With his small team of 13-year-olds, Coach Eugene Beaver gathers his makeshift Pop Warner team every week to practice through difficult conditions on and off the field.
With a field littered with potholes, no accessible bathrooms and a dwindling team that gets smaller every year, the future is unclear for the North Long Beach Panthers.
“It’s just us right now,” Beaver said. “But we work with what we have and what we have right now is kids that need to stay on the right track.”
In an effort to seek better conditions for the team while keeping the sport accessible for families, Beaver might expand the North Long Beach team to the city’s Westside, which currently has no football representation.
Still, the team would only represent North Long Beach Pop Warner.
The team currently plays at Ramona Park, which isn’t formed like a traditional football field but has been home for the Pop Warner team for years. While the team formerly played at Jordan High School, it discontinued its relationship with the Long Beach Unified School District after the district increased its fees.
To avoid raising costs to parents who might not be able to afford it, the team instead opted to use public parks. But that has created its own set of problems.
“When the team and I are out practicing at the park, the field is rough, most of the time the bathrooms are closed, and there isn’t water for them to drink,” Beaver said.
Still, the game plays a crucial role in the kids’ lives.
“It’s important to have the kids believe they’re part of something significant and part of something that can take them places,” Beaver said.
One of those places is being on the other side of the field. Currently all of the coaches that Beaver has compiled for the team have been players he’s coached in previous years.
One of those coaches is his son.
Brandon Beaver has been at his dad’s side for a long time, and in one of the rare chances the team was able to travel in 2007, the younger Beaver helped bring home a national championship.
Now, he is supporting the small team where he can—and it seems the help is needed more and more as the years go by.
“It’s crazy because my dad has been around for 20 years and we have one of the winningest programs in the country,” Brandon Beaver said. “But every year the conditions get worse.”
Everyone who is a part of a Pop Warner team across the country is a volunteer, and any money raised by the team does not go to the coaches or staff.
But while the game may start as a hobby for most, it can transform into an immense responsibility.
After practice ends at 8 p.m. every week, kids wait beside the elder Beaver for their parents to arrive to take them home. But there’s always a smaller group that stays beside Beaver longer than usual, since some parents are still at work.
“My home is like the central hub,” the coach said. “But the little things we can do to make someone’s life easier, we’ll do. I don’t mind watching the kids a little longer or taking them to my home because that single mom might be trying to get it done for her family at the end of the day.”
That type of trust means a great deal to Beaver, and it allows the relationship between coach and player to grow into something a lot more important.
Robert Lockhart, who has coached alongside Beaver, has had all three of his sons be a part of the Pop Warner team, and he has entrusted Beaver beyond football.
“From what I’ve seen from other programs and the North Long Beach team, it’s not just football,” Lockhart said. “The whole program became an extended family. The kids being around other kids and the parents being around other parents, they’ve also become family.”
That sense of family extends beyond those with a means to pay. If a family can’t afford the fees, the team instead asks parents to donate their time during games, which can involve helping setting up the field, running the snack bar or spreading the word.
While this approach has helped the team be accessible to all kids, it has impacted the organization’s finances and limited its ability to travel. Last season, for example, the team went undefeated, but when it came time to face other teams farther away, the team wasn’t able to compete because of the lack of funds.
The team’s potential expansion to the city’s Westside could help bridge that gap while being able to reach even more families.
Though there’s no doubt the Panthers are facing challenges, it’s clear the players have a coach who can help lead them through.
The way Beaver sees it, if the opponent isn’t going to be easy on you, then he shouldn’t either.
“I’ve won championships with this team from this place,” Beaver said. “I’ve coached players that have great potential, so I believe where I can take this team.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the team’s potential plans for the Westside.