before it even begins in July.
"Our budget is already planned out," said Daja Cook, assistant cheer coordinator for the Cardinals. "We had already bought new equipment. We're struggling to find sponsors. If we can't get the equipment, we probably won't have a season. We already have hundreds of kids registered for this year."
The Highland Pines theft took place May 23 or 24 at Highlands Park, 4504 E 21st Ave., according to Tampa Police reports.
Williams said he was at the park when a gust of wind blew open the door to the equipment shed. He thought it was odd, considering the door was supposed to have been padlocked.
Once he peeked inside, his heart sank.
Football helmets, shoulder pads, four new footballs, three new kicking tees, 100 new belts, one repair kit, 24 ear pieces and three kicking blocks were gone. Williams had sorted the gear by size. It appears the culprits picked through the contents, he said.
The equipment was for the kids, who range in age from 5 to 14 and make up four teams. The program supplies the players with game uniforms, shoulder pads, helmets, belts and socks. Parents pay a $50 early registration fee and are responsible for buying their child a pair of cleats and a seven-piece pad set.
Stunned, Williams called the league president and reported the theft to authorities.
Patricia Hoyte, whose 10-year-old son, Terrence Wise II, plays for the Cougars, said parents and children are upset.
"Times are hard," Hoyte said. "A lot of parents are living paycheck to paycheck. (The theft) is putting more strain on the parents and for the kids who need it."
Meanwhile, the Carrollwood Cardinals find themselves in a similar situation, although Tampa Police said the two incidents are not necessarily related.
Between May 26 and 29, someone cut through two padlocks to gain access to the equipment room, which is attached to the concession stand at Perio Field, 2119 W Perio St.
The Cardinals' $6,000 in stolen equipment included 50 new helmets and 60 shoulder pads. With supplies for more than 200 kids who play in five divisions, the gear came in all sizes. The thief swiped the new equipment in larger sizes, leaving the extra-small items behind, Cook said.
"The fact that someone would come in and take from a youth organization, it's really discouraging," Cook said. "All the hard work our board, coaches and parents put in . . . it's like going to waste."
Tampa police were still investigating the thefts early this week and had not made any arrests.
Some see a bright spot, however. Representatives from schools and other organizations have contacted both youth programs and are working to replace what they lost. While nothing has been firmed up yet, the outpouring of community support has brought the volunteers a renewed enthusiasm.
"It makes us feel good," Cook said. "We're more pumped about this season knowing people are willing to step up and help us."
As a result, the Cardinals plan to host a free Family Day event July 21 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Perio Field. Also, the team is going forward with registrations as planned and will sign up kids ages 4 to 14 every Saturday this month.
The Cougars will also register youth throughout the summer.
Hoyte said her son was hurt when he heard the news and wanted to know why someone would do such a thing.
She used the opportunity to explain to him how the group must now rally together to raise money to salvage the season. She also shared the phone calls of support from the community.
"You just keep your head up and stay in good spirits," she said. "Something will come through."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.