WILKES-BARRE — With the gusting, chilly wind rode in the promise of a new beginning for semi-pro football team the Wilkes-Barre Phantoms.
“A lot of things are going to be changing,” said team owner and head coach Ed Espaillat at practice Saturday in Kirby Park. “This right here is day one of the Wilkes-Barre Phantoms all over again.”
Last Saturday, the team’s first official scrimmage was cut short at half time when two Phantoms started to fight among themselves, resulting in a chaotic scene that ended with one in the hospital and one in handcuffs.
Espaillat, 22, of Wilkes-Barre started the team a year and a half ago to give men in Wilkes-Barre a positive outlet and something to work toward. He asked his players, about 20 of the 33 total athletes who showed up for their first practice in a week, if they were willing to go through background checks and if they could commit to attending multiple practices in a week.
The team is a member of the Major Indoor Football League, MIFL, based in New Jersey, and slated to begin playing formally next spring. The MIFL commission suggested the team should change its name because, before the team could even make a name for itself, public perception has been marred.
But, the players and coaches, nearly unanimously, believed they should keep the name and fight to prove they can be a source of pride for the city.
The Phantom’s manager, Kaiti McCann, said a name change might not help change the public’s opinion, only make people grill the team’s organizers for trying to cover up a rocky start. Change should come from the players and their behavior, she said, trouble can’t be cured with a new name.
“Then everyone will say ‘All they did was change the name. They didn’t change the attitude,’ ” McCann said.
Defense coach Jay Bonito echoed her thoughts about community perception.
“Once the good things you start doing show, public opinion changes,” Bonito said.
Bonito, 60, like the other coaches, volunteers for the team and believes the players have great potential. Bonito said he felt the fight was blown out of proportion by the media and social media websites, but the team is getting back on track.
“Right now, I think we’ve weeded out all the bad seeds,” Bonito said.
Three of the players were dismissed after last week and three resigned, McCann said. But the team gained five new players and, at the practice Saturday, there was resolve among the players to bounce back.
Darlene Duggins-Magdalinski, president of the Wilkes-Barre non-profit group United We Stand Divided We Fall, showed up at the practice to give players a pep talk.
Duggins-Magdalinski knows a lot of the players who have volunteered for anti-drug/anti-violence community programs she runs. She said she can speak for many of the guys and knows they are good men.
“I am willing to speak on their behalf as long as they are willing to … step up and be accountable,” Duggins-Magdalinski said.