Game on at St. Petersburg's Gridiron community flag football tournament

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BRING IT: Players on Lisa Wheeler-Brown’s flag football team scrimmage Saturday with neighborhood kids. - ARIELLE STEVENSON
  • ARIELLE STEVENSON
  • BRING IT: Players on Lisa Wheeler-Brown’s flag football team scrimmage Saturday with neighborhood kids.

It’s Saturday afternoon, and St. Petersburg Council of Neighborhood Associations president Lisa Wheeler-Brown is contacting her people about flag football practice. It’s the first of two practices ahead of the first annual Gridiron Family Fun Day tournament. Law enforcement and community members signed up to play in hopes of building mutual understanding.

“We’re not just doing this for the south side,” Wheeler-Brown says. “We’re focusing on the entire community and helping to mend that relationship with the police.”

She leans against her car at the Wildwood Recreation Center as her team slowly starts trickling in.

“I hope we have enough so I don’t have to play,” she says, laughing. “I’m the unofficial official coach. I’m supposed to be yelling on the sidelines.”

Wheeler-Brown became a force in the community after her son, Cabretti Wheeler, was shot and killed in 2008. The murder went unsolved for a time. But she was relentless in confronting a “no snitch” culture head-on, and police say that’s partly why they were able to find her son’s killer — because someone came forward with information that helped solve the case.

“I love my community and I know we need to have a better relationship with police officers,” Wheeler-Brown says.
BRING IT: Players on Lisa Wheeler-Brown’s flag football team scrimmage Saturday with neighborhood kids. - ARIELLE STEVENSON
  • ARIELLE STEVENSON
  • BRING IT: Players on Lisa Wheeler-Brown’s flag football team scrimmage Saturday with neighborhood kids.

A few months ago, she approached St. Petersburg Assistant Police Chief Melanie Bevans about doing some kind of sporting event to build community between youth and law enforcement. Bevans, the police and fire departments were on board immediately.

“The city at large and the St. Pete Police Department have done a tremendous job connecting with youth,” Bevans told CL in a separate interview. “But here’s another opportunity to move that forward through a special connection.”

At Wildwood, some of the neighborhood kids form a team to play against Brown’s Rockets, and eventually the entire complex is playing or watching on the sidelines.

One of Wheeler-Brown’s players is 17-year-old Ja’Kevia Malone, who plays receiver on the senior flag football team at Dixie Hollins High School. Malone says she was excited to play and hopes the game improves how young people view the police.

“I think it’s a good moment for us to get to know each other,” Malone says, “instead of always being at it with the police. I think it’s really good.”

Soon, Malone is on the field, chasing down the football and opposing players. A little girl comes off the playground and asks Wheeler-Brown if she can play, too. Malone comes off the field a few minutes later and taps the little girl into the game.

“I think [Wheeler-Brown] is an example of a true community leader,” Bevans said. “She has put 110 percent into this for no other reason than she lives in this community and wants to make it a better place. Those are the type of community leaders we need.”

Wheeler-Brown has designed the entire event with nothing but a good time in mind. Thus, a dramatic coin-toss showdown between Wheeler-Brown and Bevans is planned, to the tune of T.I.’s “Bring Em Out.”

There’s one more practice at Wildwood Rec before the big showdown. Both Wheeler-Brown and Bevans are playfully competitive.

“We have no expectations of winning this,” Bevans said. “I would really like to have that trophy on my desk instead of Lisa, though.”

Wheeler-Brown says she hopes that next year’s game has eight teams or maybe 10. But right now, all Lisa Wheeler-Brown is concerned about is the game, the competition, and winning.

“Tell [Bevans] we’re going to kick their butts,” she says, holding her hands up in the air. “Bring it. Bring it on.”

Gridiron Family Fun Day, Sat., April 26, 9 p.m.-2 p.m., Lakewood Football Complex, 5401-B 31st St. S., St. Petersburg. This event is FREE to all ages. 727-565-7756. 

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