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The Lion Awakens
They were city kids, suburban kids, black, white, Hispanic and Asian. The Milwaukee Simbas were a soccer team with an us-against-the-world attitude. They pushed racial barriers and changed lives – until they unceremoniously fell apart. Today, they’re back on the field, under the watchful eye of a few original members.

He'd never say so himself. 

He’s probably never even thought about it. And if you tried to foist the claim upon him, he’d shy away, shake his head and dismiss it with a long, low, “nawww.”

But Jimmy Banks is one of the best athletes Wisconsin has ever produced and on the short list of most accomplished ones to come from the city of Milwaukee.

Banks was a soccer player, which was unusual for a black kid in the 1970s, and especially unusual in his neighborhood. But his talent was even rarer than his choice of sport: high school All-American, collegiate All-American, indoor league star, five years on America’s senior national team. One of the country’s first African-American players, he started two games at the FIFA World Cup, soccer’s biggest stage and quadrennially the most widely watched sporting event on the planet. He had a magical left foot.

But sitting inside Banks’ third-floor office in the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s gleaming Kern Center, you’d never know of his globe-trotting achievements. In fact, many of the students working out inside MSOE’s Downtown Milwaukee athletic facility haven’t heard of him.

These days, Banks is the men’s soccer coach at MSOE, where he’s been for the last 14 years. Pictures of his three soccer-playing sons hang on his office walls. Newspaper clippings chronicle the successes of various teams he’s coached. There are banners and flags of famed international clubs, and a bicycle he wants to ride more.

Gone now is the signature Afro of his playing days, replaced by a clean-shaven head and a neatly trimmed mustache. The 48-year-old Banks sports sharp rimless glasses and sits a few pounds above the weight he was two decades ago as a left-sided defender and midfielder.

Banks talks, reluctantly, about his world-class past. He speaks that way about most things. With the exception of MSOE’s new $30 million athletic field – his soccer team’s home pitch, which sits atop a parking structure across from the Kern Center – not much makes Banks gush.

He describes playing in the 1990 World Cup as a “good experience.” When pressed, he’ll allow that it was “a dream come true,” that he teared up during the U.S. national anthem before playing Cup host Italy.

With a straightforward coach’s mind, he dissects tactics, formations and results from that World Cup. He’s equally matter-of-fact about his path from Milwaukee to the national team, avoiding flowery hyperbole. “I played high school soccer with Custer, went on and played college soccer,” Banks says, “and then ended up with the national team and the Milwaukee Wave. So it was a good experience.” He’s a man not given to telling glory-day tales.

That is, unless you ask about the Simbas.

Get Banks on that subject, and he shows off a wide, white-toothed smile while recalling the inner-city Milwaukee club he coached for a decade. Beginning in the mid-1990s, the team challenged a U.S. youth soccer model dominated – then and now – by white suburbanism.

The Milwaukee Simbas were a melting pot of blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians and immigrants, all of whom got the chance to play soccer at whatever level their skills and ambition afforded, unrestricted by the pay-to-play reality that otherwise precluded many of them. It was a simple mission, but it was radical and believed by many to be the first and most successful of its kind in the country.

“We had a mixture of some suburban kids, we had urban kids, and those guys just jelled together, they learned about each other,” Banks says.

Simbas was a soccer team, but the players, coaches, parents and onlookers say it was much more. It was a family for children who had none; a tutor for kids who otherwise might not learn; a sports vehicle that drove players to graduate from high school, go to college and contribute to their communities in ways that would’ve been otherwise unimaginable.

For nearly 15 years, the Simbas made a difference – in the lives of the club’s players, the city of Milwaukee and a realm rarely touched by such diversity. Full disclosure: I watched the team make a difference because I was a Simba. But the club eventually fell victim to the often-insurmountable obstacles of money and manpower that plague many underfunded nonprofits. In 2006, six months after I played my last game for the club, it folded.
Now, seven years later, the Simbas are back, coached by Demitrius White, a former star player for the club.

He rose from having nothing but the tattered soccer ball he kicked around North Sixth Street to becoming a pro and traveling the world playing the game he loves.

But long before White came up, Jimmy Banks was the original Simba.

Growing up in the Westlawn Housing Projects on Milwaukee’s Northwest Side, Banks was introduced to soccer when he was 6 by a transplanted German coach looking for natural athletes who could be taught the game. Early on, Banks showed an extraordinary talent for it.

Banks played with a neighborhood Salvation Army team for half a dozen years until it fell apart. At 12, he started playing for the Brewers, a local German team, before the Bavarians, a mightier German club, conscripted him.

Banks was the only black player on his team and often the only one on the field. He remembers being called the “N-word” on multiple occasions. 

Still, he thrived. At Custer, he became Wisconsin’s first All-American soccer player. While his mother, Willette Wimpie, worried about his every limp and wondered how to buy pants for a skinny kid with tree-trunk thighs, Banks practiced relentlessly.

He advanced through the Olympic Development Program (ODP) – the main pipeline for the most talented kids in the American youth soccer system – from state to regional to national teams.

“I started to see where you could take this sport of soccer,” Banks says. “That’s where the drive started.”

Not that his friends knew. Soccer was the black sheep of sports in the African-American community, and Banks didn’t talk about his triumphs. During high school, he worked at McDonald’s. Once, he didn’t come to work for two weeks. Fellow employees figured he’d quit or been fired. When he finally showed up, they peppered him with questions. He’d been across the ocean in Europe, he explained, playing in an international soccer tournament.

When he graduated from Custer in 1982, Banks went to UW-Parkside for a year, then transferred to UW-Milwaukee, where he joined head coach Bob Gansler, a pillar of the city’s soccer scene.

“I was amazed a guy with his athletic qualities was playing soccer,” Gansler says of the lightning-quick midfielder. “Jimmy played an awfully smart game, even early on. He was a gifted athlete.”

After his college career, Banks was selected to the senior U.S. national team, ultimately playing 35 games. In 1989, Gansler joined his Milwaukee prodigy as U.S. head coach. Together, they helped America qualify for the World Cup, the first U.S. team to do so in 40 years.

Banks started two of three games in Italy and, although the U.S. lost all three, he’d reached the pinnacle of his career. “It was a dream come true to play in the World Cup,” he says. “That’s a story that I can tell to the young players now.”

Eric Wynalda, who would go on to become a U.S. soccer star, remembers a teammate who was as caring and soft-hearted off the field as he was talented and tenacious on it. There was the time Banks put a consoling arm around him after the brash Wynalda was ejected in the first match and scorned by many teammates. Another time, at the team breakfast, Wynalda was about to say something controversial when Banks shot him a look and shook his head. Turns out, Coach Gansler was standing right behind him.

“Jimmy might’ve saved my career,” says Wynalda, now a soccer analyst for Fox Sports. “That’s the kind of person he is. He has a better way about him to decipher what’s important and what’s not important.

“The thing about Jimmy is, he doesn’t do a lot of talking,” Wynalda continues. “But when he does speak, it’s something extremely relevant and important. There’s nothing disingenuous about him.”

After the World Cup, Banks returned home to play for the Milwaukee Wave, the professional indoor team that drafted him. A national-team coaching change and a painful sports hernia kept Banks from being selected to the U.S. squad again, and a couple years later, he retired from the professional game altogether.

He started doing volunteer soccer work. In 1990, he had launched the Jimmy Banks Soccer League, run through the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, where he was on staff.

“My main reason for coaching was to give back to the sport,” Banks says. He wanted to create a program in which African-American kids weren’t forced to go to the suburbs to play.

“That’s one of the things that motivated me,” Banks says, “to put a team together where guys are playing with what you’d call ‘your boys.’”

To do that, he’d need to complement his low-key personality with some activist zeal.

 

Floyd DeBow got into soccer because of his oldest son, Jamal, a talented player who felt ostracized by the all-white clubs. Jamal eventually quit the game. But after he watched the dynamic Nigerian national soccer team on television during the early 1990s, Floyd DeBow was hooked.

DeBow – at the time a human resources manager for the city – joined the board of the Milwaukee Kickers, one of the largest youth soccer organizations in the country. He quickly became its chairman.

Working passionately, if at times pugnaciously, DeBow got things done in his four-year tenure. He helped grow the Kickers’ annual budget from $800,000 to $3.5 million, partnered with the professional outdoor Milwaukee Rampage club and built a state-of-the-art field on which the Rampage played, along with other major clubs visiting the city.

In October 1994, Milwaukee County, partially through the efforts of then-County Supervisor Lee Holloway, leased land at 76th Street and Good Hope Road to the Kickers. It was part of a $10 million deal to rent the property and build fields. Almost immediately, Kickers realized it couldn’t make its annual debt service payment of $1 million, so DeBow negotiated to make annual $500,000 payments for 20 years. In exchange, the county required the Kickers to provide programming to “minority and other groups” in the urban area where the new Uihlein Soccer Park was located. And the Central City Initiative was born.

The initiative introduced the game to kids, ran clinics and set up recreational teams. It counterbalanced the suburban and mostly white membership of the Kickers. And contained within it was DeBow’s magnum opus, his “baby” – the Simbas. The name means “lions” in Swahili. It became his “No. 1 order on the agenda.”

“I said, ‘As long as I’m chairman, putting in 20 to 25 hours a week on this, there has to be a program at this organization that provides programming for people who look like me, people who make up this geographical community that the Kickers are set right smack in the middle of.’”

Early on, there was support. Mark Botterill, Kickers executive director from 1991-2000, championed the initiative, even coaching a couple Simbas teams. “Simbas was good for the soul of Kickers, but I also believed in it from a soccer perspective,” says Botterill, now the chief operating officer at Score Sports in California. “I’d coached conventional programs, Whitefish Bay and others, but Simbas was nothing like those.”

He remembers coaching a game in which the opponent was about to score, but a Simbas player collected the ball in front of his own goal, nonchalantly juggled it with his feet amid a half-dozen other players and then coolly dribbled away from danger. “Everyone on the sideline had a heart attack, and Floyd couldn’t stop laughing,” Botterill says.

“Floyd really got the culture of the game, understood how exciting it was,” Botterill explains. “He could see that the game could tap into African-American culture, expression, that it could be an exciting, edge-of-your-seat, risk-taking sport. He dug that in a big way and sold me on it.”

With help from Kickers, DeBow coached the first couple of Simbas teams. The original squad finished its inaugural 1993 season with 1 win, 1 tie and 6 losses. But, as the umbrella Central City Initiative grew, the Simbas quickly became competitive. And DeBow realized he was “not skilled enough” to continue coaching. He’d heard Banks was

doing something similar not far away and hopped in his car.

“I told Jimmy, ‘My vision is not to have some photo-ops, throw out balls and T-shirts, and that’s it,’” DeBow says. “‘I want a natural club, and I’m hoping you feel the same way,’ and [Jimmy] was just nodding his head.”

Within a week, Banks left the Boys & Girls Clubs to join Kickers as the new coordinator of the Central City Initiative and full-time coach of the Simbas. “We pretty much jelled together,” Banks says. “With my experience and his ambition, it worked out.”

By 1997, Simbas had five select teams. Banks required players to bring him their school report cards, emphasizing the non-soccer significance of the program.

Jerry Panek, longtime Kickers director of coaching, remembers running clinics in Washington Park and once encountering the gang-leader brother of one of his players.

“If we have a chance to pull a couple kids out of that environment and show them there is hope in life through sport, I think that was Simbas,” Panek says through his thick Polish accent. “That was

Simbas’ mission, and Simbas couldn’t find a better person to promote that mission than Jimmy Banks. He understood their lives.”

The Central City Initiative expanded to serve more than 2,000 Milwaukee kids, while the Simbas teams garnered local media attention and won out-of-state tournaments. National recognition, in the form of financial assistance, started coming in. The Central City Initiative – which already received an annual $50,000 earmarked from the Kickers’ budget, according to club officials – won grants from such organizations as the United States Soccer Federation. And Simbas, which was also getting Kickers resources in the form of coaches and field space at Uihlein, received funding from U.S. Youth Soccer and others.

“We were rolling,” DeBow says.

But the good times would quickly wane. Internally, turmoil roiled.

In the late 1990s, DeBow, who was no longer chairman yet still a member of the Kickers’ governing board of directors, felt the Simbas weren’t being given the autonomy they’d earned, that he wasn’t allowed to run his teams how he saw fit. He sensed obstructionism from Kickers, or at least under-accommodation for his Simbas.

He says he ran into problems getting teams registered for tournaments, despite following procedure. Some in Kickers, DeBow says, questioned whether subsidized Simbas teams should travel to faraway cities such as Atlanta and Louisville, Ky., especially with many players not paying membership fees.

“The more successful the program became,” DeBow says, “the more roadblocks Kickers began to put in our path.”

Rumors of money-skimming off the Central City Initiative budget swirled, and the term “financial irregularities” was tossed around by whispering board members. Both DeBow and then-Milwaukee County Supervisor Roger Quindel, who was on the Kickers board and closely involved with Simbas, say they never saw that. Kickers officials, referencing audits, also insist nothing nefarious happened, saying people had different opinions on how the money should be used.

“[Kickers] just wanted to use that diversity piece when it benefited them, like with the county,” DeBow says, referencing the tie to the county’s Uihlein Soccer Park. “[Simbas] became a real pain in the butt to a lot of people who just didn’t think it should exist. … They thought it was social welfare.”

Kickers officials disagree. They insist DeBow and Banks had freedom to run Simbas and point to the independent fundraisers Simbas conducted as evidence. Kickers say they fully supported the Central City Initiative and the Kickers’ Midwest Region, the broader inner-city regional organization, which was directed by Lynda Holloway, Lee’s wife.

But they also say in running one of the largest youth soccer clubs in the country, there were bigger issues than the handful of Simbas teams. And what really splintered Simbas from the Kickers, they say, was the explosive relationship between DeBow and Lee Holloway, who helped his wife administer the Midwest Region. Holloway, still a county supervisor at the time and a Kickers supporter with sons who played for the Simbas, was focused on promoting soccer in the inner city.

Despite the shared mission, Kickers officials and others close to the situation say the two men couldn’t agree on anything, sometimes shouting at each other in board meetings. DeBow wanted talented city players fast-tracked onto sprouting Simbas teams, while Holloway wanted to see them developed through the recreational feeder system his wife directed. DeBow and Holloway, insiders say, were two alpha dogs. There were elements of dominance and territorialism in their interactions.

“The Simbas were moving into the Midwest [Region]. … They were moving in too quickly,” Lee Holloway says. “Lynda was concerned with [Simbas] taking the top players before they were ready.”

Holloway says his focus was providing city kids soccer’s “orange slices,” literally as a halftime snack and figuratively as a rewarding community activity.

Quindel disagrees: “He didn’t buy any of the social mission,” he says.

More than a decade later, neither DeBow nor Holloway is particularly forthright about the situation. Although others indicate their contentious relationship was a big reason for the fallout, DeBow dismisses the disputes and says he’s friendly with Holloway. Holloway claims to have had zero participation in the fracture.

“I didn’t play any role in that,” Lee Holloway says.

He will admit, however, that Simbas “got to be a little too assertive, in my opinion,” but also recognizes the racial impediments the teams faced, especially with referees. “Maybe somewhere more progressive than Milwaukee…”

He doesn’t finish the sentence.

Panek, the Kickers coaching guru, similarly suggests that perhaps Simbas was “too progressive” for some, “because nobody talked much at that time about inner-city kids, their education or, as a matter of fact, their futures.”

Through it all, the Simbas select squads were some of the best in the city, and DeBow saw an opportunity. “I took my ball and went home,” he says.

Armed with Banks and a regiment of skilled Simbas,

DeBow filed nonprofit paperwork and made Simbas a separate, liberated club.

Quindel followed DeBow and served on the Simbas’ board, while Holloway and DeBow continued to butt heads, especially when it came to using county fields.

Botterill, at the time nearing the end of his tenure as Kickers’ executive director, says people saw the Simbas in different ways: “Holloway saw it in sort of a sorrowful way, like, ‘My kids have to go outside the city to play [for a high-quality team]’; Floyd saw it as a cultural thing, good for the game; Roger saw it as a community thing, politically as a great mixer.”

Ultimately, says Panek, it came to an end. “It was tragic, but it happened over time. You had Floyd, you had Lee Holloway, you had Roger Quindel, three people who had positions in the government, and for some reason, they couldn’t work together.

“The sad part,” Panek continues, “is that the kids paid the price for the conflict of personalities.”

 

By the time Simbas left Kickers in the summer of 2000, the upstart club had grown from a partially subsidized, ragtag team of mostly African-American kids to an independent, powerhouse entity.

The two oldest teams, the original Simbas, had a stockpile of natural talent. There were physically gifted players such as Phil Pitchford, who would attend Florida State on a track scholarship after graduating from Riverside High School; Michael Mallett, who earned a soccer scholarship to UW-Milwaukee; and Tyrone Gordon, who went on to a pro career that included a stint with the Wave.

Under the watchful eye of Banks, who holds a Grade A coaching license, the U.S. Soccer Federation’s highest level, the Simbas honed their skills. They’d been good under the Kickers but became even more successful on their own.

“When the Mexicans came, that’s when we started getting known as a team that could really play,” Demitrius White says. The Simbas’ Latino players, collectively called “The Javiers” because of three players named Javier on White’s team, taught the black players a style of ball-control play. In turn, the black players taught the Latinos how to be aggressive and physical.

“We were hosting tryouts, and that had never happened before,” White says, listing Croatians, Serbs, Hmongs and white Americans as teammates. By the early 2000s, the club had 10 teams of different age levels, including a couple of girls’ teams.

A break came at a U.S. Youth Soccer convention in Chicago, when Banks and DeBow were at breakfast. Eddie Pope, one of the best defenders in U.S. soccer history, sidled up to their table. Pope, now the director of player relations for Major League Soccer, told Banks he’d been an inspiration for African-American soccer players, both for his play and Afro hairstyle. “You were a pioneer,” Pope remembers saying. “You don’t know the impact you had.”

Pope’s friend, who’d wandered over with him, was an Adidas associate who, after hearing about the Simbas, offered to outfit the club. A couple weeks later, boxes filled with Adidas shoes, bags, balls and uniforms landed on DeBow’s doorstep.

With the gear, White’s squad looked as good as it played. Made up of players born in 1984 and 1985, it was a two-time runner-up at the annual State Cup championships, winner of the top-flight Premier League in the Wisconsin Youth Soccer Association, and a force (as well as a colorful sight to behold) at national tournaments.

On any given roster, there were 18 players. Each year, a few came and went, but around 15 stayed together. Out of the core 15, 10

Simbas on that 1984-85 team played college soccer. Four of them played at some professional level: Gordon, White, Bojan Jovicic, who played for the Wave, and Andrew Daniels, a Brown University star who was drafted by Major League Soccer’s F.C. Dallas.

In 2003, as most of White’s team was graduating from high school, the Simbas were still rolling, and the move out from underneath the Kickers’ wing seemed like the right one.

 

Despite the success, there were problems, old and new.

They encountered racism. During a game in 2005, I watched my black teammate punch a white Elm Grove player on the field. Fans were

incensed, and my teammate was ejected. Later, we learned the Elm Grove player had directed the “N-word” at our Simba.

Oftentimes, says DeBow, practices would have only a half-dozen players due to transportation problems, or timing conflicts with players’ jobs, or other issues that most suburban teams didn’t face. I remember a game in which we struggled to field enough players to avoid forfeiting.

And Simbas weren’t attracting the same players at tryouts as suburban premier clubs, such as Brookfield, Mequon and F.C. Milwaukee (another Kickers offshoot). For top dollar, those teams could attract the best talent with promises of the best coaches, entrance into elite tournaments and exposure to college programs.

Simbas cost just $300 a year per player, far less than the $750-$1,500 charged at the time by F.C. Milwaukee. And according to Bob Jacoby, a Simbas team manager, the vast majority of the club’s players couldn’t afford to pay anything.

The team struggled financially, but it had uncommon loyalty from players like Hector Navarro, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was just 1 year old. As a Simba, he became best friends with teammate Bobby Jacoby, Bob’s son.

“Bob was a mentor; he took me in,” Navarro says. “I didn’t have a dad. I call him Dad now.”

Navarro went on to star at Riverside High School as well as in the ODP and for the Simbas. Other teams tried to pry him away from Simbas, but he stayed. “It was a family to me,” he says.

Navarro, now 25, earned a full soccer scholarship to Marquette University, playing in 55 games and majoring in history. He works at the La Causa social services agency in crisis stabilization, and he coaches soccer.

Navarro’s story is not unique. Among the three main Simba teams (1984-85, 1987-88 and 1988-89) that stayed together in the years after the split from Kickers, there was distinct success. Of the 45 core players from those three teams, 42 graduated high school in four years and two more – both of whom were pursuing professional careers – got their GEDs. Forty of the 45 went to college, many on scholarship, immediately after high school. A few joined the U.S. armed forces.

“It was good enough soccer,” Bob Jacoby says. “But the reason we’re still talking about it is, it was a lot of ‘us-against-the-world’ attitude all the time. And as a result, almost all of the guys ended up being tighter than most of those guys who played for other clubs.”

But success stories don’t pay the bills. And soon, Simbas, a nontraditional club with a nontraditional economic model, was in trouble.

After the two oldest teams moved on, DeBow took a backseat. He was commuting to and from Madison while working as director of administrative services for the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. Quindel, too, drifted away.

The nearly full-time, unpaid job of running the Simbas fell to

Jacoby, who has worked at the Housing Authority of the city of Milwaukee since 1989. As other youth clubs were shelling out big bucks for high-profile coaches, Jacoby realized the Simbas couldn’t pay Banks. “He hung around for one year and coached for free at the end of his commitment because I literally cried and begged him,” Jacoby says.

By 2005, Simbas was crumbling. Banks was gone. DeBow had relinquished organizational control, and many of the 10 teams Simbas had when it left Kickers had disintegrated.

In December 2006, with little money and few volunteers, the club folded. According to then-board treasurer Bill Pickering, a lawyer at Northwestern Mutual, Simbas dissolved the corporation and paid its bills.

“We probably had less than $200 left over,” Pickering says. “We donated that to a community organization we had done some collaborative soccer work with, closed the bank account, and we were done.”

In one of Jacoby’s last emails to Simbas players and parents in 2006, he lamented the institutional racism he saw in soccer and expressed beleaguerment at running the club almost singlehandedly.

“I do want to say that in spite of the struggle it was for me, the fact is all I have to do is observe my own son to know it was worth it,” he wrote. “I really believe some of the guys will remain friends for life, and all of them saw things and did things that they would not have had they not been Simbas – good and bad. We may not have produced the best soccer team, but I’m willing to bet we (helped) produce the best adjusted people in soccer.”

Two hours and 42 minutes later, there was this response from one player’s mother: “I am hoping for the Simbas to do the ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’ in the near future, but that would require the relentless energy and belief system of another Bob Jacoby.”

On a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon in June, Demitrius White pulls up to a practice field at Lincoln Park off North Green Bay Avenue and West Hampton Avenue, and unloads a carful of new “baby Simbas.” He dumps out a bag filled with mostly flat soccer balls for his players, none of whom are wearing shin guards, most of whom aren’t wearing cleats. One youngster, Jamari, is eager to help pump up balls and learn the game. He’s only 6 years old, tagging along with older brother Elijah, but he’s exactly what White wants: young and eager.

White, 28, the most professionally accomplished Simbas player, moved back to Milwaukee to relaunch the club, first as a grassroots effort last year, then officially this fall. Brought up on the near-Northwest Side by a single mom with six siblings on food stamps, White moved around constantly. When he was introduced to soccer at age 9 at Lloyd Street School, he proved to be a natural.

When Banks joined the Kickers staff in 1997, White got to Uihlein as soon as the bus would allow, and sometimes he didn’t leave. Once, a Kickers staff member had to drive White home after discovering him trying to sleep under Banks’ desk overnight.

White was a club superstar with Simbas and a regular on the Midwest Region ODP team, even getting invited to the U.S. national camp. He traveled to France, Brazil and Japan, and excelled for Riverside’s high school team, earning all-conference honors for three years.

After struggling academically through high school, White earned his GED at Barton County Community College in Kansas. He went on to play for the MLS’ Chicago Fire and later the Puerto Rican national team (his mother is Puerto Rican) before returning to Milwaukee in 2008.

That’s when a whirlwind of non-soccer events forced White to re-evaluate his life.

In early 2008, he and his fiancé, Tori Lord, had a son, Demitrius Jr., whom he calls “a blessing.” But later that year, White’s older brother, Darnell, was shot and nearly killed. White moved his fiancé and son to Madison for a safer life. Then in 2009, his oldest brother, Luis, who’d been in and out of jail, was shot and killed in Sheboygan.

White was devastated. But he “felt like it was my calling to move back” and help inner-city kids, he says. “If nobody else had your back, the Simbas had your back.”

He’d always considered the Simbas family. His dad wasn’t around, but he calls DeBow “Pops” and considers him a father. As he works now to re-establish the Simbas, he knows the importance of learning from the past.

He’s starting with 8-12 year olds to build a dedicated pipeline of talent, rather than just a couple teams of stars. Equally important, he’s engaging parents, grooming them to become club volunteers, with activities like Thursday-night volleyball at Northcott Neighborhood House.

“The way we’re going to make it last is we have to have a big family,” White says.

In April, the Simbas were reincorporated. DeBow’s address is listed as the registered agent office, though he insists he’s sitting back, letting White run the club.

It’s a passing of the torch, from DeBow and Banks to White and other former players, some of whom have their own children.

With the help of DeBow and Bill Stone – a former Simba, vice president of commercial banking at Town Bank in Hartland, and treasurer and secretary on the new Simbas board – White organized two summer soccer camps that drew around 100 kids. Banks was a guest coach.

When the soccer season began in September, White says, the Simbas had several teams playing in their own league – with “their boys,” as Banks might say – at youth centers and fields around the city. They’ve done this before, building successful youth squads against all odds. But this time, they want it to endure.

Banks says he’s “definitely taking a back seat on it,” happy to give advice and help out like he did with the camps. He reiterates White’s point that “you have to have a feeder system for the program to grow and succeed and also get as much parent involvement and volunteers as possible.”

These days, with the lion who once slept under a desk now awake and in charge, perhaps the Simbas will roar again.

Floyd DeBow smiles. He still can’t help asking: What if? What if Simbas existed in every major city, helping disadvantaged kids nationwide improve their lives and communities, graduate high school and go to college? What if talented urban athletes playing other sports were introduced to soccer instead? More than a dozen Simbas played college soccer and a half-dozen played pro, and that was just a few teams from Milwaukee. What if the club could be replicated across America?

Inner cities would be better for it, DeBow says, and the U.S. national team would have a lot more faces that look like Jimmy Banks’.

“Me and Jimmy talk about it today,” DeBow says. “Think of all the potential that could have been tapped. That’s what drives me nuts.”

 


This article appears in the October 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
To read more like it, subscribe to Milwaukee Magazine.




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