Arson is latest hit to Tampa youth football team
Youth football player Amiri Thomas has been coached to handle adversity and loss. But nothing prepared the 11-year-old for the shock of learning his team's field house was set ablaze by vandals Wednesday. Their equipment was lost in the flames. “I feel like they disrespected our team,” said Amiri, who plays on the Tampa Bay Lions junior varsity squad. “It's like all the time and money spent on our team was wasted.” Investigators have ruled arson the cause of the fire at 4509 E. Regnas Ave., Tampa police spokeswoman Janelle McGregor said. “We believe it's a group of individuals involved,” she said, and that they took sporting equipment before setting the field house on fire. The investigation is ongoing. “It's a place where adults and kids have fun,” McGregor said. “It's unfortunate somebody would do something like this.” Team president Cookie Dorsey said the fire was the third crime to strike the Lions this year. Last month, helmets and shoulder pads were stolen. Another break-in occurred Saturday. “Someone broke in, defecated in the kids' cooler and took our field equipment,” Dorsey said. “It's been one repeated hit after another.” The Lions started practicing at the field, a few miles south of Busch Gardens and east of 40th Street, and storing equipment there in January. The team was in the middle of a fundraising drive to replace the equipment stolen in May when the fire broke out about 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, she said. On Thursday, Dorsey and several Lions players inspected the rubble of the field house, which was an enclosed storage area at the rear of an area resembling a dugout. What they found was ash smeared on cinderblock walls, burnt debris strewn on the floor and charred wooden support beams above them. “It's a total loss,” she said. “We lost everything.” The Lions, a member of the 63-team Mid Florida Youth Football Association, formed three years ago with only 11 players. In their second year, they had 18. Now, the Lions have five squads of 20 players each participating in flag and tackle football. The organization also has five youth cheerleading squads. During the first two years, the Lions won very few games, Dorsey said. “Our team has basically been the underdog,” she said. The youth football team was formed to encourage physical activity in children ages 4 to 14 and to give them constructive activities over the summer, said Lions executive director James Daniels. Children 4 to 6 start by playing flag football and older age groups play tackle football. Players age out at 15. “We're taking kids off the street, so they're not doing mischievous things,” Dorsey said. Daniels said the teams still plan on practicing Saturday, even without helmets, shoulder pads or other equipment. “We might not have tackle dummies, but we're going to make do,” Daniels said. “We're going through a storm right now. But we're telling the kids that we're going to continue to fight on.” Daniels said he can envision the Lions rising from the ashes. “It's hurtful to see that people decided to take this away from our kids,” he said. “Our motto this year is 'One Team, One Heart.' I'm looking at this total loss and I'm seeing a vision to make things even better. We're still in high spirits.” Amiri Thomas, the junior varsity football player, said the loss didn't sadden him but inspired him to work harder before the season starts in August. “They stole some of our equipment. They stole our shoulder pads,” he said. “But even if they stole our stuff, they can't stop our team. This will motivate our team.” Police are asking anyone with information to call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-873-8477.