\Gregory Elder, treasurer of the Concerned Fathers Association participates in...

\Gregory Elder, treasurer of the Concerned Fathers Association participates in the group's monthly meeting. The organization's goal is to provide positive role models for children of the Wheatley Heights and Wyandanch communities. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

On a recent frigid Saturday afternoon, a Wyandanch meeting room became a gridiron.

Onfield strategies were analyzed, passes were intercepted, balls were fumbled and touchdown dances were performed. There were close plays and tough talk, cheers of victory and groans of defeat.

There may not have been any turf or even an actual ball in this ordinarily bland meeting room of the Wyandanch Wheatley Heights Ambulance Corps, but there was no doubt: This was football and the players meant business.

It was the 2011 Madden Football Challenge, a Madden NFL video game competition organized by the Concerned Fathers Association, a community group based in Wheatley Heights.

The association was started 17 years ago and aims to provide fathers in the community with support and children in the community with positive male role models.

The group of African-American men engages in a variety of activities - from setting up bowling nights to helping beautify parks to sponsoring students for a college tour of historically black colleges. They've also joined with other community groups to help run a health care workshop, a black history program and a career fair.

Made up of men whose careers range from medical doctors to bankers to railroad workers, the group gives boys and girls insight into different occupations and often takes the kids on field trips to offices and work sites.

"We want to show them responsibility and planning for the future and just being a good person," said Derek White, 45, one of the group's founding members.

On its face, an event such as the Madden Challenge may seem like little more than kids playing video games. But Concerned Fathers arranged the activity not only as fun for the youngsters but also as a building block to a better community.

"A lot of times, this kid doesn't know who that kid is and they're all in the same community," said the group's president, Julian Gobourne, 45. "Coming out and knowing who's in your community makes it stronger."

And events committee chairman Chris Black, 45, said playing video games is just fun.

"This is what kids need - having fun and enjoying life as kids," he said. "A lot of times, kids grow up fast in an adult world and they don't get the chance to be kids."

Dozens of boys from ages 6 to 18 took part in the all-day event, during which they competed against one another in a quest for a trophy, a $100 gift card and bragging rights.

By midafternoon, the participants were spread out in pairs, their eyes fixated on the 10 television screens before them, their hands clutching game controllers with anticipation as they positioned their players around the field.

"It's fun 'cause I'm beating people," said Kyle Marriott with a wide smile. But, the 12-year-old added, the event also is a great way to make new friends.

Andrew Black, 14, said there might be another benefit. "Some kids maybe didn't have an interest in football before, but maybe now they'll watch it with their families or maybe play the sport in school," said Andrew, Chris Black's son.

Such an event has a range of positive values, said Jeff Terry, 42, association vice president: playing in a safe environment, meeting other kids in the community and seeing the men "as fathers trying to do things they like to stay in touch with them."

The dads who come to watch and cheer on the kids get into the spirit of the event. "I'm having a ball!" said White. "I kind of wish I was younger and could play these games!"

The group is planning a similar event in April using the NBA 2K11 basketball game. The fathers use such outings to bond with their own and each other's children as well as with youths who may not have a male figure in their lives. For the Madden Challenge, White brought kids who are part of a mentoring program with which he's involved. He said downtime between games often results in discussions between the men and the children.

"We want to give them information so they can make the right decisions when it comes to drugs, gangs, education," he said. "We want to give them different things to talk about when they make these life decisions."

Even those fathers whose kids have already graduated from local school districts remain involved, going to school football games, concerts and other events.

There is a fellowship that forms, the men said, and this leads to a stronger community. "There's a constant exchange of information," said Charles Goodman, 59, a founding member. "There are a lot of things that take place within a school district that we may not be instantly privy to individually, but because we have this collaborative environment, we can share those kinds of things."

The group consists of nearly two dozen African-American dads. Gobourne said all fathers in Suffolk are invited to join and the organization is trying to recruit for more diversity.

The men said they feel a particular need to show that they are leaders and responsible fathers.

"We want to be and are role models, husbands, fathers, community leaders, mentors, coaches, teachers," said Gobourne. "The media shows black males in a very bad light and we are trying to be examples to our children of hard work and getting an education and having strong family and friends and the role they play in becoming successful."

Keith Saunders, who heads the North Babylon youth group S.O.N.I.A.Y. (Saunders Omnipresent Network Inspiring America's Youth) which often works with Concerned Fathers, called the organization an "absolutely phenomenal" asset to the community. "These are fathers who are not scared to be fathers," he said. "It's a great thing for young men of all colors to see black men standing up and taking care of their responsibilities like all men should."

The organization tries to foster a sense of pride in children, something they said is particularly important for young black males who are just starting to combat stereotypes.

"You have a lot of young African-American males who walk with the added burden that they've already been judged," said founding member Phillip Scott, 54. "As an organization, we try to lessen that load for them, show them that 'No, you're not there by yourself. We're there with you.' "

The children said the men have succeeded. "They have shown us as young men how to be proud of who you are," said another of Chris Black's son, James Black, 20.

It's not only young males who said they've benefited.

"There are girls who haven't grown up with a father and I get to share that experience, not only with one father but with many fathers who love me and care for me as much as my own father does," said member Henry Hennep's daughter Jasmine, 16.

Even the group's monthly meetings send a message, said Hennep, 51.

"When my kids were growing up they would ask me, 'Where are you going?' and I would tell them I'm going to the Concerned Fathers meeting," he said. "So they see we're dedicated and committed to going to the meetings every month and that something came out of it every time . . . so maybe when they grow up, they'll do something like that wherever they live, in their own communities."

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