CHAMPAIGN — Thanksgiving 1992. A few families from Champaign were complaining about a lack of respect among the kids. So one man spoke up and said let’s do something about it. That something has lasted 25 years and turned him and his friend into Angels Among Us.
It’s not the NBA finals, but don’t tell these kids that. They play their heart and souls out on Saturday mornings at the Douglass Center in Champaign. Parents cheer. Families talk. A neighborhood comes together. This is First String and Peter McFarland is the man behind it.
“I said the only way to get them together is through sports,” McFarland remembered.
He actually started with baseball. 15 kids one fall. By summer, that grew to 30 and more and more wanted to sign up. He needed help so McFarland turned to friend John Cooper to coach and handle behind the scenes duties.
Cooper said, “When he came and asked me about it, I thought about it for a quick second.”
Together they were determined to take on as many kids as wanted to play. Erica Chancellor was one of them. She was one of only two girls in the league in those early years. She remembers learning more than just the rules of the game.
“Everything that he did, he incorporated team spirit and responsibility and respect,” said Chancellor. “Respect for adults and respect for your teammates and yourself as a person.”
McFarland and Cooper added basketball eight years later.
“We wanted to stay connected with the kids because we didn’t just want to do something in the summers and not have anything for them to do in the winter time,” McFarland said.
First String was so popular they had 22 teams at one point. 145 kids, ages 5 to 11, loving a sport and getting connected.
“You see kids who I know fighting each other and then once basketball started, after practice, you see them walking away together, laughing and joking with each other because now they know each other.”
And when there are problems, McFarland stresses discipline with compassion.
He said, “You can’t just sit them down and ignore them. You got to continue to talk with them and explain why I disciplined them.”
The life lessons sink in and stay. Like for Kendall Green, now a freshman at Centennial. He played on First String his whole childhood.
“Always before and after practice they would just give us life speeches on what to do and what not to do and how to do it and why to do it,” remembered Green.
He broke his leg on a kick return last year. His grades fell but he says he thought about what his coaches used to lecture.
“Grades was the number one thing they talked about. I came back and worked my way up, back to okay grades. It was way better than they were.”
It’s just one success story out of so many.
Cooper said, “I’ve had kids come to my door and they’ve been gone for seasons and they tell me, ‘Coach, I’m in school. I’m getting ready to graduate. I want to take you to lunch.’ There’s got to be some type of influence we’re doing. One at a time. Sometimes two.”
First String is now on a second generation of kids like Chancellor’s son, 8-year old Keith.
“I think I get more out of it than Keith does to be honest,” she said. “It brings families together. It brings just the community together. All in one. You really have different aspects of all the community that come together on Saturdays and play these games and it’s really fun.”
It’s exactly what McFarland envisioned two decades ago over a cup of coffee, one Thanksgiving night.