RICHMOND, Va. -- With the sun setting earlier, the lights at the Belmeade Community Center burn a little brighter and a little longer on their back field.
Here the Belmeade Rams are put through their paces by volunteer head coach Joquan Roney and his staff.
Roney is in his first year coaching the Rams, and as a former Hermitage Panther, has tried to bring the lessons he learned from longtime head coach Patrick Kane to the middle schoolers on his roster.
"It was a little rocky at the beginning," Roney said. "As time went on, they started to trust me. I'm close in age so they started to understand the method I was trying to bring to the table."
Roney has learned to be more than a coach. As his roster has expanded, so have the needs of his players, both on the field and off.
"They've gotta trust me," Roney explained. "If they don't trust me, the environment they live in, they don't trust a lot of folks. By trusting me, that's how I build a relationship with them."
That environment includes some of the more dangerous streets in Richmond. Some of Roney's players admit if they didn't have football, they might be getting into trouble elsewhere.
"They lose friends and family members every day," Roney said. "I know they get into violence almost twice a week, something's going on. But this is a safe haven."
"The kids don't need to be on the streets," added former Varina and NFL standout Michael Robinson. "They need to be doing something, like playing a sport. We all look at sports as skill builders. They need to be doing something constructive."
Robinson knows first hand what sports can offer a kid from RVA.
After winning the Orange Bowl with Penn State, and a Super Bowl ring with the Seattle Seahawks, Robinson's Excel 2 Excellence Foundation wanted to help the next generation.
So his group has partnered with Richmond's Parks and Recreation Department to help expand the youth football program in the city, holding some 2,200 players to the same standards as other students taking part in the foundation's programs.
Teams from the city are now playing teams from Henrico and Chesterfield counties, just as they will when they get to high school.
"The goal was to have different people experience different communities," Robinson explained. "I'm telling you, it's worked out beautiful."
The other goal was to bring a sense of additional structure to not only the league, but to the lives of the players, something for which Roney and Robinson agree kids are searching.
Leroy Jackson, 15, is in his second year playing for the Rams. He was on the roster at George Wythe until his grades fell too far and his mother made him leave the Bulldog team.
"I was very disappointed," Jackson recalled. "I cried."
But since coming back to the Rams, his grades have improved thanks to the requirements set forth by E2E, and by the oversight of his head coach.
"Staying on him. Staying positive," Roney said of his multiple roles with Leroy. "Talking to his mom. Making sure he's doing what he's supposed to be doing in the classroom."
"He will not play on this field if he's not doing what he's supposed to do in that classroom."
As an added incentive, Robinson had a chance to meet rapper Snoop Dogg, who holds a huge youth football tournament in California every December. Robinson vowed to bring the RVA champs out to his tournament, giving some of them an opportunity of a lifetime.
"I had a chance to look him in his face and talk a lot of trash and let him know that we're gonna be about business. We're not coming out here to make any friends."
"Some of these kids have never left their neighborhood. To be able to take them not only to another state but a whole nother coast to experience what kids see on the West Coast? It's gonna be life changing."
Unfortunately, the Bellmeade Rams were beaten in the semifinals by the team from the Powhatan Youth Center. Powhatan will take on Battery Park in the 14U championships with the winners heading to California in December.
If you would like to learn more or support the trip, they have created a GoFundMe account which you can access here.
If you would like to nominate someone to be profiled, email us.