When the St. Louis Rams football team moved to the city from Los Angeles in 1995, it did not have a practice field. Shortly after a deal with the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club, the team had a facility where players could train.
Former NFL player Brandon Williams, 35, did not have to wait until he was drafted into the league to meet some of his favorite players. He was 11 years old and on the club’s field on North Kingshighway playing catch with a few Rams players like Toby Wright, Ryan McNeil and Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis.
“I think that seed planted images and catapulted me to choose my destiny of going to the NFL one day,” Williams said.
For 60 years, the north city nonprofit has served over a million children by blending sports, education and mentorship. To honor its accomplishments within the city, the organization kicks off a year-long celebration with its annual gala and auction on Saturday night at the Hyatt Regency St. Louis at the Arch.
In 1960, two African American north St. Louis baseball coaches, Martin Luther Mathews and the late Hubert “Dickey” Ballentine, discussed opening a boys sports club while under a tree in the Ville’s Handy Park. Both Mathews, 94, a former semi-pro baseball player, and Ballentine wanted the club to instill the core values of respect and teamwork, while building character through sports and education.
Before the sports club came along, Mathews and Ballentine coached baseball teams around the city. There were challenges in the early years of building the baseball teams and the club. The two coaches had to work with limited gear and inadequate funds. However, their stamina and dedication to baseball led to their team winning an elite championship.
With an ample amount of support from the community, business leaders, political figures and professional athletes who saw the need for a recreation center, the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ Club was established.
In the early 1980s, Mathews and Ballentine noticed a growing interest in sports among girls, so they incorporated them in the club with summer camp and cheerleading programs. Though girls participated in sports over the years, the club did not add girls to its name until 2001.
A safe, fun place
The club’s interim CEO, Tom Sullivan, played baseball at the center as a teenager in the 1960s. He has been working with the organization in some capacity since 1973. He said the community involvement and support from alumni kept the club afloat over the decades.
“We hear about what has been done about people's needs all the time — when you’re talking about homeless and things of that sort,” Sullivan said. “But we're looking at it a different way. We're giving children directions. We're giving them opportunities and options, so that they won't be faced with those types of needs.”
Most children come to the club to participate in the club’s athletics, summer programs, career services or after-school classes. However, Sullivan said it is also a place of refuge for children who are looking for a safe space to play and get a hot meal.
Playing sports is the main focus of the club, but it is also impacting the children’s lives through sports education.
Williams said he came from a family that pushed him to strive for more than what he saw in north St. Louis. And it was the mentorship and the countless hours that he saw Mathews and other coaches and volunteers put into the center that motivated him to pursue his dream of playing professional football and becoming a mentor.
“Sometimes your mom and your dad couldn't be there to take you to practice because they were getting off work late, but [the coaches] would wait for your parent to come pick you up and make sure you got something to eat when you get out of practice,” Williams said. “They went [without] big thank-you's, no gift certificate for your service at the end of the year. They were doing it because they enjoy being great mentors and really great role models.”
The club’s alumni list is filled with famous athletes like Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, Boston Celtics power forward Jayson Tatum, former WNBA player and assistant coach for the Memphis Grizzlies Niele Ivey, actor Sterling K. Brown and business professionals like Nicole Tate of World Wide Technology.
Khalia Collier, the owner and general manager of the city’s women’s professional basketball team, the St. Louis Surge, said it was the family environment and competitive teams that she fondly remembers about the club. Collier said she was also exposed to the business and appreciates the discipline and teamwork taught children coming through the programs.
On a yearly basis, the center serves about 3,700 children from the ages of 5 to 18. As the needs of the children evolve, so does the Mathews-Dickey Boys’ & Girls’ Club. And with the money raised from the gala, the club is looking to expand its STEM and enrichment programs as well as upgrade the facility.
“They have stood up for 60 years, and that's a testament of the foundation it was built,” Williams said. “And when you have a solid foundation, you can build on top of it. No matter what happens to the building, you can always rebuild, because the foundation is solid.”
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.
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