In Photos: Practice makes perfect

It's 5:45 p.m. at the first football practice after a fall back for daylight saving time. The field is dark as the pint-sized, pee wee players take to the grass.

Suddenly, they're surrounded by a ring of cars with beaming headlights. It's their parents, ensuring the boys make the most of practice despite the dim.

Next week they'll move their start time, but they didn't want to miss this practice with playoffs looming.

Teamwork is essential to both life and football. That's the lesson the coaches and parents of Hickory Hill's Ridgeway Cougars pee wee team are working to instill in the young players.

“Football is the ultimate team sport. It takes 11 guys to hit the field, and all 11 guys gotta work together," said Jeremy Austin, the Cougar's assistant director. "If you can teach teamwork and team effort, then as a coach I feel that we did what we're supposed to do."

“We make sure that each child has the opportunity to play the sport and not only play the sport, but learn the sport," said Austin.

Parents watched the Cougars' practice from the hoods of their vehicles. They left them running to light the field. (Malik Martin)
Ridgeway Cougars pee wee players take the field and wait on the coach's whistle to run the next play. (Malik Martin)
Delvonte Watso carefully listening to instructions from his coaches about their upcoming game. (Malik Martin)

The Cougars are part of the Sheriff's and Police Activities League of Memphis and Shelby County, commonly referred to as Memphis Shelby PAL. Memphis Shelby PAL is a nonprofit organization that aims to disrupt gang and criminal activity while mentoring and encouraging Memphis' youth.

Its pee wee division consists of boys ages five to 12.

The Cougars practice at the multi-purpose sports field behind the Hickory Hill Community Center each Tuesday. They're currently 4-3 in game play. 

Twelve-year-old Ja'Darious Crutcher has played running back and linebacker for the Cougars for two years. He said he enjoys basketball but not as much as he likes football.

“I like the sport," said Crutcher. “My coaches are great."

Jeremy Bridgeforth knows that repeated mistakes means push ups after practices. The coaches are strict but caring to inspire the best from their players. (Malik Martin)

Headlights shine through Delvonte Watson's visor as he awaits the snap. (Malik Martin)

Daylight saving time meant the players would have to manage in the dark, but their parents used their vehicles' headlights to illuminate the field. (Malik Martin)
The Cougar's directors and other coaches aspire to keep the boys uplifted. They realize some kids may not have a strong role model in their lives or may be hiding immense struggle and pain behind a smile. It inspires them to put in extra effort off the field.

“You just never know what they're going through in their personal lives,” said Jamir Parker, the team's director. “We feed them on days we're not practicing. We'll watch movies. After games we'll go places, go out to eat. Just different things. We try to surprise them." 

"This team gives kids something consistent and helps give structure to kids who come from broken backgrounds," said Austin.

Parker and Austin met while assisting with another youth football team.

“We were with the Germantown Cardinals, and the director shut the program down in the middle of the season," said Parker. "We were in the process of putting together a mentoring program, and we decided to put it all together [with a new team]."

The team was founded in 2017. Parker took over as director last year. 

Ridgeway Cougars Director Director Jamir Parker. Parker is a Hickory Hill resident and his son plays for the Cougars. (Malik Martin)
Assistant Director Jeremy Austin said, "This team gives kids something consistent and helps give structure to kids who come from broken backgrounds." (Malik Martin)
Coach James Cook tells players the importance of staying focused as the end of practice draws near. (Malik Martin)
Austin and Parker are both residents of Hickory Hill with sons who play for the Cougars. Beyond their own children, they're passionate about bringing out the best in all the community's youth.

“I have dedicated myself over the past two years to helping the youth in the Hickory Hill community. I'm a father, and these are the kids that my kids will be growing up with,” said Austin.

Parker said the young kids they're mentoring today will likely go to the same colleges and may find themselves working together in the future.

“They'll see each other down the line again," he said. "We want to teach them to build good relationships."

Austin hails from Greenwood, Mississippi but moved to Memphis 11 years ago. He is impressed with Hickory Hill and said more people should get involved to create change.

“If I can get out here and do whatever I can, whether it's directing football or tutoring or whatever it may be, I'm going to do that because this is our community," said Austin.

"We can sit here and talk about the community all we want, but what are we doing to change it?," he continued. "We have to get out here and set the example."

Jerimiah Bridgeforth waits on the next play as the Ridgeway Cougars. This practice is in preparation for the upcoming playoffs. (Malik Martin)
The Ridgeway Cougars line up on the field and await instructions from Coach Ray Artry. (Malik Martin)
Austin knows Hickory Hill has challenges but he focuses on the positive. He said there are plenty of great people in the community and his kids are getting a great education at good schools.

"I haven't had any problems out here. It's a great location to move to," he said. "There are its challenges, but that's every community."

Parker's father was in the military. He was born in Germany but has been a Memphian since fifth grade. He's lived in Hickory Hill longer than Austin and watched it decline beginning in the late 1990s. 

“I do see it getting worse as far as crime and all of that,” said Parker. “The mall is gone. It's a lot we had when we were growing up that's not available anymore. It's not a lot for the kids to do in this area that the community is aware of.”

Related: "The History of Hickory Hill, Part I: Big Booms"

Still, both men say there's ample hope in and for Hickory Hill, and they plan to be a part of the positive momentum they want to see. 

"I feel like my deeds will pay off later on in life," said Austin. "I feel like I'm doing the community a great service when I'm out here helping these kids because they need me.”

Jalen Smith laughs as he tries to get his coaches to guess the instrument he plays in band. (Malik Martin)
The Ridgeway Cougars' last play of the night is a loud, energetic chant while they holding their helmets high. (Malik Martin)
The Ridgeway Cougars close practice with a short prayer. (Malik Martin)
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