Mike Davis got involved in Pop Warner football at the age of six.
Three decades later, he's still involved.
For the past five years, Davis has served as a coach for Schenectady/Belmont Pop Warner, the same program he once played for and the one his four sons play for now.
Then, late last year, he took over as organization president, determined to inject new energy and life into a program that has served and molded countless Schenectady youth, but struggled to recruit volunteers and meet expenses.
"My main thing is getting more support from the community," Davis, 36, told me when I visited with him at his home.
I hope he gets it, because Belmont Pop Warner is a program that deserves support.
Every season, it provides approximately 200 kids between the age of six and 13 with a caring, supportive environment and structured athletic activity.
I've only heard good things about the program and its ability to instill discipline and focus in youth, while also ensuring that they have a good time on and off the field.
Davis believes more children would sign up if participation was cheaper, and his hope is to cut those fees in half. Right now, it costs $140 to play tackle football, and $120 to play flag football. Cheerleading costs $140.
For Schenectady's needier residents, those prices could very well put the program out of reach.
"The last couple years, it's been like, 'Fend for yourself. If you have the money, you can do it,'" Davis said.
That's something Davis would like to change.
He's organizing coin drops at Crossgates Mall where people can donate to Belmont Pop Warner, and a fundraiser that taps players to sell team merchandise. Another goal is doing more events, such as car washes, that puts the team in the public eye.
"The more you see and hear about (Pop Warner), the more you want to be a part of it," Davis said.
Davis also spoke of a need for volunteers - people to work concessions, coach, and help with administrative duties, among other things.
"The parents have not been as involved as we'd like," Davis said. "We see certain kids not getting as much support from their parents. We try to give them more attention, keep them involved. ... Some parents are either working a lot or they're unstable. They leave their kids at practice, and it's over at 7:30 and we're waiting for them until 8 p.m."
The lack of parental involvement isn't a new problem, but it makes running Schenectady/Belmont Pop Warner a bigger challenge than it might otherwise be.
Schenectady High School varsity football coach Carm DePoala is familiar with those challenges, from his time leading the organization. The cost of participating, while high for lower-income families, doesn't cover the cost of running the program, so raising funds is a necessity.
"If you go to the parents and say, 'We need $15, $20 to do this,' they can't afford it," DePoala told me. "... Raising money gave me many sleepless nights."
DePoala coached Davis when he played for Schenectady/Belmont Pop Warner, and said Davis is prepared for the challenges that await him.
"He doesn't mind reaching into his pocket and finding money to feed a kid every once in a while," DePoala said.
Davis said one of the things he enjoys most about Pop Warner football is "helping kids who are less fortunate and giving them an outlet."
The program teaches discipline - "if kids are acting up in school, we sit them" - and accountability. The players "learn about themselves," he said. "Some kids start the season and feel they're not as capable physically." As the season goes on, and their confidence builds, that changes.
Football isn't for everyone.
But for some kids, a well-run sports program can be a real difference maker - keeping them out of trouble and teaching them valuable life lessons.
My experiences in youth sports were pivotal, and I'd like to think that every child who wants to can participate in a youth sports program, regardless of cost. Sadly, that's not always the reality.
"This program is a cornerstone," Davis said. "When people think of Schenectady sports, Belmont is one of the things that comes to mind."
That's certainly true, and I'm eager to see how the program fares under Davis' leadership.
His passion for the Schenectady/Belmont Pop Warner is genuine, and he's ready to share it with as many people as he can.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]