Sacrifice for success
Parents of student athletes willingly go, and pay for, the extra mile(s)
Darlene M. Johnson | 9/14/2023, 6 p.m.
Willie Starlings, 50, became a sports parent when his son, Joel Starlings, played flag football as a 4-year-old at Hotchkiss Field Community Center in Richmond.
Joel went on to play baseball, basketball, soccer and T-ball, but decided to focus on football in the ninth grade, Mr. Starlings said. Over the years, the younger Mr. Starlings has played with AAU groups such asDreamchasersandVAHavoc Basketball. Today, Joel is a defensive tackle for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s football team.
Keeping his son involved in sports required juggling time, energy, and money, particularly since Mr. Starlings was a single parent.
Many parents throughout the United States invest significantly in their children’s sports activities. A 2019 Ameritrade survey found that parents around the country spend an average of 12 hours per week on their children’s sporting activities. The average family spends almost $900 each year for one child to participate in his or her main sport, according to a 2022 report by Project Play at the Aspen Institute.
Richmond area parents are no different.
Evette Wingfield-Woodley’s son, Dana “Woo”Woodley II, 20, also started playing sports at age 4. And, like Joel, her son also played football at Hotchkiss Field and played football and basketball until his 10th grade year in high school.
He then decided to focus solely on basketball, said Ms. Wingfield-Woodley, 54.
Dana played with the AAU groups Team Loaded, Upward Stars and Boo Williams Summer League in Hampton. He currently plays basketball as a shooting guard at Bryant & Stratton College after transferring from Norfolk State University.
The road to collegiate sports required sacrifice.
While Dana was with Team Loaded from fourth to sixth grades and for two years in high school, Ms. Wingfield- Woodley paid about $500 per year, which covered uniforms, shoes, travel for the students and fees for weekend tournaments with the team, she said. There were other travel and lodging expenses for trips to places such as Nevada and Florida. Ms. Wingfield-Woodley covered many of her expenses by hosting fish frys, car washes and similar fundraisers.
Joel Starlings’ participation in sports has been a regular expense for Mr. Starlings from pre-K through high school, Mr. Starlings said. He estimated that he has spent a total of $30,000 on his son’s sports career. Costs hovered around $500 in the beginning years but jumped to $2,500 per year in high school, he said.
Expenses increased when Joel participated in travel basketball in elementary and middle school, with costs averaging roughly $2,000 each year for training, gear and travel expenses.
Mr. Starlings said he also spent $1,000 per year on fees, cleats and training while Joel played football in the fall from third through eighth grades. Now that he is in college, scholarships lightened the load by covering most expenses, Mr. Starlings said.
Both Mr. Starlings and Ms. Wingfield-Woodley experienced financial challenges and leaned on their sons’ schools for academic support along the way.
“I had to sacrifice my social life because I had to work. Then, after work, my son played sports all year round,” Mr. Starlings said.
Midway through his son’s sports activities, a towering force stepped in and took the younger Starlings under his wing. Milton Bell, 53, who stands at 6 feet, 8 inches tall, started working with Joel Starlings at age 12 as part of Mr. Bell’s basketball school, The Milton Bell Team.
Joel “had his head on straight,” Mr. Bell recalled as one reason he enjoyed working with the Benedictine High School graduate. Mr. Starlings said that his son admired Mr. Bells’ accomplishments as a former high school basketball standout and as an international professional player.
Known to many throughout Richmond, Mr. Bell graduated from John Marshall High School and later played basketball for the University of Richmond and the Georgetown University Hoyas. He also played professionally in South America and Europe, and in 2022, was inducted into the John Marshall High School Athletics Hall of Fame.
Along with his wife, Sharad Bell, Mr. Bell began sending players overseas and bringing pro coaches to Richmond from Argentina in 2008. Since founding their company, he has worked with more than 100 youth and professional athletes.
After traveling overseas and playing basketball, Mr. Bell said he felt drawn to contribute to the community from which he came.
“It’s my obligation being the first McDonald’s All American basketball player from Richmond,” he said. “It’s my duty to help create the next All American, the next Hall of Fame student or the next mayor or governor. I’m supposed to produce and spearhead and lead the next generation. I will do my part to teach them basketball and life skills. I feel like I owe it because so many people poured into me.”
Mr. Bell also began mentoring Mr. Woodley during his sophomore year of high school. Her son now considers Mr. Bell an uncle, Ms. Wingfield- Woodley said.
Having known Mr. Bell since high school, she asked him to mentor Dana after he had previously mentored Mr. Woodley’s older brother, Devin. Dana Woodley and Joel Starlings were both athletes that “embodied” what The Milton Bell Team did as a company, Mr. Bell said. “Both of them are children of single parents, as I was,” said Mr. Bell, whose father died in 1981.
Mr. Bell also is a sports parent, so he understands the costs. For his son, Maximillion Milton Bell, he spent almost $3,000 on basketball camps and travel the summer after his sophomore year of high school. Such costs led Mr. Bell to make his basketball school as affordable as possible.
“I’m from an era where basketball was free,” he said.
Ms. Wingfield-Woodley does not miss any of her son’s games and has traveled across the country to support her son’s sports obligations. She has had the role of the “team mom,” making travel arrangements for other parents, she said. But this comes at a price.
Ms. Wingfield-Woodley has experienced health complications and currently requires dialysis while she waits for a new kidney, she said. However, she has not let her health affect her support for her son and his basketball career.
“Mothers who support their kids, we do whatever we need to do to fight,” she said. “I think if anything, it’s given me that fight and that ‘oomph’ to want to make sure I stay as healthy as I can. For 15 years, we’ve been putting in work for him to be in this position, so I thank God.”