Quasir Peña may only be 7 years old, but the lineman has a roar. He unveils a sampling of what he calls his Star Wars “Chewbacca sound,” which he unleashes before he gets his football opponents where he wants them. “Then they don’t do nothing,” Peña says. “I do my noise, and they walk away. On defense, I want all the tackles.” Then his coach, Ty Bush, asks him, “If you had to rate the Chester Panthers experience between one and 10, where would you rate it?”
“An 11½, but I like everything—the running, tackling and the dogfights,” Peña says. “I like to get them at the legs and get them weak, then they drop and fall.”
This is the 25th anniversary season for the Chester Panthers Youth Empowerment and Athletic Association. “One of the craziest things is that the cost of registration is only $25,” says president Charles Thompson. “It’s gone up about a dollar a year.”
Founded in 1996, the program initially folded in 2000 due to financial constraints and a lack of local governmental support. “In the beginning, brothers would share helmets with brothers on game day,” Thompson says. “We had to store everything in our houses. There were no containers or sheds at the fields like now. All we had was this open space.”
Nine-year-old Ulysses “Mally” Allen, another lineman, is a first-year player. Thompson found him and his 5-year-old nephew during spring workouts between April and June, a sort of re-initiation for the program after the pandemic’s lost year. He asked why they weren’t playing.
“My dad didn’t sign me up,” Allen told him.
“Well, bring your dad over here,” Thompson said.
“I enjoy the workouts, the energy of the coaches, and the fact that they teach us discipline,” says Allen, who sacked the opposing team’s quarterback four times in his first scrimmage. “If I wasn’t playing, I’d be home playing games and eating—but I think I have a few more sacks in me.”
The Panthers player most on local minds right now is Ny’Ques Farlow-Davis, a 13-year-old who was gunned down May 3, 2020. He died a day later. Three men and a woman were charged and are awaiting trial. Though former Panthers have perished, this marked the first time the program has lost a current player. “It was rough,” says Thompson. “He was targeted. He was a popular, outstanding athlete. He was known, and others around here don’t like that. It was jealousy from adults.”
“Nobody did not like that kid,” says Marlise Carr, director of the program’s cheerleading squad, whose daughter had a birthday the day of the murder. “He was sweet, kind. He came from good stock, a good family. This is such a sad world, but here we tried to provide a safe place to communicate—a place where brothers could come together and cry about it. Though it wasn’t easy to talk.”
The Panthers plan to name their field at Chester’s Veterans Memorial Park the Ny’Ques Farlow Davis Field of Dreams—and maybe add a bronze bench there in his memory. “There are a lot of things we want to do,” Thompson says. “He has a foundation. We’re naming our 14U squad Team Ny’Ques.”
Thompson is responsible for restarting this program in 2004. He wasn’t even on the board when he did—he was an assistant coach. Initially, Thompson was forced to take his own kin to the Claymont (Del.) Falcons, who welcomed the newcomers. “They knew what they were doing,” he says. “They knew we had athletes.”
Then, one day, back at the park in Chester, a young boy on a bicycle with a football in his hands stopped him. “He asked, ‘Coach C., why don’t we have football here anymore?’” Thompson recalls. “To this day, I don’t know who that boy was. He wasn’t a kid I coached, but all the kids knew who we were. I knew I had to get back, and it was then that I decided to start a forever learning test in how to run a program. We’ve been at it ever since.”
“It’s a labor of love,” says Carr.
“Is that what we call it now?” replies Thompson, using a towel to mop up his summertime practice sweat. “In the early days, I called it stupid. It’s been a heck of a lot of sacrifice, but we’ve branded our name so well. Sometimes kids call me the ‘YouTube coach.’ Our reputation has superseded itself.”
In the beginning, it took every dime Thompson had—and he’d just bought a house. But he had a good job, working for a bank in Merion. Bur rather than furniture in his living room, he had 100 sets of football helmets and shoulder pads. Then he started securing coaches. One of them was Bush, now the Panthers’ vice president and head coach for the 7-and-under team. He declined initially, then changed his mind. “It took my first time here,” says Bush somewhat sheepishly. “I started edging down the hill, and soon I was on the 50-yard line.”
All the coaches traversed the city looking for kids and parents, telling them, “We’re getting it back.”
The first year, there were 76 kids ages 5–15 and five teams. Now, there are 300 participants, four flag football teams alone for the youngest, and enough cheer squads to assign two per team. Success has come with bumps and bruises—“and some of these,” says Bush, pulling out a few more gray hairs.
Between Thompson and Bush, they’ve won 20 championships in the past 10 years. Two affiliates—the national American Youth Football and the Independent Youth Football League—comprise 12 kindred programs in Chester and Delaware counties. When an age-level team wins an IYFL title, it advances to regionals. A regional title advances a squad to age-division national championships in Florida—something the Panthers have done six times since 2015.
Then there are the former Panthers who’ve advanced to the National Football League. Current players include Bilal Nichols (Chicago Bears) and Gary Brightwell (New York Giants). There’s also an NFL coach: Ronell Williams, a defensive specialist with the Bears. Three others have spent time in the NFL: Jerome Smith (Atlanta Falcons), Will Hunter (Minnesota Vikings) and Shaheer McBride (Philadelphia Eagles). “We’ve done this with muscle, hard work and some sponsorship,” says Thompson, who played just a year of organized football in high school and currently isn’t coaching for physical and family reasons.
A successful grant shepherded by state Rep. Brian Kirkland took two years to gain traction, but it recently covered expenses for building and stocking a concession stand. Kirkland also helped lobby for permanent lights at the field as an extension of the Keystone Communities Grant that’s lighting up much of the rest of Chester’s streets. In all, he’s helped secure $190,000 of state development funding for the program. “Like any program that helps kids in my district, I’m always going to be behind it,” Kirkland says. “The idea was to ask what we could do to establish sustainability and reoccurring profit so the Panthers could make their own money. “Any time you give a child opportunity—or something to do—it’s a plus. When they’re bored, they find something to get into. Charles Thompson and his staff help kids and stick with them. Do they save lives? Absolutely.”
“It’s fulfilling,” says Carr, who was the age of some of her cheerleaders, 8, when Thompson restarted the program. “These are our kids, our tomorrow. They need something to keep them from going in so many wrong directions.”
As for Bush, he knows one thing. “Two hours each weeknight and eight hours on a Saturday, this is the safest place to be in the city,” he says. “Not just for the kids, but for the parents, too.”