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A Boston mentor hands off the ball

For 35 years, Wilson taught life lessons through football

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By John Powers
Globe Staff / November 10, 2010

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Bill Brooks was present at the creation, when the Boston Raiders were a coach, a car, and a code.

“Harry would come to Franklin Field in his station wagon with all the equipment in the back,’’ remembers the man who went on to play 11 years as an NFL receiver with the Colts, Bills, and Redskins. “You talk about grassroots . . .’’

It has been 35 years since Harry Wilson and his brother Dennis started a Roxbury youth football program designed to create grown-ups. What were two teams now are half a dozen, and what once was an autumn activity now goes year-round, with an added emphasis on academic tutoring and mentoring. “Prevention instead of intervention,’’ says Wilson.

Now, the ex-Marine and retired youth development worker is ready to hand off to the next generation, to his son Rashad and the former players who grew up with the Raider values of discipline, organization, and respect both on and off the gridiron.

“I told them, ‘I’m going to turn this program over to you,’ ’’ says the 63-year-old Mattapan resident, who has been dealing with health issues. “I’m going to show you how it runs and what the expectations are and why you were so successful.’’

In football alone, the success stories number in the hundreds. Brooks and George Barnwell, who played at UMass and went on to sign with the Patriots, are the best-known, but dozens of other Raiders have gone on to play college football.

“We got the discipline, the dedication, the work ethic,’’ says Miles Craigwell, who played for the Brown varsity that shared the Ivy League title in 2008 and now is a member of the US rugby sevens team. “Those are the things we took away from Coach Wilson. To this day, I’m still applying everything I learned.’’

Is there any inner-city boy who has pulled on a Raider jersey since 1975 who doesn’t know Wilson and what he stands for?

“I feel his presence in the community,’’ says Roger Harris, the superintendent of the Boston Renaissance Charter School. “I meet little kids and they tell me they’re with the Raiders and I ask, ‘Is Harry Wilson still involved?’ They say, ‘Oh, yeah. He’s the old man.’ ’’

But his message is ageless.

“Coach Harry told me, ‘I won’t make you a great football player but I’ll help make you a great man,’ ’’ says Donnell Singleton, the director of the Raiders’ academic and mentoring programs. “That’s stuck with me my entire life.’’

A taste of war
From the beginning, the Raiders have emphasized what Wilson’s brother calls the “character-building piece.’’

“Learning how to say no to drugs and gangs and weapons and violence,’’ says Dennis, the head basketball and assistant football coach at Madison Park. “And how important school and religion and community are.’’

Harry stressed the values he learned in the Marine Corps and during his 13 months in Vietnam during 1967 and 1968, when the war was at its fiercest.

“Sitting there hoping you could get home,’’ he recalls. “I don’t say I wish it on anybody, but I wish all these kids out here who think they’re gang members would have a chance to go to war for a few months.’’

Wilson fancied himself a tough guy, which is why he reckons he never made the football team at Boston English despite trying out every year.

“I wasn’t quite the nicest kid,’’ he acknowledges.

English, which still was in its glory era in the ’60s, had the luxury of picking and choosing who would wear the blue and blue. So Wilson and Harris played in the bone-rattling Park League instead against the South Boston Chippewas, the Charlestown Townies, and the Brighton Knights.

“It was real rough,’’ recalls Harris, who attended English with Wilson, joined the Marines with him on the “buddy plan,’’ and went on to play at Boston University. “Many of the fields didn’t have grass. We were playing on rocks and broken glass.’’

Wilson went straight to the Corps from high school and was 20 days from the end of his tour when Martin Luther King was murdered.

“I was not a happy camper when I came home,’’ he remembers. “I landed at the airport and I couldn’t get a cab to my house because I lived in Roxbury. I had to take two sea bags with all my belongings and ride the train and bus to Humboldt Avenue.’’

Wilson, who’d become a father at 17, went to Boston State College, graduated at 26, and soon found himself back on the sidelines as a coach. He had signed up his sons for a youth football team and wasn’t happy with what he viewed as a slack operation.

“Hence, the formation of the Raiders,’’ he says.

Wilson paid the expenses out of pocket and lugged the equipment in his car.

“Drove my mother crazy because she had nowhere to sit,’’ recalls Rashad. “He had helmets in the front seat, shoulder pads in the back seat.’’

Yet Harry ran the program with military precision. The Raiders might not have been the Marines but they functioned that way.

“Harry didn’t take any mess,’’ remembers Brooks. “You were gone.’’

Messing up at home or in the classroom was even worse, particularly for the Wilson sons.

“We were taken off teams,’’ says Rashad, the youngest of the four. “A bad progress report, a call from a teacher. We’d be sprinting for the phone before my dad answered it.’’

The expectations were the same, on and off the field. There was no tolerance for sloughing off, for taking shortcuts.

“You ask anybody about the Raiders and they’ll tell you discipline, respect, goals,’’ says Wilson. “There’s no substitute for that.’’ The essentials now were the essentials then. “The Raider philosophy,’’ says Dennis. “Raider family. Raider pride. Raider spirit. Raider unity.’’

Changing with the times
After dominating the Boston Neighborhood Youth Football League for nearly two decades, the Raiders were ready for a larger stage.

“I wanted to have a chance to showcase our young men on a national level,’’ says Wilson. “The neighborhood thing had accomplished what I wanted it to. I felt like it was time to show people around the country that the city of Boston had some good kids that could achieve and play football.’’

Even after the Raiders joined the Pop Warner organization in 1993, changed their name from Roxbury to Boston, and began playing New England teams, they thrived. But what concerned Wilson was how to keep his players adhering to Raider values once the season ended.

“Kids would have a great experience with us for four months, but after four months it’s all gone,’’ he says. “I realized then that the program had to be year-round. It couldn’t be a Band-Aid.’’

The neighborhoods had changed dramatically since the ’70s.

“Back then, we didn’t have the crime and the gangs,’’ Wilson says. “Football did the job. It kept the kids off the street. Everything was different than it is now. There are just so many barriers for young people that if they don’t have guidance, they’re just not going to be successful in this world. There are just too many pitfalls.’’

What was needed, Wilson concluded, was an extended program that stressed life lessons.

“This isn’t ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ ’’ he says. “You’ve got to sit them down and give them the cold, hard facts and that’s what we do. But we also love them and nurture them.’’

So the Raiders this year have expanded their program with 35 tutors and 22 mentors and are looking to add more.

“We made a decision that we can’t wait for the funding,’’ says Singleton, who has been pursuing corporate sponsorships. “If we have to do this on a shoestring budget, we will.’’

Continuity is vital, which is why Wilson has been preaching his come-back, give-back message to his former players.

“That blueprint of discipline, respect, and hard work, they got it from the Raider program,’’’ he says. “That’s what I’m so proud of and that’s what I want to always continue. I don’t want it to stop because I’m not there because there’s a whole generation of kids still to come. Now more than ever we need a program like the Raiders. Not just for football, but for life.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

Correction: Because of an editing error, a Pop Warner football coach was misidentified in a photo caption with this story about Harry Wilson, who started the Roxbury youth football program. The coach is Tommy McAfee.