CHICAGO — A youth football team on the West Side has already won state and regional championships, but need help getting down to Disney for the National Championship.
The Chicago Chargers 14U team, based out of Austin, rattled off an undefeated 9-0 regular season before winning the state title. They recently defeated teams from Detroit and Michigan City, Indiana for the honor of representing the Midwest at the 2019 Pop Warner National Championship in Orlando.
The program started from scratch in 2006 by then 14-year-old Michael Willis.
“I started it at the age of 14,” Willis said. “I wanted to help other kids with something to do other than being in trouble in the Austin community.”
It’s grown tremendously over the years. Willis said the program has helped over 3,500 kids over the last 13 years, with most coming from low-income, single-parent households. Players have gone on to compete in college football and at many Catholic League and CPS schools around the city.
That’s why the 14U Chargers team has “Next Level” on the front of their jerseys.
“The kids pride themselves on getting ready for the next level,” Willis said. “So that’s why they picked that name.”
The team, mostly made up of eighth graders, need financial help to reach their goal of $20,000 to be able to play in the tournament that takes place Dec. 7-14.
So far through fundraisers, generous donations and raffles, Willis said the program has raised around $15,000.
“It’s changed so many kids’ lives,” Willis said. “They get to play on ESPN down there, it’s an opportunity to open more doors.”
In addition to getting kids ready on the field, they must perform in the classroom to be able to play. Each student maintains above a 2.0 GPA and cannot fail any classes.
The team is hopeful to depart on Thursday night from Columbus Park, where they practice and play, for a long bus ride down to Orlando.
As a coach, Willis took inspiration from the Chicago Bears’ 3-4 defense.
“I’m most proud of our defensive line, got a lot of athletes,” Willis said. “They talk about Khalil Mack a lot.”
The last time a Chicago Chargers youth team made the National Championship tournament was in 2015, where they finished eighth.
To help make their Disney dream a reality, donate here.