Life can be cruel for those kids who live in Newark. The city has a population of 275,000, nearly one third of whom receive some form of welfare. In this financially strapped city, sports are a luxury. Luckily for the kids, there's Project Pride, a volunteer group that for the past 13 years has raised money to finance citywide sports programs. The lion's share of the money comes from the annual Pride Bowl, an early October game between two Division III football teams. In this year's game, played on Oct. 5 at Sprague Field, in Upper Montclair, Ramapo College beat local rival Montclair State 23-17. But the real winners were the kids of Newark.
"To me, it's like a major college bowl game, it means that much," said Erik Hunter, a Newark native and senior defensive tackle for the Ramapo Roadrunners, who won on an 88-yard touchdown pass play from quarterback James Grant to wide receiver Brad McKinney with 1:06 left.
Even the losing coach, Montclair State's Rick Giancola, walked away from the game knowing that at least his Red Hawks had played for a worthy cause. "What impresses me the most about Project Pride is the people—the people who take their own time and efforts to help the children of Newark," said Giancola, also a Newark native whose parents still live there.
In this much-maligned city, the Pride Bowl is a symbol of hope and optimism amid urban decay. The money from the charity game supports 17 academic and athletic programs for 15,000 Newark youths. This year's proceeds will fund 27 scholarships totaling $40,000.
Since 1979 more than $1 million has been raised through private donations, the bowl game and other efforts of the group. Every hot dog and program sold at the game helps support Small Fry basketball, Little League baseball and a host of other youth sports programs that would disappear without such funding.
The city wasn't always like this. Jerry Izenberg, the 61-year-old president of Project Pride, remembers when Newark's grammar schools played one another in touch football and softball, when school playgrounds were packed with league competition, when the city was a vibrant place for sports. "As the city declined in the 1960s, so did the recreation programs," says Izenberg, a syndicated sports columnist, author and Newark native. Today, according to Joe DiVincenzo, who runs the organization's sports programs and is the coordinator of athletics for the Board of Education, Project Pride is the only citywide recreation program for Newark's 31,000 elementary school students.
"I grew up in the housing projects on Seventh Avenue," says Ramapo's Hunter, "and I know what it's like. There's trouble lurking everywhere. The trouble is not hard to find but hard to stay away from." Six players from this year's teams had grown up in Newark and had benefited from Project Pride's programs. All of them plan to return to work and live in the city after graduation.
Kimble Wright, a Ramapo linebacker, credits Project Pride with his college success. "The players in the Pride Bowl would come to our grammar school and tell us that there was a better life out there, to stay off drugs and keep up with our schoolwork. I always remember that," he says. "They convinced me that I could go to college, too."
Good intentions, though, can go only so far, and organizing the Pride Bowl has never been easy. "Every year there's some nightmare," Izenberg says. The weather, a prime concern in the matter of gate receipts, has not always been cooperative; this year, a pregame downpour kept attendance to 4,617. In 1985 the city condemned the game's original homesite, 25,000-seat, 67-year-old Newark Schools Stadium. So the game was switched to a nearby high school field, with a seating capacity of only 4,500. This year the nomadic bowl moved to the suburban, 7,000-seat stadium at Montclair State.
Despite such annual calamities, the game's backers are upbeat. "People don't understand why I keep doing this," says Izenberg, "but it's a great feeling to make a difference in the lives of these kids; most of them have no chance." For Izenberg, Project Pride is an opportunity to give something back to the city where he grew up, where he went to college, where he has covered sports for the past 40 years, and where his wife, Aileen, works for the Board of Education.
"I owe a lot to this city," he says. "If I had the chance to grow up again, it would be here."
For Izenberg, Project Pride is a way to help his hometown's kids.