Growing up, St. Petersburg City Council member Wengay Newton and his seven sisters and brothers participated in the St. Pete Li'l Devils Youth Football program.
"That (program) was the glue that held the neighborhood together. Those coaches were father figures for us," said Newton, who grew up in a single-parent household. "Mr. Cecil (Odom Sr.) coached me and my son. They (coaches) were the bedrock of the community."
This year, however, there will be no football for youngsters in the Campbell Park neighborhood. Citing a confluence of reasons, officials have decided to forgo the 2011 season.
In recent years, the Li'l Devils program fielded more than 500 players and cheerleaders ages 5 to 15.
But when only 70 participants signed up this year, league president Cecil Odom Jr., 61, was left with little choice.
Some families can't afford to pay the $35 fee, which is the lowest in the area. Other leagues charge up to $150. In some cases, players have been recruited by other leagues that provide scholarships and transportation. Another problem is that the program is losing some youths to the streets — in some instances to the drug trade.
The St. Pete Li'l Devils are part of the Pinellas Youth Football Conference, which has several leagues in south Pinellas.
The Li'l Devils program, the oldest in Midtown, was organized in 1969 and has been playing at Campbell Park, a stone's throw from Tropicana Field, since 1974.
League officials hope they can rebound next year and not face the same fate as the ThunderDome Little League baseball program, which served the same community and folded in 2003 after nine years because of low turnout and lack of community support.
To Odom, who is adamant about bringing the league back next year, the Li'l Devils program was more than just football. He and the other coaches were teaching the kids discipline and how to be good students and upstanding citizens in the community.
Word that the program is shutting down for a year was unsettling for Newton.
"I think it's tragic," said Newton, whose district includes Campbell Park.
Like Odom, he thinks local neighborhoods are losing youths to the street and crime.
Newton says that about 1,800 juveniles are booked annually. "We're locking up the babies."
Documents from the city's purchasing department show that the city pays about $10,000 a month to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office for booking juveniles in the county's detention center. In fiscal years 2009 and 2010, the city spent $185,000 and $200,000, respectively, just for booking juveniles.
It is unclear how many of those juveniles came from Campbell Park and nearby neighborhoods, but the numbers are daunting.
Other leagues in St. Petersburg don't appear to have problems with turnout. In recent weeks, I've driven by the Lakewood Complex on 31st Street S and Bartlett Park along 22nd Street S, and crowds were overflowing into traffic.
Newton said the other leagues in the Pinellas Youth Football Conference "are going to have to come out of their silos and work together."
Citing a disconnect with the youth in the community, Odom would like to have a forum to create a dialogue for young people to be heard.
"By the time we stop to listen to our youth, we're talking to them through bars — in a cage," he said. And that doesn't sit well with the retired counselor with the state Department of Children and Families.
Odom hopes to turn a negative into a positive. "Instead of this being viewed as a negative, I view it as an opportunity to reach out and help our youth."
"We need to spend time with these kids. You can spend time with them at an awards ceremony, a football game, the jail or the cemetery. For the parents, it's all about where you want to spend that time," he said.
Odom said the killing of police Officer David Crawford jolted the community.
He knows the teenager who is accused of the murder. "I knew he was a troubled kid," said Odom. "I tried talking to him just weeks before it happened."
Odom said he noticed that Nicholas Lindsey's behavior had gotten progressively worse. "He went from a quiet, shy kid to 'Don't step on my toes.' "
Soon after the shooting, more than 200 adults in the neighborhood, including police officers, stopped by Campbell Park, offering to help and providing contact information. "When I figure out what we should do, I'll be calling each person in that notebook," he said.
"What can I do for these children? They need us."
Sandra J. Gadsden is assistant metro editor, community news. She can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8874.