First down: The Chicago Chargers' youth football team is raising money to attend national Championships next month in Florida. (LARISA LYNCH/Contributor)

It was practice as usual for the Chicago Chargers youth football team even as temps dipped into the 20s last week when they took the field at Columbus Park, 500 S. Central Ave.

Michael Tucker, a middle linebacker for the team, pushed through the cold weather, determined to bring back a win at the national championships this December in Florida.

“We’ve been working hard. We’re out here in snow and rain,” said the 15-year-old North Lawndale College Prep student.

Chicago’s unpredictable weather is the least of the team’s worries. With a 9-1 season, the team is headed to the United Youth Football League National Championships, Dec. 5. That’s if the team can raise the $22,000 needed for the eight-day trip. The team, comprised of eighth- and ninth-graders, has raised $2,500 so far, but they are seeking the community’s help to secure the rest. The deadline is Nov. 30.

“We’re trying to come back and be national champions. We are fifth in the nation,” said the Chicago Chargers’ founder and head coach, Mike Willis, 22.

This is the third time the Austin-based Chicago Chargers have gone to the championship. Last year they came in fifth place. Willis admits raising funds for the trip has been tough since they received short notice that they made the championships. But Willis doesn’t want the youths’ hopes dashed.

“Everybody wants to complain about the youth, the youth the youth, but it’s like we have been reaching out to a lot of local businesses in the area and we’ve been getting bad results,” Willis said.

Most of the kids, he added, have never been out of their neighborhoods. Last year when the team went to the championships, Willis was able to treat the kids to Disney World.

“We want our community to rally behind us because we are going to represent Chicago, the Austin community, and Illinois as a state,” he said.

The team has established an online PayPal account and is selling $5 raffle tickets for a 50 inch plasma television. The organization’s cheerleading squad, Lady Chargers, is also headed to Florida to participate in the cheer championships. In all, 36 kids (23 boys and 13 girls) will be making the trip.

The money raised will pay for a coach bus, which Willis said is the trip’s biggest expense, plus room and board and registration fees.

“Every little bit counts for these kids,” he said.

Parent Juan Spencer is ecstatic about his son’s team making it to the championships. The game of football, he said, has offered his son, Darius Thurmond, life lessons that go beyond the gridiron — discipline being one of them.

“Since he has been here, I’ve seen a lot more improvement in school,” Spencer said. “He’s learned how to follow direction, participate as a team, and act as one.”

To be part of the Chicago Chargers program, students must maintain at least a B average, said Willis, who started the program in 2006 through a youth entrepreneurship grant. He was only 14 years old.

He created the program as a way to keep kids off the streets. Since its founding, about 2,000 kids went through the program. The program has six teams serving youth, ages 5-15, in Austin and surrounding neighborhoods.