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A ‘safe haven’ for kids

Elmont Cardinals Sports Club celebrates 50-plus years

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The phrase “Pain is temporary, pride is forever,” has been used by many of the coaches and volunteers for the Elmont Cardinals Sports Club over the past 54 years.

Since their beginnings in 1967, the Cardinals have focused on helping youth, using sports as an avenue to help children become well-rounded people. “Our goal,” club President Jon Johnson said, “is to continue to provide a safe haven for the kids of Elmont and Nassau County to play youth sports and learn discipline, winning, losing, sportsmanship and how to play as a team.”

Johnson also stressed the importance of academics, because the club’s coaches regularly check report cards, and meet with parents to stay updated on each player’s progress in the classroom. “If there’s players who aren’t doing well in school, we applaud the parents to not bring them to practice,” he said.

The club has succeeded, Johnson said, thanks to the efforts of the Cardinals’ coaching staff and the array of sports that kids have had to choose from. However, it took some time for the program to take off.

“For the first decade, [the] Cardinals had kids from Elmont play against each other in an inter-squad league until they transferred to playing travel football around 1978-79,” Johnson recounted.

The change from being a predominantly stay-at-home club to one that now travels has led to a deeper sense of pride among generations of former Cardinals players. “Anything that they need, as far as advice or anything like that, they can always reach out to us,” said Football Director Dexter McRae. “We’re always there, even the kids that we had that moved on … we’re still in communication with them as well, if they ever need anything. We try to be a helping hand as best as we can.”

McRae, who took part in the Cardinals program growing up, said he credits football for being a building block in his life. In addition, he has developed long-lasting friendships through the program.

“It definitely gave us that structure, as far as life goes,” McRae said. “Football is more than just a game. It teaches us life lessons and builds your character. It instills things in us that we carry throughout our life. The most important part is what you take from the game and the lessons that you learned.

“We build up character, instill discipline and structure,” he added, “so that kids will stay out of trouble and do the right things in school, so that they can go on and be successful adults.”

Melissa Barnes, a lifelong Elmont resident who took part in the program as a cheerleader, said she believed that it’s important for former Cardinals to come back and continue the tradition. “It feels like the sports family has become my second family,” Barnes said, “with the coaches checking on my son, from inviting us to barbecues, and other things outside the sports setting. It’s really warming to be able to have that type of dynamic.”

While the idea of having a great time with residents of the community sounds wonderful, Barnes said, none of it would matter if the financial burden were too great. “As a parent, for them to continue to keep it affordable year after year, it kind of makes you want to continue to be loyal to them,” she said. “They’re doing their best and they’re fundraising, as they try to keep the price low for the community.”

Her son, 13-year-old all-purpose football player Aiden Barnes, who’s been with the Cardinals for five years, said he enjoyed the fun environment that his coaches provide. “The coaches are great,” he said. “They’re very jokative and they like [to] play around, but when it’s time to play, they get serious.”

As for what’s next for the Cardinals, Johnson said he had a clear vision for the future, and that he hoped to build a close-knit community through the program. “We need to work on building Elmont, so that way our youth can better benefit,” he said. “The obstacles of getting gym space and gym time are there. We don’t have a feeder program from the elementary schools, but other towns around us have these programs. We need to have that so our children all benefit. We’re capable [of] doing much better.”

Referring to the former Cardinals who return as volunteers, Johnson concluded, “Once you’re a Cardinal, you’re a Cardinal for life.”