Six years ago, Madison Police Lt. Wayne Strong was eating his lunch in an unmarked squad car outside the South Side Boys and Girls Club when he heard the shots that killed 15-year-old Lloyd Gentry and his 18-year-old brother, Michael, at their mother's house half a block away.
"When I went home that night, I remember standing in the shower just crying," said Strong, who knew Lloyd from his two years playing football with the Southside Raiders, the youth league team he co-directs.
Days later, when he went into the Taft Street house where Lloyd and his brother were killed by their stepfather, Strong saw the Raiders trophy Lloyd had received at an awards banquet a few weeks earlier. Lloyd had hoped to go on to play football at East High School.
In June of this year, another former Raider, Detarius Martin, 23, was killed and his brother, Chukarius, 27, was wounded in a Fitchburg apartment building. Police said the brothers were helping a woman retrieve some belongings when her ex-boyfriend shot them.
"It's disheartening," Strong said. "You feel for these kids. You just don't know what they would have turned out to be."
As a police officer and a community volunteer working with minority youth in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, Strong knows the dangers that can change the course of a young life. That's why he and other adults who volunteer with the Raiders are committed to providing role models for the young players, who range from fourth to eighth grade.
A neighborhood institution that will celebrate its 40th season next year, the Southside Raiders have a long tradition of uniting community members and building character among team members, most of whom are growing up in single-parent families that are struggling financially.
"We can't be their fathers, but we can be father figures to motivate kids to keep them on the path to success," said Strong, 49, whose mother raised him and his four brothers by herself in Racine.
A 20-year-veteran of the Madison Police Department, Strong began coaching for the Raiders as part of his job as neighborhood officer for the Fisher-Baird area surrounding Penn Park in 1995. When he was promoted three years later, Strong stuck with the team, serving as its director for five years until former Ald. Isadore Knox, a longtime South Side resident, joined him as co-director.
One of the oldest and smallest of the 20 programs in the Dane County Area Youth Football League, the Southside Raiders draw crowds of supporters to Penn Park on Saturday mornings each fall. Their season kicks offs Saturday, with about 90 players on three Raiders teams.
"Everybody knows the Raiders cheers," said Erin Bailey, head coach of a youth cheerleading squad that supports the team.
Many former Raiders have gone on to play football in high school and college, and some have made it to the pros. Former Raider Derek Stanley, Knox's nephew, is a wide receiver with the St. Louis Rams. Raider alumnus Tyrone Braxton, a former defensive back with the Denver Broncos, intercepted a pass from Brett Favre that led to a touchdown in one of Braxton's two Super Bowl wins.
Former Memorial High School standout Antwon Anderson is now in his third year with the UW-Whitewater Warhawks. "We think he has a chance to get drafted," Strong said. "We think he's that good."
Helping players make good choices
But football is just part of what the Raiders are about. "One of the things we try to emphasize to kids is life is about choices," Strong said.
Along with developing skills on the field, coaches and other volunteers strive to help players make good choices when it comes to drugs, alcohol, sex or crime, he said, adding, "We have lost some kids to gangs."
Katy Farrens, 29, remembers getting up early to go to Raiders games when she was growing up on the South Side. Now a single mom living in the Allied Drive neighborhood, she's bringing her son, Keishawn Shanklin, 9, to play with the Raiders for the first time this season.
"I have to keep him involved and interested and doing things," Farrens said. "That's the only way he's going to be on the right track."
When Strong was growing up in Racine, he said, "Trouble was an easy thing to find."
But, he added, "My mom was very protective of me. She kept me out of a lot of trouble."
After graduating from Case High School in 1977, Strong went to UW-Eau Claire. He started playing football his freshman year, but dropped out mid-season because his grades were suffering.
"I still regret that," said Strong, who got his degree in criminal justice in 1982 and became a deputy with the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office in Minnesota before coming to Madison, where one of his brothers was living.
"Growing up in a single-parent family was tough," Strong said, adding, "I think it made me a stronger person .... It made me more determined to be successful, to make something out of my life."
His mother played a huge role in that, said Strong, who said he wanted her to be proud of him.
Team instilled sense of pride
Pride is part of what being a Southside Raider has meant to former team member Howard Muhammad: "Pride to do your best as an individual, to represent a positive community and having your family there as a part of the community rooting for you" said Muhammad, who recently brought his 12-year-old son, Jamil, to his first Raiders practice.
"It kind of brings back memories, just being on the field," said Muhammad, 42, "It's a moving experience."
He remembers Raiders founder Will Smith teaching players that "going out and doing your very best would make you a winner, even if the score didn't reflect that."
And he remembers volunteers, parents and community members looking out for players both on and off the field.
"There was a standard that they held you up to," said Muhammad, a special education assistant at Toki Middle School. "I think they instilled that sense of pride."
Muhammad, who grew up on the South Side and now lives with his family on the West Side, said it was his son's choice to play for the Raiders.
"It's a family tradition," said Jamil, who said he was "sore" after his first day of running hurdles under the tutelage of former Badgers Haywood Simmons, Kenny Gales, Michael London and Ron Dayne, who conducted a pre-season training camp.
Juwan Pettigrew, 12, who's starting his third year as a Raider, said his love of football and hopes of playing professionally drew him to the team.
But, he said, he's also learning how to be successful off the field.
"Stay in school," he said, "because staying in school gives you a good education to have a good life."
If you go:
What: Southside Raiders youth football season opener
Where: Penn Park
When: Saturday at 9 a.m. (eighth-grade team vs. Belleville-Albany); 10:30 a.m. (sixth-grade team vs. West Regents); and noon (fifth-grade team vs. McFarland).
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