When the 2017 Pop Warner Super Bowl bracket was announced this week on ESPN, coaches for the North Philly Aztecs Jr. Pee Wee football team were ecstatic. And a little concerned.
Both the Jr. Pee Wee and Jr. Varsity teams from one of the city’s storied youth football programs qualified again this year for the national championship tournament. But the hope of bringing a title back home comes with a hefty price tag.
The ESPN-led series, held at Disney’s sprawling Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, will cost upwards of $1,000 per team member for the nearly week-long event that starts this weekend. Add in the four cheerleading squads that have qualified for nationals as well, and the North Philly Aztecs youth program is looking at nearly a six-figure bill for this trip. And that doesn’t include bringing any of the parents.
“They want three kids per one adult for the room, so that’s $600 per kid and per adult,” Aztecs Jr. Pee Wee coach Marquis Merricks told Billy Penn by phone this week. “So that’s $2,400 per room, and we need seven rooms. That’s just roster-wise. If the parents want to come, it’s like crazy prices this week just to be in Disney World.”
Merricks explained that depending on what they could get each flight for, the cost for the 20 players on his team will run anywhere from $850 to $1,100. So who pays for that?
“We’ve been fundraising,” Merricks said. “We’re doing Krispy Kreme, Walmart…We did the Eagles games, we did the Sixers games, GoFundMe. It’s like a lot. Uber. We got people driving Uber. You won’t believe the stuff you’ll do to try to raise this money up, man. We’re really trying to get there.”
“It always finds a way to work out,” Merricks said. “But it’s always close.”
For just the Jr. Pee Wee team, Merricks said the total cost of the trip to Florida will cost about $21,000. But for the entire Aztecs group of six teams, “it’s somewhere between 76 and 100 grand.”
Philly teams in Florida
The Aztecs aren’t the only local team making the trip down south. Germantown’s Northwest Raiders are also representing Philly this week. The Raiders are three-time defending national champions at the Pop Warner varsity level and are one of eight teams around the nation vying for that crown again this year. The Northwest Raiders are also sending a team to the championship in the Pee Wee division, giving Philly four chances to bring home a title.
There are three classifications at the Division I level of Pop Warner football, with eight teams from around the country competing in each, so it’s a notable accomplishment for Philly to be so well represented this year. But as Merricks explained, his Aztecs’ success on the gridiron is nothing compared to their cheerleading squads.
“Our cheerleading program is way more dominant than our football program. Our cheerleaders go down to nationals and they win the competition almost every year. Our football team, we get down there in spurts. We’ve got six football teams, so sometimes we’ll get three or four, but our cheerleaders always go.
“I guess there’s something in the water down in Hunting Park,” he joked. “Everybody, we work hard down in Hunting Park. Everybody really works hard.”
‘One time for the Wizzle’
For the Aztecs football program, though, this year’s road to the national title has taken on even more meaning. Last February, the club’s president and longtime coach Wayne “Wiz” Allen passed away, leading Merricks and other coaches to return to the Aztecs in an effort to keep the program thriving.
“He coached me, and he was my friend. When he passed we all came back to the Aztec program so the program wouldn’t fall off this year.”
Merricks said he had left the Aztecs program in 2014 to coach a team in another youth league, located in Olney, which was closer to his home.
“In February, when Wayne passed away, everybody came back because this program is one of Philadelphia’s strongest programs,” Merricks said. “I played for the Aztecs, my relatives played for the Aztecs, some of the other coaches out there who are older played for the Aztecs.
“With Wayne Allen, this guy right here,” he continued, “his Xs and Os were off the charts. That guy was a football guy. By him passing away, it shocked the football coaches. Nobody ever saw it coming. That’s why this year you hear people saying, ‘one time for the Wizzle’ or ‘Wizzle gang’ or ‘let’s do it for the Wiz’ or ‘the Wiz kids.’ It’s a lot of references for our teams going out there for Wiz.”
Allen died the night of NFL Super Bowl on Feb. 5, 2017 of a heart attack. He was 44.
“It came and got him that Super Bowl night and took him out of here,” Merricks said. “The last conversation … Tom Brady and [the Patriots] they did a single-wing play — that’s the formation we run, we run a single-wing formation — and so I actually called him. I talked to him, and I was one of the last people to talk to him. It must have happened shortly after that.”
Merricks said the program wants the national title, but hopes to honor Allen in the process.
“What better accomplishment would it be to win it the year of the president’s death, to go and get that. It just would be an amazing story.”