Players are in action after the ball is snapped at a Belleair Chargers practice.
BELLEAIR – If you still need a football hit now that the Super Bowl is over, you need only drop by the Belleair Rec center.
Every Sunday afternoon it is alive and teeming with young football players. They are all part of the Belleair Chargers organization and even the leaders of the group are surprised with the way it has grown in just one year in existence.
Johness Regan has been president of Chargers football since its incorporation in January 2012. She says its growth is something they had been hoping for since the beginning.
“We always wanted to bring football to Belleair,” she said. “We were involved with the Bolts and felt passionately about creating a formal, full tackle competitive program in Belleair.”
The Belleair Bolts, the predecessor to the Chargers, were only a spring league organization. Regan said it was more recreational than the Chargers. Also involved in the Bolts was Mike Fritz, the athletic director of the Chargers. He recalled how the transformation took place.
“I’m a police officer in Belleair and actually coached another team when somebody asked me to help Belleair get involved in football,” he said. “I said great and helped get two teams together and called ourselves the Bolts. We played in the spring league in Belleair but there was quickly a big cry for more football after that season.”
Fritz said he was able to get a number of football people together to form a board and launch the Chargers.
“We pulled from other teams and figured since we were starting from the ground up we wanted to do it right,” he said. “We learned from other old teams and set rules and regulations and now it is a big growing success.”
Registration this year is 126, the most ever, and Fritz said after the spring league the teams will perform in the fall league as well.
“Our biggest problem is having so many kids,” he said. “But that is a good problem to have especially when you are trying to build from the ground up.”
Operating a football program takes money and Fritz said the registration money, $250 per child, goes toward new equipment.
“We need the equipment and the money goes toward that but also toward the cheerleaders’ outfits,” he said. “For the first time this year we have cheerleaders. The more the better.”
Player safety is an important part of the Chargers philosophy. Reagan, the president, said it is taken very seriously.
“One of the keys to keeping your kids safe is good coaching,” she said. “The fundamentals are important, the coaches have to teach kids how to tackle properly and take care of their equipment. We invest a lot of money in high-grade equipment and we all take it very seriously. We would rather lose every game and have people safe.”
Regan complimented the town of Belleair for its support. Although she and her family, including her two sons who play football, are from Clearwater, they come into Belleair for football.
“It is a generous thing that Belleair has done to allow us to use this facility,” she said. “The town has done nothing but embrace these kids. We pay a small fee to the Rec center but from experience I can tell you it is very nominal. They have been amazing to us; they have been so good.”
As generous as it may seem on the town’s behalf, Belleair’s Recreation Director Eric Wahlbeck said the football program is contributing to the community in ways it could not achieve by itself.
“The overall philosophy with nonresidents is that we have such a small base of residents that we encourage nonresidents to come and play so our kids can play,” he said. “The percentage of residents and nonresidents is about half and half. We offer decent rates to nonresidents to provide opportunities for our residents.”
Wahlbeck also has somewhat of a personal stake in the football program. His late father, Ed, was heavily involved in youth football before his death in 2010. In his honor, the family began a sports scholarship fund to help pay the registration fees for young athletes who need it. The Chargers have been a beneficiary of that program.
“A big portion of our scholarship fund money goes toward the Chargers,” said Wahlbeck. “We’ve donated about $25,000 and that gets a lot of kids on the field.”
As the kids ran through their drills on a recent Sunday afternoon, parents lined the field, sitting where they could, and chatting. They were obviously a close-knit group, pleased with what they saw. Perhaps the result of another of AD Fritz’s operational methods.
“My philosophy is if a kid wants to play, we make it happen,” he said. “We’re in the middle of a lot of different towns and we have kids from all over Pinellas County. We want to make this the best time kids will ever have and so far we have not had any complaints from parents.”