Bayside gym helps Harlem football team

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Ask Larry Dodge what the most important muscle group for a young football player on the field is and he will tell you.

“Legs,” said the general manager of the Bell Plaza Sports Club in Bayside last week. “The first thing they need is strong legs. Their job all day long is running, pushing and pulling.”

Central Park East High School in Manhattan’s East Harlem, unfortunately, had no strength-training equipment for its athletes. East Harlem Pride players did not even have the most basic athletic equipment when they took the field for the first time this season.

“For their first game they had no uniforms, no cleats and mismatched helmets,” Dodge said. “They lost that first game. It was a real heartbreak­er.”

But through a number of private and corporate donations secured by the nonprofit Harlem Football Co., the team’s 32 players now have all the pads they need and three wins under their belts. And Dodge thinks the team will see even more success once the school’s new gym opens up, stocked with nearly 9,000 pounds worth of strength-training equipment the sports club packed up onto a truck and donated Monday.

“It should be a great foundation, considering all the success they had without the gym before,” he said.

Dodge said Bell Plaza Sports, two blocks south of Northern Boulevard, was in the process of replacing its old fitness equipment when a friend told him about the nonprofit organization. The equipment, which he said had been maintained well, could fetch between $5,000 and $10,000, but its value was much greater.

“What our equipment has done for us, we want to share with others,” he said. “You just don’t turn down an opportunity like this to help out people of this nature.”

Before the nonprofit was formed last year, the neighborhoods of Harlem and East Harlem had never had a Public School Athletic League football program. That changed when Richard Blanch created the Harlem Football Co. — an umbrella organization that married the Harlem Jets, a private youth football league for 5- to 14-year-olds, with the East Harlem Pride, which not only provides athletic opportunities for 13- to 18-year-old boys from four neighborhood schools, but also creates a path to a brighter future through academic development.

“Our big hook is that our boys can’t step on the field without first completing 144 hours of semi-private tutoring,” spokeswoman Lauren Cohen said.

The program’s participants are required to meet a number of academic standards, and in return they get nutritional education, access to computer labs, mentoring and, of course, access to the school’s first weight room.

Dodge even designed the floor plan for the school’s weight room, which presented its own challenge. The weight-room floor at Bell Plaza, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year, is 3,500 square feet and held 35 pieces of equipment; Central Park East’s gym is 1,500 square feet and will hold 25 pieces of equipment.

Dodge said the remainder of the equipment will be donated locally, with some pieces going to the 111th Precinct.

“Typically, cops and firemen are always coming by asking if there’s anything we can donate to them,” said Dodge. “It just so happened, this time we could.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4574.

Updated 4:05 pm, October 28, 2011
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