Cassidy Jenkins spent two years battling over whether to sign up for football.

He wanted to play, but the 18-year-old Mastery High School of Camden student kept finding reasons not to.

He should have gone to Eastside, formerly Woodrow Wilson, to put on the pads since the school in North Camden had no team.

“I was scared of this commitment, going to other schools, not knowing anyone, a lot of that,” Jenkins said. “…The commitment to come here, to work hard every day, I felt like I wanted to do it, but I wasn’t ready for it.”

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Jenkins, who played football until ninth grade before quitting, proudly dons a jersey again this fall, but he doesn’t think he would have ever set foot on the gridiron if Mastery hadn’t created program last spring.

“I have to play this year. It was mandatory for me to play,” Jenkins said. “…Football is in my heart, so when I heard that, I loved it. I was thanking the principal and all I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a pleasure.

The Mastery Warriors are one of two new varsity teams in town this season, the other being KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, which began its program during COVID 2020 with a freshman team and competed at JV level last year.

“We have about 200 kids per class and we’re going to have enough kids to play sports, and they deserve to have a high school experience with quality sports programs,” said KIPP athletic director Nick Drago.

“Kids have the best opportunities where they go to school,” Mastery head coach Troy Still added. “When you look at Camden High and (Eastside) they have players who don’t go (there). These kids don’t go to pep rallies or extracurricular activities during school time like homecoming, things like that. They can only participate in activities outside of school.

However, opportunities for Masters and KIPP students raise another question: Can Camden sustain four college football programs, and will Camden High and Eastside suffer?

“I mean, any time you take from the public school system, it can hurt the city in that regard,” Eastside head coach Melik Brown said. “It depends, man. Honestly, it just depends on how it rolls and how the public schools, the comprehensive high schools, continue to grow and develop. It can be tricky. It can be beneficial. I do not know. It could be the best for the city.

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Brown is certain of one aspect, however.

“There’s nothing wrong when it comes to opportunities for kids, you know what I mean?” said Brown. “If it creates opportunities for children, there’s no way it can be bad for anyone.”

“I’m looking to be a powerhouse in the next 5-7 years”

Football was barely a thought in Josh Carmickel’s mind.

He played flag football for two years in college, but his passion was fashion and design.

“I wanted to start my own clothing brand,” he said.

But when two KIPP coaches approached the junior about playing for the Titans, he thought, why not give it a shot?

“I quite liked it,” he said. “It’s really fun, and most of my friends are playing. We’re doing our thing and everything.

Carmickel’s story is like many others at KIPP and Mastery. The bulk of both programs have limited to no football experience.

The two teams have around 75 children registered between them.

“There are a lot of personal skills that kids learn from organized sports,” said Mastery principal Andrew Anderson, who lobbied for the school to start a football program. “Right now we have kids on the pitch, before football here they had attendance issues, behavioral issues, school issues. It’s also changed the culture for a lot of our kids. They’re learning a lot personal skills they don’t just learn in traditional high school.

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Their football skills will take time.

KIPP is 1-3 this year, having been outscored 106-14. However, the Titans earned their first victory on September 24 by defeating DuBois Collegiate (Pennsylvania) 8-2. Wins and losses do not affect team excitement.

“It’s definitely been a great experience,” said junior Masai Truitt. “I like to do things that help me learn, so when I learn I feel like I’m growing too.”

The mastery is further along, as it’s 2-2-1 (with a forfeit win and a tie against Collingswood after the game was called off in the third quarter on Sept. 23). The Warriors beat Lakewood 54-42 for the program’s first on-court win on Sept. 17.

Yet, who spent six seasons on the Eastside sideline, has high goals despite the programme’s infancy.

“Masters is now considered a starter program,” he said. “I think a lot of people doubted or didn’t really trust the process, but I look like I’m going to be a powerhouse in the next 5-7 years.”

If this happens, what could Camden and Eastside look like?

“Even though we come from Camden, technically we are the competition”

Rashaan Hornsby has served as president of the Centerville Simbas for the past 15 years.

Camden has five youth football organizations – the Camden Bulldogs, Camden Raiders, Centerville Simbas, Staley Park Panthers and Whitman Park Tigers – so maintaining four varsity programs seems reasonable, right?

Hornsby, who graduated from Camden High in 1999, isn’t so sure.

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At youth level, Hornsby believes having five programs is a mistake.

“There’s so much talent here,” he said, but “there are too many programs in the city right now.”

He cited the division of talents, the struggle for resources – sponsorships, grounds maintenance, etc. — and the lack of continuity between the midget and high school teams as issues with the current setup.

Are these problems taken to the next level?

Anderson said there had been some issues with kids wanting to play at one school over another, which caused conflict between the programs.

Brown expected Eastside to get up to 15 players from Mastery this season before the school decided to create its own team.

One would have been Adrian Vale Roman, a two-year college player for the Tigers who started on the Central Jersey Group 3 championship team line last year.

Roman enjoyed his time at Eastside, but he still attended the Masters.

“I didn’t know Mastery was really going to have a football team,” he said. “I was told late, but I like it here. I really do. I like it here because the link here. It’s like a real family here.

Roman could have been a help for the Tigers, who are currently 0-3. Same thing with other players, and it could happen later.

“Going forward, there will probably be a competition for the kids and keep the kids in the program,” Brown said. “We’ll have to deal with that in the future.”

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Mastery and KIPP said they weren’t trying to get kids to transfer to their schools to join the soccer team, but rather to keep the kids they have. However, adding this option might sway kids down the road.

“At the end of the day, schools are businesses,” Anderson said. “…The three most important things when we talk to families about what matters to them, school safety, we are a very safe school. … We really try to have strong academics, we have several dual enrollment programs where kids can come away with an associate degree or college credits when they graduate from high school … then athletics. These are the three most important things that families always care about.

And now that Mastery and Kipp are in the football game, students in the town of Camden will have more to weigh in when deciding which high school path they choose, and that could impact the results.

“Every time McDonald’s moves across the street from Burger King, it becomes competition,” Still said. “Even though we are from Camden, technically we are the competition. Each child equals a certain amount of dollars for charter schools and schools in the city of Camden, so the children who leave or the children who stay, it changes the dynamic and the trajectory of things.

Josh Friedman has produced award-winning South Jersey sports coverage for the Courier Post, Daily Journal and Burlington County Times for over a decade. If you have or know of an interesting story to tell, hit us up on Twitter at @JFriedman57 or email jfriedman2@gannettnj.com. You can also contact him at 856-486-2431. Help support local journalism with a subscription.