Leagues of their own

BOSTON -- When Mike Harney first made calls to various Boston middle schools to pitch his idea, he was promptly met with a dial tone.

"People thought I was some sort of lunatic, that I'd never be calling," he said. "Some secretary hung up on me. She said, 'No way you're calling about writing a check.' I remember her being like, 'Who are you? Why are you calling?' and I told her I had $15,000 I was about to grant out and I wanted to run this by the athletic department. All I got was 'Yeah, you're crazy.'"

But can you blame anyone for raising an eyebrow at the idea? Why would a Georgetown-educated man with a cushy VP job in the financial district want to fund a middle school sports league in the inner city?

By day, Harney, 32, a Concord native, is a senior vice president of institutional equity sales at the Boston branch of FBR Capital Markets. Off hours, he is chairman of the Play Ball! Foundation, a charity he founded in 2005 that focuses on expanding sports for middle school students in the Boston Public Schools system. The foundation has partnered with BPS and provides funding for leagues in four sports -- football, baseball, girls' volleyball and double dutch -- drawing teams from middle schools in Roxbury, Dorchester, Charlestown, Mission Hill and South Boston.

What started as a unique idea some seven years ago has blossomed into a 14-member board with an operation that costs roughly $400,000-$500,000 a year to run. The football league started four years ago with four teams and has sprung to 10, with the semifinals being played at Harvard Stadium.

"Anyone that's played sports growing up, anyone that has children involved in sports, they get it," Harney said. "The support has been unbelievable. The financial industry in particular is the reason why we're here. The financial industry has been overwhelmingly generous with getting us through the year, and we've been able to show continued support."

The relationship is straightforward: We fund, you run. Play Ball! provides the finances that fund the coaches, buses, equipment, uniforms and any other related needs. In turn, BPS is in charge of hiring coaches, locating fields, insurance liability, payroll (Play Ball! writes one check for the budget, which covers the coaches, referees, EMTs, etc.) and keeping track of mandatory attendance, grades, physicals and scheduling.

Play Ball! charges no fees to play and last year had more than 1,000 participants in its leagues. Students must maintain a C average in the classroom to be eligible to participate.

South Boston coach Sean Guthrie praised the program and its positive impact on students.

"Especially if they have to maintain a GPA, when they get to high school it's, 'Well, I have to get a certain grade to play football,' and they're used to it at the middle school level," he said. "It's keeping more kids active, because some kids can't pay the Pop Warner fee and some guys are too big to play."

It's not quite the Pop Warner crowd that the league draws. More often, it's kids who are picking up a sport for the first time, including immigrants. According to its website, 81 percent of participants in Play Ball!'s football league are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

It's often kids like Petroy Thompson, a sophomore offensive lineman for Brighton High, who find their way to Play Ball!

Thompson immigrated to Mattapan from Jamaica some five years ago having seen a different type of football (soccer) and with no gridiron experience.

Clocking in at a burly 310 pounds and unable to make weight for Pop Warner football, he gravitated to Play Ball!, where there is no weight limit, and found his attraction to the sport competing for Rogers Middle School. Now as a high-schooler tackling the tall task of balancing sports and academics, he is thankful for the early structure.

"I've always been a good kid, but school wasn't easy," Thompson said. "In high school, it's extremely difficult to do football and perform in the classroom. Middle school, just the early experience to doing both sports and schoolwork ... football disciplines a kid. If you really want it, you'll do what it takes."

Brighton coach Randolph Abraham noted the varsity readiness of his incoming freshmen from Play Ball! and how many of them see the season through rather than quit.

"There's a lot of schools, like Edison [in Brighton], that don't currently have many fall sports," Abraham said. "If they can expand to other middle schools, it will definitely benefit all the BPS schools. There are kids that don't get the exercise needed to be fit and don't play other sports like Pop Warner, so they're really not able to do anything unless it's in this middle school football league."

Expansion plans or subsequent funding notwithstanding, there are other challenges ahead, such as the specter of kids staying in-house. Football is often a numbers game in the Boston City League -- Charlestown, for instance, dressed just over a dozen in a 30-0 loss to Lexington's Minuteman Tech on Oct. 20 -- and there is no guarantee that numbers will increase in the future.

"I just hope that the trickle-up effect takes place in the city and the kids try to go to many of our schools and not the preps or privates," said Boston Public Schools athletic director Ken Still. "Take, for instance, White Stadium [in Jamaica Plain] on Walnut Avenue. If you go down Walnut Avenue, you have kids living on Walnut Avenue -- one goes to a charter school, one goes to a prep school, one private, one Catholic, and one goes to Boston Public. It's a problem we're faced with, with Boston Public Schools in general. I hope this keeps them interested in football, baseball, but I hope this helps those students stay with us."

Harney responded: "The BPS is a great partner, and we fully expect our leagues to have a positive impact on the participation level at the BPS high schools. Play Ball!'s mission is to expand athletic opportunities for Boston Public School middle school students. Play Ball! graduates ending up at private schools is an unintended consequence of our efforts to keep kids in school, help nurture them academically and give them outlets to play sports."

Maybe, above it all, Harney's own struggles when he was young give him an identity.

"Being one of seven kids with a single mom, I don't think he grew up wealthy by the standards we'd think of," says Ben Small, a board member of Play Ball!, a lifelong friend of Harney and his boss at FBR. "I really do think it had to do with how he grew up and how sports kept him out of trouble.

"It's partly the feeling you get when you walk on that field. Parents come up to us crying, put their arm around us, 'What you do is so amazing.' We invite parents to have food and drink with us at the semifinals at Harvard [on Nov. 9]. We meet as many parents as we can, and that's where Mike gets all the satisfaction."

And really, who can say no to that?