It had been almost seven years since Akili Hill competed in an organized football game, and about five since he’d played any version of the game.
But, returning to the field and making those old familiar cuts and catches as a large crowd of local fans roared, he said, “is the best feeling ever.”
Hill snagged with two interceptions in the end zone, twice thwarting long drives by the opponent and helping his team secure a victory.
“I’m still light on my feet, so it was pretty easy to get back into it,” the 24-year-old said with a grin. “Plus, some of these guys out here lost it a long time ago.”
There were leaping and diving catches, spectacular breakaway runs, highlight-worthy pass deflections… and a handful of players who were winded after a few plays.
But all of it was to the delight of an appreciate audience that was provided some entertainment and a reason to reminisce as more than 50 former Poughkeepsie High School athletes gathered last Saturday for an alumni football game.
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“Something like this brings back the feeling of the community for a little while,” Hill said of the more than 200 spectators who joined them at Eastman Park. “That’s important, especially here, where there’s a lot of drama and negativity. We need things that bring people together to have a good time. This is all love.”
That, exactly, was the purpose of the event. Shonda Faulkner said the idea to organize this outing was born about a month ago, when he was saddened after reading about the shooting of a Poughkeepsie teen. That, unfortunately, was another instance of an ongoing trend of violence in the city.
“It wasn’t this bad and we didn’t have to deal with as much when I was in school here,” said Faulkner, who graduated in 2003 and eventually had a career in professional football. “I think we had more youth programs, and the kids were more into sports and there was a stronger sense of the community. We need some of that back.”
The event, which ran through the afternoon until about 8 pm, drew 45 youngsters who participated in drills, including a passing contest and 40-yard dash, before competing in a flag football game. That was a prelude to the alumni game, a two-hand touch contest that featured Poughkeepsie High School graduates dating back as far as the class of 1999.
They also honored several youth football coaches, paying tribute to “some of the people that helped mold us and kept us out of trouble,” Faulkner said. Plaques presented to the coaches in attendance, including Norman Moore, whose former students paid for his flight from North Carolina.
The parking lot adjacent to the field was littered with grills and barbecue pits, and complimentary food was served throughout the afternoon. That helped create a festive atmosphere, giving it the feel of a neighborhood cookout, with some football on the side.
Poughkeepsie High School principal Kelleyann Royce-Giron was among those in attendance, along with several current students, including athletes, and a handful of their friends from other area schools.
The impetus for all this was to inspire the local youth with the objective of helping to revive football in the area, and the ultimate goal of having athletics be a deterrent from crime.
“We really did it for the kids,” said Chris Easter, a 2012 graduate. “With all the violence, these kids definitely need better guidance. Next to my dad, some of my biggest influences were my Pop Warner coaches. They were in our lives and helped put us in a position to better ourselves.”
Faulkner, a former linebacker, said sports helped get him “from Tubman Terrace to the Saints locker room.” He starred at Indiana State University and later competed in minicamp with the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings before going on to a career in the Canadian Football League.
He covered most of the expenses and spearheaded the event with Irvin Williams, a Poughkeepsie native who also went on to play college football. Williams runs a printing shop and he had jerseys made for the 54 alumni, who were split onto Blue and White teams.
“Once we rolled those out and started showing them off on Facebook,” Faulkner said, “people saw this was organized and for real, and a lot guys started reaching out to me saying they were interested. A lot of them still live in Dutchess (County), upstate or in New Jersey, so it wasn’t too much for them to come back for this.”
Faulkner lives in Florida but said he owns a trucking business based in Middletown, so he returns to the Hudson Valley often and has maintained old friendships in Poughkeepsie.
“These are kids we watched grow up, and now they’re in a position to give back to the community and even give us our flowers,” said Arthur Turner, a former longtime Pop Warner coach. He retired to Virginia but made the trip to attend. “That means the world to me.”
Football has foundered over the last decade in Poughkeepsie, and several youth coaches fault diminished participation and interest. The high school team had struggled since winning a Section 1 championship in 2011, and the baseball program also had meandered.
The decline in local sports, Hill said, has coincided with the rise in violence among teenagers and he believes there is some overlap.
“There’s a lot of negative influences around kids growing up in the city, so you always want to direct their attention from that and get them to focus on something productive that they enjoy,” said Hill, who works for the City of Poughkeepsie Public Works Department. “Football, soccer, baseball, anything. You just want to keep them active and focusing on something good.”
Easter said he would love for the alumni game to become an annual event and for there to be a kids flag football league in Poughkeepsie. Faulkner said he does plan to have a similar game next year and said it would likely be an even bigger event with better planning.
“I hope some of these little kids saw us playing and saw how we enjoyed ourselves, and maybe they wanna get into it,” Easter said.
Poughkeepsie football and baseball did have somewhat of a revival this past school year, though both teams competed in Section 1’s developmental leagues. The baseball team won its league title and the football team reached the league final and had its first winning season since 2012.
As for the alumni showdown, Easter scored two touchdowns to lead the White team in a 21-14 win over Blue. Jamik Carter (class of 2019) and Mo’Quez Dickens (class of 2017) made acrobatic catches for the Blue team, but the red zone defense and Hill’s interceptions were too much for them to overcome.
Nigel Whitaker, who starred for the Poughkeepsie football team last fall, was the youngest alum. He played cornerback for the White team, while a few of his varsity teammates teased from the sideline about him playing zone coverage “against them old men.”
“This event was beautiful,” said Nakia Wood, who was among the youth coaches honored. Williams and Faulkner lauded him for the discipline he instilled in them as children. “Sports and community can make all the difference for a kid.
For the most part, the kids we coached grew up to be respectable young men. They (were) able to take the principles and apply it to their life and make better decisions. It kept them out of the streets and away from crime. You want that for these (future) generations.”
Stephen Haynes: email@example.com; 845-437-4826; Twitter: @StephenHaynes4