He had talent and potential — the kind of kid who should have played football for York High's varsity team.

But like so many of coach Erik Mann's players over the years, this particular boy dropped the sport from his life before he was old enough to drive.

About 15 years ago, Mann said, he started to see a change. Boys stopped playing football.

"Then the streets got ahold of them," said Mann, a 1985 graduate of York High who has been coaching local football since 1987.

In 2008, Mann's former football player with so much potential — who'd begun to turn his life around — was fatally gunned down on a York City street. He was 25.

That was it for Mann. He'd had enough, seen too many boys deprived of positive role models make poor choices with tragic results.

He decided to do something about it.

The York Bears, a football program for kids ages 5 to 13, was born four years ago.

The philosophy: What started with seven kids — one of whom was Mann's — and a new philosophy for York City football has blossomed into a program that drew more than 70 kids to a Saturday conditioning practice last month.

"I shed a little tear. I was so happy," Mann said, reflecting on the year's first practice.

One by one, Mann and his crew of coaches are hoping to make a difference in the lives of the city's youth.

Mann said he's tired of the drug trade fueling turf violence in a city of only five square miles.

"These kids are shooting each other ... just because they live in a different part of town," Mann said.

Maybe, if city boys grew up playing football together — instead of against one another on neighborhood teams — they'd be less likely to view a teammate as an enemy later in life, Mann said.

Maybe, if football coaches held players accountable for poor grades, they'd be a little more motivated in school.

Maybe, if pride were restored to York City football, kids would want to play at the high school level again.

"When I was growing up ... you wanted to play for York High," Mann said. "It was like the NFL."

The connection: That's why it's no accident the York Bears practice at Small Athletic Field. Mann said he wants the kids exposed to the high school football traditions of marching bands and crowded bleachers.

"I want everything to be based at that field," he said.

For Mann and his coaches, football has become less about touchdowns and more about preparing young boys for life beyond the field.

By high school, it's often too late to redirect kids who have stepped away from sports and school and toward the streets, Mann said.

"We've got to get them early," he said.

Even though the Bears have begun to dominate the regional CFA league, the program is not about winning football games, said Bud Kyle, another Bears coach.

"I want to see a kid who I coached ... I want to go to his college graduation," Kyle said. "To me, that's getting paid."

The commitment to an emphasis on school is not just lip service, Kyle said. Last year, he said, he sat the most talented kid on the team for two games because of his grades.

Mann said he asks parents to provide regular progress reports on their child's performance in school. If a boy is slacking off in school or misbehaving at home, Mann said he'll bench him.

However, Mann said he tries not to require A's and B's of every student. A student might have to work very hard for a C.

But if that C is the result of not turning in homework or not studying, Mann said, there will be consequences on the football field.

Parent's perspective: Mercedes Johnson enrolled her two sons in the program last year.

Johnson said her boys' behavior, grades, attitude and respect for adults all improved because of the Bears.

The coaches, she said, "put their heart on the field for these kids."

Many of the boys don't have fathers at home, Johnson said.

"They look up to their coaches as father figures," she said.

On that Saturday in April, boys rotated in groups to stations where coaches sent them back pedaling between orange cones. Mann worked with kids on their techniques to break through an offensive line.

"Football is leverage, fellas. It's technique," Mann told the boys. "That's what we're going to learn down here."

In coaching, Kyle said he likes to draw parallels between football and everyday life. Executing a football play you've practiced is a lot like executing a test you've studied for, he tells the kids.

The turnout at the year's first conditioning practice — which will continue each Saturday until regular practice resumes in July — was evidence the philosophy is working, Mann said.

Kids are signing up in droves, and the program is in need of more financial support from business sponsors, Mann said.

The Bears welcome kids from other parts of York County, though most current players are from the city, Mann said.

Parents can register their kids at the Saturday conditioning practices, which are scheduled from noon to 2 p.m. each Saturday until mid-July at Small field. The registration fee is $125, though Mann said he will work with parents who cannot afford that cost.

The Bears will waive the fee for kids who earn straight A's in the fourth marking period.

— Reach Erin James at ejames@yorkdispatch.com.