On a warm summer afternoon at the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Community Center in Central Harlem, 9-year-old Quanisha Griffin, cradling a football seemingly too large for her tiny hands, is confidently calling out a snap count in a high-pitched tone.
As she drops back to pass, Griffin, barely standing 5-feet tall, suddenly tucks the pigskin under her right arm and scampers down the basketball court that serves as their practice field.
To Griffin’s right is her best buddy, Dayshawna Carter, herself a pint-sized blur, eagerly waving her right hand to signal that she’s open. But too late! Griffin is already in Michael Vick mode, dodging anyone who dares to try to contain her.
While the NFL continues to experience a protracted lockout, the Harlem Knights are diligently preparing for their upcoming season, which is still two months away from commencing. “They practice like they have a game tomorrow,” said Tina McCline proudly.
The hands-on McCline founded the Knights in 1999 as an outlet for her son Rashiem, as well as his friends, who were conducting informal games among themselves on some of Harlem’s narrow side streets.
“Some of these kids have never even played football before coming to us,” she says, motioning to the nearly two dozen boys and girls, ages 8 through 15, engaging in an intense practice session. The Knights are members of the Youth Military Football League, under the expansive umbrella of USA Football. They alternate their practices between Jefferson Park in East Harlem and the Kennedy Center, as coaches and a host of parents are ever-present.
“We’re like a family,” said a smiling Jules Rhodes, pausing to speak with a reporter in the midst of conducting demanding footwork drills. A former free safety at Buffalo State, Rhodes, a current Knights coach, maintained the organization was his path to college. “I started with the Knights when I was very young,” shared Rhodes, now 24.
“A lot of other kids from my neighborhood were just hanging out on the streets, but playing for the Knights ultimately led me to Cardinal Hayes [High School] and then college. Now I’m giving back to these kids the way Tina and other coaches gave their time to me.”
It’s not just about football emphasized McCline. “We provide academic support as well as college tours,” she said. “Our goal is to shape well-rounded youth.”