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“Win With Grace, Lose With Dignity”

Kicking up some dust with the coach, kids and families of the South Philly Sharks

“Win With Grace, Lose With Dignity”

Kicking up some dust with the coach, kids and families of the South Philly Sharks

On a recent weeknight, I had the opportunity to meet with Anthony Meadows. Meadows has dedicated the past five years of his life to serving as the president of the South Philly Sigma Sharks Youth Organization.

At 48 years old, Meadows has a solid build and brings a wealth of experience to his role. Notably, among other things, during his days at South Philly High, he was a steadfast force on the football field, playing in both the tight end and defensive end positions.

We met at Finnegan Playground at 30th and Wharton in Grays Ferry.

This workaday rec center and grounds are overdue for more investment but remain much valued by the community. Covering 18 acres, the site features two basketball courts, an afterschool program in the tidy rec center building, a secure children’s playground with swings, climbing frames, slides, and seating for parents and guardians, and two sports fields: a baseball diamond and an open well-worn field for everything else.

“The thing about when we practice on fields like this, if we have enough kids on the field, it’s not enough space,” Meadows says.

Ostensibly, we were there to discuss the shortfall in field space to accommodate the network of youth sports leagues in South Philly. The Sharks are currently displaced, as their homebase at the Vare Recreation Center, at 27th and Morris, is under construction by Connor Barwin’s Make the World Better Foundation as part of the Rebuild project.

Meet the South Philly Sharks

However, our conversation quickly shifted to the field in front of us — and to the big-hearted 11-year-old and under (11U) Sharks football team out running plays and kicking up some dust. I was excited to learn the team was scheduled to compete in the A.A.U. 215-Mid Atlantic League’s spring football championship game on Saturday night.

The South Philly Sharks are best known for their football program, which serves youth between the ages of 6 to 14 years old. The organization averages between 120 to 150 youth participating in their fall and spring programs. This year they were at 120, and they’ve been building their basketball teams and cheer programs as well.

Like many people who get involved in youth sports, Meadows got involved because his son Anthony III (known as Tre) who was 5 years old at the time, had joined one of the younger teams. And so, an act of support turned into a long-term commitment.

Photo by Shira Walinsky.

Reflecting on his journey, Meadows says, “I had no intention of coaching when I started out. My son’s coach was [out] there with 15 or 16 kids. And I thought there’s no way he could possibly do that by himself.”

Meadows told the coach: “I played football. I know football, so I can help out. Whatever you need me to do, I’ll just help out. And you know what, 13 or 14 years later, I’m still here, serving a role.”

I asked Meadows about the spring football league, which runs from March to June. He admits it’s a bit of “an outlier.” But he says that some people believe that “We shouldn’t be playing sports all year long. [We take a few weeks off] but we’re playing football all year long. Our thing is, if the kids want to play, then let them play. We’re not forcing anybody. We’re just here. We’re saying, You want to play? Yeah, we have an opportunity for you to play.”

Sports keep youth players safe

When it comes to safety and gun violence no one has to tell Meadows about its profound impact on the lives of children. It is particularly true in Grays Ferry and Point Breeze where most of the youths live. He speaks candidly, acknowledging the gravity of the situation: “Things are serious now. Kids carry guns.”

Meadows and the Sharks organization work to keep kids safe every day. “So the thing that we try to do with our kids is just try to keep them around, keep them doing stuff, keep them engaged,” he says. It also gives many parents a little peace of mind. “Those hours [with the team], the kids are busy, they’re doing something, and when they come home, they’re usually tired,” he says.

As we stood in the field, the Sharks began to wheel around, and they started charging toward us — goofing around and riding high. The combination of their approach and their uniforms catching a bit of the twilight was rousing: their sleek silver helmets, along with their sharp silver and white jerseys adorned with navy blue strips, made a bold and striking statement as they powered past us to take a break.

Meadows introduces me to Terrance Payne, 38 years old, who jogs up behind the team. The kids call him Coach T — head coach of the Sharks 11U team.

I congratulated Payne on their 5-1 record, and we shake hands, and he smiles.

But in recounting the season, Payne’s countenance shifts. It turns out that the kickoff game of the spring season was a gut check if not a gut punch. Their soon-to-be rival Parkside Saints crushed the Sharks 35-0.

So much can happen in a single game, a single night, a single season. And while it’s not all about winning in the 11-year-old division, everyone agrees that on that particular April afternoon the pain was collective.

Coach Payne says that the first game was “a real low for everybody. But I feel like they needed that loss, and it was probably the perfect time to have it.

“I think that game might have humbled them because [when] they came to practice, and they started practicing better and better. Every other game since then, my kids just came out with a different energy.”

Sharks vs. Saints

And how about a good old-fashion dose of drama? Unbelievably, the South Philly Sharks and the Parkside Saints were gearing up for another showdown. But this time, the stakes had soared. Both squads had successfully advanced to the championship game in the 11-and-under division.

So on the evening of Saturday, June 3, I joined the team at Benjamin Johnston Memorial Stadium in Germantown.

Before the game, the Sharks gathered on a side field at the Germantown stadium for the pre-game warmup and mini scrimmage. The team was surrounded by their coaches and volunteers, with the notable presence of several former players who had now joined the extended Sharks family.

Out front, assistant coach Robert Gladden started calling the plays: “Wait. Wait. Wait. Take off — and go! and, “Run it again. Run it again.” And, “Whoever jumps off [the line] going to give me 25 push-ups.”

On the near flank, Coach Payne stood beside a wide receiver. “Listen,” he directs the player (holding his thumbs up high in the air and prompting the player to do the same): “You have to keep checking, you keep asking: Hey ref, I’m on [the line of scrimmage] am I good?

The feeling was upbeat and focused mixed with a little chatter about the team’s potential to go off-sides. Standing nearby, a father, addressing no one in particular, remarked, “It’s going to be a flag day.”

Standing back, I spoke with another parent and Sharks volunteer, Deidre Gladden, whose husband is an assistant coach, and her son Ryan #2 was serving as the Sharks’ backup quarterback.

Photo by Thomas Devaney

Gladden feels that the team’s transformation actually took place during their second game. “I think that’s what kick-started their season. It was kind of rocky [at first], but they came out, they won. They had really good plays, really good turnovers, and touchdowns.”

Gladden is clear on this: that game wasn’t just the “initial high of the season” because they won — it was because they were no longer pointing fingers. “They were no longer arguing back and forth: You’re not doing this, you’re not doing that.”

Everyone needed a little time and a little patience. Gladden says, “Before that they had a lot of new kids, and it’s like: Oh, this is what I do; and this is what I do. You’ve got to get to know each other, how to play. And all of that went away — and we’re a team now. And they’ve been playing like a team.”

Now they were encouraging each other. “They were supporting each other — and then they just rode that straight through to now,” she says.

Moving out to the stadium field, the match-up showcased the two all-Black 11-year-old teams, with a predominantly Black fan base half-filling the stands on each side (about 400 fans total).

The big game also coincided with a significant drop in temperature. The sudden cold snap added a distinct football season-like atmosphere to the evening. Jeffrey Grazier, a spectator and grandfather looking sharp, if chilly, in summer shorts, accurately captured the abrupt weather shift, writing in a social media post, “It went from June to October in a matter of hours.”

As both teams took the field, the first impression: the Parkside Saints’ front line looked giant. The 11-and-under league means there are some 10-year-old sprigs on the team. But then you have the kids who are just about to turn 12, and that turns out to be a meaningful range.

In the end, the South Philly Sharks fell short against their formidable peers. But let me tell you, this match revealed tenacity and resilience for both teams. Despite being outsized, the Sharks held their ground and went the distance.

Picture this: A weary corps of referees, who had been dutifully officiating since the early hours before noon, presiding over a two-hour slugfest that ended in a deadlocked 6-6 tie. It became an engrossing test of endurance.

By 10:30 pm it was anyone’s game.

But then, just when you thought the Sharks might turn the tide, fate dealt them a fatal blow. The Saints seized an opportunity and pulled off an upset touchdown. And wouldn’t you know it, that extra point went off without a hitch.

A successful season

At precisely 10:40 pm, the game ended: Saints 13, Sharks 6. For the Sharks, it was beyond tough; but their unwavering effort and display of fortitude throughout the contest was nothing short of remarkable.

In an email statement coach T. Payne wrote: “Emotions were high … Saturday’s game I think the referees could have done a better job. I was told they were out there since 10am, but I feel like both teams left it all on the field. I’m very proud of my kids for playing one heck of a game. We also had a great season: We ended 5-1.”

The Sharks’ Meadows also offered his thoughts via email: “I feel like our youth had an opportunity to get big game experience which will only help them in the future. Our team started the spring season with no expectations, the plan was just to teach the kids and provide them with the best overall football experience.”

But it was back on the field in Grays Ferry, earlier in the week, where Meadows touched upon the heart of the matter, “We want our kids to have a chance. And not just a chance at football, but a chance at life. We’re teaching these kids how to be respectful. We’re teaching these kids teamwork. We’re teaching these kids commitment. We’re teaching them how to win with grace and lose with dignity. It’s just the opportunity and that’s all we want. We want the kids to have opportunity.”

Thomas Devaney teaches creative writing at Haverford College and is the Engagement Coordinator for Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. He co-directed the film Bicentennial City and is the author of Getting to Philadelphia.

Correction: A previous version of this post misspelled the name of one of the photographers of the photos within. The correct spelling is Walinsky. 


The South Philly Sharks. Photo by Shira Walinsky/

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