Commitment, fortitude, teamwork, discipline, respect. To be a Southside Raider, you must carry yourself, both on and off the field, in a way that is in line with the principles that the program was built on.The values that young people learn from the Southside Raiders football program has had a positive impact on the Madison community for more than four decades.
“It’s more than just about football …. it’s about life,” Southside Raiders head football coach Wayne Strong tells Madison365. “It’s about preparing kids for life … teaching them how to deal with adversity and teaching them how to deal with conflict. It’s about stressing the importance of education and staying in school and [staying] out of trouble. If they do, they will be successful in life. That’s really our goal here.”
Founded by Will Boyd Smith, the Raiders just started their 45th year of molding young men on Madison’s south side. They are all about those core values, but make no mistake about it: They are also very much about football. The Southside Raiders are always a team to be reckoned with and they have produced some incredible athletic talent including St. Louis Rams wide receiver Derek Stanley, former NBA guard Reece Gaines, and former Wisconsin Badger linebacker Jeff Mack, to name a few.
The Raiders have five teams grades 4-8 that play seven games a year in the Dane County Area Youth Football League. The Southside Raider cheerleading program has girls from grades 3-8. Most players live not too far from Penn Park, but some come from as far away as Verona and Sun Prairie, partially due to the Raiders’ low participation fee.
“We have an excellent coaching staff lined up once again and we’re really seeking the support of the families and the community to make another successful season,” Strong says. “I love this time of the year. Fall is my favorite season; maybe it’s because I was born in September. Every Saturday being at the park is an incredible experience. I love our fan support. It’s a huge part of our community. It’s a southside institution. People look forward to the Southside Raiders.”
It’s Strong’s 20th year with the program; he first started out with the Raiders as a Madison police detective in the ‘90s when he was assigned to the South Madison precinct. Coaching football was a good way to get to know the community.
Strong says there are about 150 young football players signed up this year. “The program has grown exponentially since I first started in 1995. That year, we had two teams and we had to combine grades. Fourth, fifth, and sixth-graders had to play on the same team.”
A lot of the Southside Raiders come from single-parent and low-income families. Strong and his staff want to give the kids as much positivity as they can because a lot of the kids have seen a lot of bad stuff and dealt with trauma in their lives.”
“There are some really heartbreaking stories of kids coming out of tough situations. We’ve had kids who were homeless or who’ve had families that have had to move several times during the season because of housing issues,” Strong says. “Our coaches understand that they are more than football coaches … they are role models. In some cases, they are pseudo-parents because a lot of these kids come from single-parent families and don’t have dads. In a lot of cases, our coaches are substitute fathers for a lot of these kids and these kids look up to these coaches.
“That’s why it’s important for us to have the right people in there coaching who understand that this is more than about football; this is about life and teaching life lessons so that these kids will go on and be successful,” he adds.
Former players will always come back to the south side to visit with Strong and the other coaches. Some of them will have beards. Others will have wives and kids. Does that make Strong feel old? “Haha. It makes me feel old … but it makes me feel good at the same time,” Strong smiles. “Some of these kids that I coached in the late ‘90s are in their late 20s now but they still call me ‘coach’ after all these years. But it’s really a blessing. You know that you’ve had a real positive impact on these young people. That’s what we strive for.”
Some of his old players from the ‘90s now have kids in the current program. “That’s funny when I get a kid whose dad I once coached,” Strong says. “But that’s a positive thing along with the families that come back year after year and coaches that come back year after year.”
The Raiders program as seen some of their coaches move on to coach in local high schools and elsewhere. “That’s part of what we do, too. Along with developing players, we develop coaches, too,” Strong says. “We want coaches to move on to high school and college. We want to give them that solid base so they are prepared to move on when they are ready to do so.”
“There are some really heartbreaking stories of kids coming out of tough situations. We’ve had kids who were homeless or who’ve had families that have had to move several times during the season because of housing issues. Our coaches understand that they are more than football coaches … they are role models.”
The Southside Raiders kicked off in late July with their second annual football and cheerleader training camp where players could run through some basic drills and conditioning to shake some of that summer rust off. They practice at Penn Park three nights a week and host home games there on Saturday mornings.
How does Strong tell a young Southside Raider with bad hands that wide receiver might not be his best position? Very carefully.
“Well, more importantly, their parents need convincing,” Strong laughs. “We try to work with kids to help them play the position they want to play but we get them to look at other positions as well. We’ve had parents that come in as early as fourth grade and say, ‘My kid’s a linebacker!’ or ‘My kid’s a wide receiver!’ But at that age, you don’t know. And we try to get them to play multiple positions to find out what’s best for them and what they like.”
The young people need to be enjoying what they are doing out on the field for it to work, Strong says.
“It’s not about how many touchdowns you score and how many games you win but it’s about: are you coming to practice every day? Are you listening to your coach? Are you participating? Are you prepared to do the work that is necessary for you to be successful?” Strong says. “And more importantly … the overall issue is: are you having fun? We really want kids to have fun here.
“If the kids aren’t having fun. If it’s just drill, drill, drill, drill,” Strong adds. ‘They’re not going to come back.”
For years, the Raiders were under an umbrella organization – the Boys and Girls Club — but very recently transitioned into a non-profit organization. As a non-profit, the Southside Raiders now have a board of directors of which Strong serves as president. Fundraising is an even more key component now because equipment, travel expenses, paying the referees, and other miscellaneous can add up quick.
“We’re in the process of developing a fundraising strategy in order to keep the program going,” Strong says. “Fundraising will be big for us. We want to raise money and keep the program moving in a good direction. We’ve got a good, solid board of directors. We hope to establish those key partnerships and collaborations with others in the city that will help us grow.
The Southside Raider goals are the same as they’ve been since 1970: raising young men to become successful men. Strong hope to get younger people involved on the coaching side, too. “The millennials will be taking over the program someday so we really want to get them involved now and teach them how to run a program,” he says. “Learn from the mistakes we made and hopefully learn from the good things we’ve done.
“The program is growing. Our quality is high,” he adds. “We’ve had our challenges over the years, but we’ve been resilient. We’ve been a strong advocate in our community for our kids and our families. “We’re trying to improve the overall quality of the program in terms of services that we provide to families. We’re moving in a very positive direction with the program.”