A New Mission in City League football

New Mission football kicked off its first varsity football season this year, marking the first new team to join the Boston City League since 1979. Courtesy of Donald Rockhead

In the middle of the Canada geese, the girls’ soccer team and the afternoon walking clubs, there is football again at Ross Field in Hyde Park. The New Mission Titans, a team comprised of students from New Mission High School and Boston Collegiate Leadership Academy, coached by Michael Pittman, are practicing as the first newly formed Boston Public School football team since 1979, when the previously co-ed Boston Latin Academy fielded a squad for the gridiron.

“Generally speaking, our school has a ground-up, underdog mentality,” said Cory McCarthy, athletic director at New Mission.

McCarthy, also the school’s boys’ basketball coach, took his team from a vision to a state championship powerhouse and Division I college talent producer. That and all other sports programs at that bear the Titans’ logo have been raised from concept to reality.

New Mission has been down this road before, but this is different.

The city has not seen a new football team since 1979, a time when footballers from Madison Park, West Roxbury and Dorchester High Schools were proud to represent the city as they competed against suburban teams in size, skill and coaching. Between METCO program students who are bused to Greater Boston’s suburban schools, college preparatory and private schools that recruit top-tier talent from the Pop Warner programs and the general plight that struck urban centers in the 80s and 90s, the talent being honed in the city has dwindled.

In that climate, McCarthy has seized the chance to make a statement about his school and the new city. It’s part of a vision of a new generation of educational and political leaders who strive to make Boston better through extracurricular activities. In change, those like McCarthy hope the offerings will encourage families to stay and raise their families in Boston, as well as attracting others who want to live in the city but may have turned to the suburbs before.

“We don’t want our kids going to college saying that they never had a football team, a part of the total high school experience,” McCarthy said as the dust from practice play kicked up in the middle of the field and swept across the former cow pasture. “That’s my dream, for our kids to say that they’ve had the total high school experience, to be able to say that they’ve participated in social clubs, have a debate team and sports are a part of that experience.”

The journey to realizing the dream of football has not been an easy one. As a pilot school, they are considered a Boston Public School, but for purposes of fundraising and curriculum development, they have semi-autonomy. In the case of bringing about New Mission football, the independence worked against the school as they are required to raise the funds necessary to outfit and transport the upstart team. In a time where towns across the Commonwealth are charging for varsity athletics and cancelling extramural sports due to lack of funding – be it from loss of tax revenue or diversion of funds to focus on academic rigor – starting a brand new football program is uncommon.

“The real value of football in the inner city is to keep these kids straight and narrow,” said Pittman, a former Arena Football league player with coaching experience at Cathedral High School, Jeremiah E. Burke and semi-pro football teams. “My goal is to show these players that football correlates to life. If something can go wrong in your life, there is a parallel issue on the football field. If you don’t make a tackle or a block during a game, those may cost you a win, but the stakes are higher off the field. Missed opportunities and lack of discipline can cost you your life.”

Some of the young men show they have experience, having played in various Pop Warner programs around the city or transferred from schools where they’d played football. Others, although having practiced under the tutelage of Pittman and his staff, haven’t mastered the standard stances and cadences.

Still, all of the players seem to be excited, attentive and at least willing to learn what they do not already know so that they can be a contributing member to the newly minted football team.

New Mission has started its inaugural season 0-3. But Pittman still sees the program going in the right direction. He laughs at folks who are worried about the record.

The stakes are high in the city for dedicated athletes, but on-field wins and losses are not the most pressing issues they face.

Survival is.

“Sports are one of the things in the city that won’t get you killed,” Pittman said. “No athletes are walking the streets getting killed because people respect what these kids are out here doing.”