Last week, I spoke to Michael Willis, the founder of the Chicago Chargers Youth Next Level Athletic football teams, which compete in Pop Warner football. 

The program, which is for young people ages 8 to 14 years old, draws young athletes from all over the city. Last year, one team involved in the program won a national championship, perhaps the first time a West Side team has won a Pop Warner championship, Willis said.  

This year, Willis said, the pandemic uprooted the young men from their home base at Austin’s Columbus Park; instead, they traveled to Indiana, where COVID-19 restrictions weren’t as tight, to practice and compete. 

Last year, the Chargers at the 14-year-old level won the Pop Warner National Championship, held Dec. 3 through Dec. 12, in Orlando, Fla. 

The Chargers won 16 consecutive games against teams from across the country en route to the National Championship. In addition, two other Chargers teams qualified for the 2020 Championships by winning first place in Pop Warner’s State and Midwest/Southwest Regional Championships. 

The Chargers’ 8 and under team placed second in the National Division I bracket while the 10 and under team placed third in the National Division II bracket. 

On the program’s origins and stats 

We’ve been operating since 2006. I started the program at 14 years old. Since then, we’ve branched out all over the city and the state. We even have kids in the program from Indiana. 

We have 180 kids. We don’t charge a registration fee, but we do fundraisers to help cover our kids and we pride ourselves on being a travel organization, so we give kids different experiences when it comes to traveling in different states and dealing with our alumni at the high school level. 

On starting the program at such a young age 

I was in a youth entrepreneurship program at Michele Clark High School in Austin and I had learned how to write grants. I had a mentor, Sandra Graham, from the Prevention Force Family Center on the West Side, who taught me how to write grants, start a budget, start a 501(c)(3), things like that. The first grant was for like $3,500. 

On making the league work 

I work a full-time job in security right now, but running the league is also full-time even though I don’t get paid for doing it. It’s me and 20 other coaches throughout the state. We all volunteer. It’s our way of giving back. 

We’re able to maintain through various partnerships with people like Bernard Clay from Introspect Youth Services, aldermen and parents. We’re growing rapidly to the point where we don’t just consider ourselves West Side anymore. We’re all over the state. 

We have kids at the college level now who are being recruited by Division I Power Five schools like Michigan, Michigan State and Arizona.