It would be easy to dismiss members of Philadelphia Blue Flame football team as old men playing a young man’s sport.
The Philadelphia area police officers, firefighters and first responders who comprise the 40-man roster would be the first to admit that. Most reached a competitive zenith years ago during their high school days. And among the handful that made it to the college level, none ever became a household name.
But to these men, who range in age from their mid-20s to 50 and occasionally beyond, fleeting gridiron glory is the least of the many reasons they choose to suit up in full pads five or six times each spring and compete in the full-contact National Public Safety Football League.
Rather, they take the 60-minute beatings with public service in mind, raising money for numerous causes. Earlier this year, the nonprofit club surpassed $250,000 in charitable donations since its 2003 founding. Students in need have received much of that financial support through the Sgt. Patrick McDonald Scholarship Fund, which is named for the slain Philly police officer, himself a former Blue Flame player.
In support of the fund, the Blue Flame will host the fifth annual Sgt. Patrick McDonald Memorial Game at Northeast High School this Saturday, taking on another NPSFL squad, the Central Texas Wolfpack. Kickoff will be at 1 p.m. Admission is $5.
“Pat, he was a running back and he was tough, a small guy with a heart as big as a lion,” said Joe Hansbury, a Blue Flame co-founder and the club’s vice president. “He played big every game.”
McDonald grew up in Morrell Park, played youth football with Liberty Bell A.A. and was an All-Catholic lineman for Archbishop Ryan. He joined the police department in 2000, became a member of the elite Highway Patrol unit and was gunned down by a paroled ex-convict on a North Philly street on Sept. 23, 2008.
McDonald’s parents, retired Philadelphia fire Capt. Larry McDonald and Patricia “Patsy” McDonald, along with family and friends created the scholarship fund soon after. Larry McDonald passed away in 2010 while in training for a charity bicycle ride. The McDonald Fund provides scholarship money based on need to students attending grade schools, high schools and colleges. Information is available via www.sgtpatrickmcdonaldfund.org.
“In the years since Pat was killed, we’ve given over $150,000 in scholarships,” said Terrence Lappe, a member of the fund’s executive board. “But it’s not just about the dollar amount. We’re proud we’ve been able to help so many kids.”
The Blue Flame has been an annual contributor.
“They’ve played a huge role in the scholarship fund with their generosity,” Lappe said. “Without their support, we wouldn’t be able to help as many kids as we do.”
To this day, Blue Flame players remember McDonald by wearing his “34” jersey number on their uniforms and chanting it as a rallying cry. He remains an inspiration, much like the national tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, inspired the team’s founding.
“After 9/11, I saw a TV show about the New York police and fire departments playing a football game,” said Hansbury, a patrol cop in the 8th district. “So I called them up to set up a charity game.”
Philadelphia did not have a tackle football team at the time. But that didn’t stop Hansbury; his cousin, Joe Getter; and friend Mike Foley, a Philadelphia Fire Department lieutenant, from booking an exhibition game against a team of New York City prison guards.
They persuaded veteran high school coach John McAneney to take over the football operations and invited area cops and firefighters to try out for the squad. Hansbury credits McAneney for bringing the team’s biggest supporter on board, Blue Bell-based highway construction contractor Anthony DePaul, who now serves as the club’s president.
“We were going out to try and get donations to get the guys helmets,” Hansbury said. “Then Tony DePaul came on board and he has helped us immensely, not only by donating to us, but also getting other [sponsors] on board.”
Those business sponsors as well as the players’ individual fundraising efforts keep the program going. The club organizes annual Police vs. Fire amateur-style boxing exhibitions, as well as social events like “Coach Bag Bingo.” One time, the team even held a rubber duck race on Pennypack Creek. Police Officer Michelle Winkis does a lot of the organizational work these days and is like the team’s “den mother,” Hansbury said. All board members and coaches are volunteers.
The team has donated to the police Survivors Fund, the fire Widows Fund, the Hero Thrill Show, the National Kidney Foundation, the Pegasus Riding Academy, a camp for special needs children, an autism support group, the Frankford Chargers youth football club and a toys-for-tots campaign at two of the city’s children’s hospitals, among other causes.
“In some cases, it may not be a lot of money to some organizations, even though it’s everything we raise,” Getter said. “But every bit helps.”
On the football side of things, McAneney stepped aside after a few years and left the reins to his offensive coordinator, Mike McKay. McKay still has the job and recently became head coach at Father Judge High School.
A hodgepodge roster of 20-somethings and 40-somethings, some with college experience and some with almost no playing experience, meshed pretty quickly after the first few practices in early 2003.
“We filled the roles well enough to take the doubts away from a lot of players’ minds,” Hansbury said. “There were doubts until we went up to New York and walked onto the field 65 strong.”
The Blue Flame soon earned an invitation into the NPSFL. Today, the 17-year-old league has more than two dozen teams from throughout the country. Over the years, the Blue Flame has amassed a winning record and played in some major venues, including the Rose Bowl, Lincoln Financial Field and Chicago’s Soldier Field. The team even traveled to Ireland in 2009 for a game. Players paid their own expenses and treated McDonald’s parents to the trip.
“We’ve played everywhere from big stadiums to a little sandy, dusty field in Houston and a bog in Ireland,” said Hansbury.
Regardless of the arena, the players approach the games with the enthusiasm of rookies and the desperation of veterans seeking one last moment in the sun.
“It can be tough to get them to practices with their work [schedules] and their children, but they give up things in their lives to do this,” Hansbury said. “It’s tough being a 40-year-old man and getting up the next day [after a game] to go to work.
“They do it just to get that second chance to play. And to do it for charity makes it even better.” ••
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org