NEW YORK CITY — Some 120 teammates, family members and friends of a Harlem football team were served by members of the Manhattan singles ward during a banquet at the Manhattan stake center. The banquet, held Dec. 11, celebrated the first high school football team in Harlem in more than 62 years — a team organized by Duke Fergerson, a former NFL player and former Harvard student, and co-coached by former BYU coach LaVell Edwards, who recently served a public affairs mission in New York with his wife, Patti.
Calling it the "Ammon Project" by the singles ward and the New York Public Affairs office, the volunteers agreed they would serve without expectations or agenda. "These volunteers worked behind the scenes in the kitchen, while in the cultural hall there were speeches and trophies, videos and posters of the games, hundreds of balloons and cheering," wrote Sister Sharon Larsen, who is serving a public affairs mission with her husband, Elder Ralph Larsen. "One player came back to the kitchen and said, 'This is the greatest night of my life. Thank you!' A group at one table asked the server, 'Are you a Mormon?' She said, 'Yes, I am.' They said, 'Tell us about this Book of Mormon of yours.' "
New York New York Stake President Brent J. Belnap welcomed the team, named the "Harlem Hellfighters." He quipped, "It hardly seems appropriate to welcome the Hellfighters into the Church," as he turned the ceremony over to Mr. Keith Wright, the Harlem assemblyman who served as master of ceremonies.
The team was named after the 369th Regiment in World War I. These African-American soldiers from Harlem fought for France and at the end of the war, were decorated for valor and courage. Mr. Fergerson organized the team to help the young men see beyond Harlem, get a college education, and fulfill their hopes and dreams. He recruited young men from 13 high schools who were willing to work hard in school and on the gridiron.
One of the boys was Robert Sheppard, the only Caucasian on the team and also a member of the Church. He mentioned to coach Fergerson that his home teacher used to coach football and might be able to help them.
After Robert explained to the coach what a home teacher is, Mr. Fergerson, asked, "Who is your home teacher, Rob, and just how long has it been since he has coached a game?"
"His name is LaVell Edwards and I think it's been a couple of years since he's coached."
"LaVell Edwards?" repeated coach Fergerson in disbelief. "Did you say your whatever-you-called-him is LaVell Edwards?"
"Yes, he and his wife, Patti, come to our home every month."
"So LaVell Edwards, the BYU coach who other coaches come to for help, comes to your home every month?" coach Fergerson couldn't believe his luck.
"Yes, he does," repeated Rob.
"Well, get him over here, Rob. We need him!" commanded the coach.
Elder Edwards worked with the team until he and Sister Edwards returned to Utah at the completion of their mission, which was about the same time the football season ended. The Harlem team's season was short, finishing with a 3-1 record.
Coach Fergerson now calls himself "Brother Duke" and wants to attend Church services when the new meetinghouse in Harlem is built. Today, there are more than 120 people from Harlem who know about the Church. They expressed gratitude and warm appreciation for the efforts put forth to help their team celebrate a most significant event.