After a two-hour practice in Anacostia Park, Coach Antonio “Tony” Backus and assistant coaches of the recently formed Anacostia Steelers huddled up nearly two dozen preteens to critique and evaluate their performance in a seven-on-seven passing drill. “Clap it up!” commanded an assistant coach as players passed around water bottles among themselves. “I’ve seen hard work and dedication. I’ve seen teammates helping each other up when three weeks ago you would have been bare-knuckle brawling.”
The formation of the Steelers this year is an outgrowth of the Anacostia AMP Outreach and Empowerment Center founded by Aummett Paige, a Ward 8 native and retired nonprofit administrator. A woman of faith, Paige says she was “commissioned by God to do this work.”
As a test of Paige’s spirit and the nascent football team, within recent weeks Anacostia and adjacent neighborhoods have been beset by outbursts of daylight gunfire, a deadly drug epidemic and increasing concerns over the impact of planned development.
Originally using fields at Ketcham Elementary School on 15th Street SE, this spring, when construction began on a new playground, the Steelers relocated to a National Park Service parcel at 16th and Butler streets. During an evening practice, a gun battle erupted across the street between rival factions which precipitated a move to Anacostia Park. “We had nearly 150 kids before the shooting,” says Backus. “We’re now down to half that.”
With the new playground complete, the Steelers returned to Ketcham, which has opened an early childhood development center this school year. “At Ketcham Elementary School, we pride ourselves on providing our students with rigorous, joyful learning experiences before, during and after the regular school day,” says Principal Maisha Riddlesprigger. “I am happy to welcome Tony, a Ketcham parent, to help us take that commitment a step further by giving our students, and other young people in our community, a safe and engaging environment to learn skills to use not only on the football field but also in the classroom and in life.”
After practicing throughout the summer with nothing more than a couple of footballs, the Steelers have recently secured equipment from a local nonprofit, Level the Playing Field (LPF), and the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR).
“Level the Playing Field works to collect and distribute sports equipment donations to low-income kids throughout the DMV through their schools, leagues and after school programs,” says Executive Director Maitlyn Healy. “Working with all of our beneficiaries is so important to our mission and we love supporting Ward 7 and 8 programming. Since we began working together in March, LPF has donated equipment to Anacostia AMP.”
One of the largest barriers to entry into sports for working-class families is the cost of equipment, says Healy. Most leagues charge a fee for travel, facilities, coaches and uniforms, putting the cost of equipment beyond the discretionary budgets of many families. There is a small registration fee for each child with DPR but there is no cost to join the Steelers
Coach Backus, working with a volunteer network of coaches, parents and community members, has organized teams in four age groups: Six and Under, for ages five and six; Eight and Under, for ages seven and eight; Ten and Under, for ages nine and 10, and Twelve and Under, for ages 11 and 12.
The Steelers’ season will start on Sept. 8 with home games held at Anacostia High School.
In building philanthropic support for Anacostia, Paige has approached familiar faces including Jasmine Lyle, branch manager of Andrews Federal Credit Union in the Henson Ridge neighborhood. “While servicing Ms. Paige and gaining a better understanding of her organization I was inspired by her passion for community service and determination to make a difference with the youth of Anacostia,” says Lyle. “She is really putting her feet on the ground.”
In addition to providing a startup grant to the Steelers, Lyle says, “We may attend some games one week and sponsor the costs of food another week. Andrews plans to be a continued partner to help empower the community.”
Paige has been able to secure support from several community-based organization such as Bread for the City. The organization has received initial backing from Redbrick LMD, developers of the east campus of St. Elizabeths, and has partnered with the Skyland Development Team, represented by Rappaport and WC Smith as co-developers of Skyland Town Center along with Washington East Foundation and Skyland DC.
“We are proud to contribute to such an inspirational organization and support a program that provides enjoyment and instills discipline and pride in the youth of the community,” says Jarnell Swecker, vice president of marketing for Rappaport and a member of the Skyland development team.
How to Support the Anacostia Steelers
Those interested in volunteering or assisting the Anacostia Steelers please email firstname.lastname@example.org. If interested in volunteering or assisting Level the Playing Field, please email email@example.com or visit www.levelingtheplayingfield.org/.