Bill Sytsma took the job to help kids play football.
In three years, he’s realized helping the Frankford High School football team win games is the smallest part of his job.
He’s also realized that he’s got plenty of help to make that happen. But it took one of his players to show him what his guys needed.
A year ago, Sytsma saw one of his players carry a big bag of food into the locker room. The Pioneers locker room is sacred, and food isn’t allowed there.
But after talking to his player, he learned some rules are meant to be broken.
“I was mad when I saw him come in with a bag, he knew we didn’t allow that in there,” Sytsma said. “He said, ‘My bad, coach, but (one of the players) didn’t have any food and he needed some, so I brought it in.’
“I went from being mad to realizing I have to do something. I didn’t know how many of these kids needed food. (The player who needed the food) was living on his own, so he didn’t have any money to buy anything. I then knew I had to do something. I had to do more.”
So Sytsma got to work, and ever since he began, he’s worked on a team that has made sure that not only his team has food, but any kid at Frankford has food.
“I didn’t know about this, so I started talking to Margaux Murphy, she helps people with food insecurity in Kensington,” Sytsma said. “I didn’t know how to do any of this, she was so good about helping us get food. She had donations that she gave to us. And the school was great, too. They gave us a section of the cafeteria to store it all.”
He got the idea.
He got the food.
Then he needed deliverers.
There, he lucked out, too.
Sytsma got quite a group of helpers that included his sister and Frankford softball coach Lisa Kling, Frankford English teacher Michele Armstrong, his players and Sixers star Matisse Thybulle and his girlfriend.
A unique group, but a very caring group as well.
“Michele is a rock star, she helps us with everything we try to do,” Sytsma said. “Whenever we have an idea, she’s the first one who volunteers to help. My sister is the same way. And our guys would deliver it. They enjoyed doing it.”
But what about the other guy?
“He heard about what we are doing and he wanted to help, and once we started doing it, he never missed a day before the NBA bubble stole him from us,” Sytsma said with a laugh. “He didn’t have to do it every week, I told him we could rotate, but he always wanted to do it. He loved doing it. And the guy, what a great guy.
“He’s been great for the kids, and sometimes he’ll put it on his Instagram and everyone will say, ‘Yo, look, he put Frankford on there.’ But he is the most down-to-earth guy you’ll ever meet. The kids love him because he’s a basketball player, but they love him because he is such a good person. He always wants to do more. His girlfriend, too.”
The Frankford food bank is there to help.
It’s there for anyone who needs it, and when a player or family needs it, Sytsma and his crew are happy to help.
“We give them a lot of food when they need it, I’m talking boxes, it’s groceries for the week,” Sytsma said. “When I started coaching here, I had no idea kids were hungry. Families were hungry. And with the pandemic, it got even worse. Margaux really jumped into action to help. She is great at this. She showed me so much, ways to do things.”
The food bank is just the latest initiative Sytsma and the Frankford football team has done to improve the lives of the players.
Maybe the coolest thing he did for the players was last summer when he instituted a game night. Players would come to the locker room every Friday night, so instead of hanging outside with friends where they weren’t protected, they would stay at the school where they enjoyed games and food.
It was very much needed, too.
This summer, Sytsma couldn’t have those get-togethers because everything was shut down due to coronavirus.
Then one night, Sytsma got a text that rising sophomore running back Angelo Walker was shot and killed. The exact thing Sytsma was trying to protect his players from happened.
“That was my biggest fear coming true,” Sytsma said. “It’s the one thing I didn’t want to happen. A lot of these kids, they’re not doing anything bad, but they’re in spots that can be dangerous. It’s not like when we were kids, it’s not safe to hang outside with your friends. It’s just not safe. It was awful for everyone.
“I’m happy we’re back working. We go out three days a week. It’s not much, but it gives them somewhere to go. Somewhere where I know they’re safe. That’s what we are trying to do. We want to make their lives safe and better.”
And it’s not just for Frankford students.
Sytsma is always working with coaches at other schools to figure out ways to help.
He’s currently working with the Zach Ertz Foundation to bring a full national combine to Philly so Public League players can go through the paces and get their times in all of the exercises colleges look for. It’s slated for Oct. 17.
“We’re going to print it out for them and let them send it to colleges,” Sytsma said. “The Ertz foundation is incredible. It was Lisa Ertz, Zach’s mom, and Julie, his wife. Zach was busy with his season, but they’ve been great. They’re stepping up to help kids. That’s what it’s all about.”
Since Sytsma took over as Frankford coach, that’s all he’s been doing.
When he arrived at Frankford, he had visions of drawing up great plays, teaching his players proper technique and adding to arguably one of the best high school football programs in Philadelphia.
Instead, he’s doing many different things. Things he never thought he’d be doing, but now three years in, he couldn’t imagine not doing it.
“I coached in Europe, I wanted to get into coaching to win,” Sytsma said. “But we are winning. It’s just a different kind of winning. When you win a game, it’s a great feeling for, what, a night? Then you get on to the next game. But when you help someone, change their life, that’s a win.
“Now my wins are in different areas. When I have a kid who habitually didn’t go to class now go to every class, that’s a win. When I have a kid who used to get into fights now get good grades and do great on the SATs, that’s a win. And those wins are better than any football game. I’ve certainly changed as a coach. These kids have changed me.”
And he’s changed the kids.
Sytsma’s players and those around the program live by the motto of F.A.M.I.L.Y. That stands for “Forget About Me, I Love You.” They put others’ needs ahead of their own. And for Sytsma, that’s exactly how he coaches.
Like all Public League teams, the Pioneers aren’t playing this fall. But that doesn’t mean they’re not sticking together. And that will go through the spring, when they take the field.
“As a coach, you ask your players to fight and battle for you,” Sytsma said. “So as a coach, I have to do that for them. It’s easy to blame others and say what people should be doing. And I was like that, I would blame others. But now, I look at it as what can I do? How can I help? Because I owe it to my guys to fight for them. They fight for me by working hard, playing hard and trying to help us win. I owe it to them to fight for them in anything they need.
“We are a family. And families do that for each other. They are there for each other and me and I’ll be there for them.”