Decades ago, they’d come by the hundreds on fall Saturdays to play Pop Warner football at the Derita Athletic Association – games kicking off in the morning and running well past dark.
That was when the three fields on West Sugar Creek Road were lit and always at full capacity with young athletes, when the Derita association, begun in 1958 by the Derita Optimist Club, was the pride of northern Mecklenburg.
In recent years, it nearly ground to a halt after the group had trouble finding volunteers and ran into financial troubles.
George Griffin wouldn’t let it.
In 2000, after he took over as Derita’s president, he discovered the fields were about to be sold to a developer after the association hadn’t paid taxes for two years.
He paid them out of his pocket. Now Derita’s youth football and basketball programs are flourishing once again.
Recently, the YMCA gave Griffin its Legacy of Coaching Award for his tireless work and influence on children as a volunteer coach.
What’d you think about receiving this award? It’s great. I didn’t know I was going to receive it, or that I’d been nominated. One day a Derita partner called and said, ‘George, you do all this stuff for kids and it seems to us that you don’t ask for anything, except that the kids keep coming back.’ That’s true. That’s all I want is for them to keep coming back and playing.
How did you get started in youth coaching? I enrolled my daughter (Geoloria) in Derita to play softball. She was 7, the year was 1993. They needed coaches, so I volunteered. I coached her teams all the way through – until she was 13. We went from softball to basketball and I coached that for 10 years (three years with his daughter). Then my son Gerard got started, first with basketball at Derita. So I coached his teams. After he moved to James Martin Middle School and started playing football (Gerard was a running back), the coach there one day asked me if I’d help. I’ve been coaching over there for 10 years.
Your children are grown. Why do you keep coaching? I like to inspire kids to bring out the best in them. My parents were always instrumental in keeping us involved when I was young. I just carried that over with my kids. I always tried to keep them involved in some type of sport. It just mushroomed from there. Now I’ve been coaching for 17 years. Now I have hundreds of kids who still come up and thank me when they see me. That’s a wonderful feeling.
When you were a boy, who was the coach who influenced you? That would be Coach Shed. I never knew his first name, just Coach Shed. He coached us basketball. I grew up in the Bronx in New York, in a neighborhood where you had to be tough to survive. There were a lot of dropouts, but Coach Shed wouldn’t let us quit school. Or the team. He’d call our parents if we didn’t show up for practice after school. He understood what was going on in the streets and lectured us on how the golden lives of drug dealers were short-lived That stuck with me. I never dabbled in that arena.
What is your favorite success story in coaching? I have so many. But I had two kids who went through the (Derita) football program and both became stars on the Wingate (University) team. These were single-parent kids and I just kept preaching to them to keep coming and playing with me. Their moms brought them and they kept coming. To this day, they thank me for what I did – keeping them off the streets Some of these kids I mentored, I knew were headed down the wrong way. I knew their parents didn’t know what to do with them. Some did real good, some I wasn’t able to help. But, for the most part, I’ve been pleased with what I did for them.