RVA Bandits compete for football championships this weekend

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 10/26/2023, 6 p.m.
Darryl H. Johnston fondly remembers playing youth football growing up in Richmond. Frustrated that the city’s parks and recreation department …

Darryl H. Johnston fondly remembers playing youth football growing up in Richmond.

Frustrated that the city’s parks and recreation department was no longer fielding a team at the Broad Rock Sports Complex where he played as a child, the 32-year-old Atlantic City, N.J., native started a program in August.

“The response was huge,” said Johnston, with 72 youths registering to play and parents volunteering to coach and support the RVA Bandits.

He said the games have been fun and interest has remained high.

Three of the RVA Bandits teams will play for the local championship this weekend at Varina High School.

The 6U team will play at noon Saturday, Oct. 28, while the 13U team will play at 9 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 29.

The 9U team he personally coaches will be vying for the championship at noon on Sunday. A professional mentor who also is known by the nicknames “The Rock” or “Like a Rock,” Johnston hopes one or more of the Bandits teams will win and get on a track to the national championship in Naples, Fla. The teams in each age bracket would need to win games at the regional level and the state level to gain that opportunity, he said.

He did not have the records for the other Bandits teams, but the 9U team is going into the championship with a 5-2 record.

The success of the RVA Bandits is running counter, though, to the general trend for youth football in the city.

The Richmond youth football program is shrinking, with fewer youths signing up for play.

Without the Bandits, there would have been only two teams offering play in the city this fall.

It is unclear why. The Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities has not conducted any surveys or corralled any data to explain the change.

It is possible youth interest has waned. Or there has been a shift to soccer due to more interest in the Richmond Kickers, and growth of Latino families for whom that is a preferred sport.

Whatever the reason, the Bandits have been critical to maintaining the city program this year.

In order to have enough games, the Bandits have had to play teams from elsewhere.

The 9U Bandits’ competition came from Northern Virginia, Petersburg, Chesapeake and Henrico as well as the city, Johnston said.

According to the department, the program was reorganized in 2021.

“The department moved to a district concept that aligns with city high schools,” spokeswoman Tamara Jenkins stated. “Each district has three to five teams in different age divisions and they each participate in a fall and spring season.”

During the spring, only 55 youths mostly 10 and under played with the two other teams that are in the program, RVA United and the RVA Wildcats, Jenkins reported.

This fall, the total grew to 273 youths, she stated, but the number would have been far smaller if Mr. Johnston had not organized the RVA Bandits.

Mr. Johnston said he remembers play ending with the city championships at Hovey Field, and he’s delighted the Bandits’ three teams could go further.

“We still have a ways to go. But wouldn’t it be great if we could win it all in our first season.”