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CAMDEN, N.J. (CBS) — Thousands of Camden children have played in a local league created by a man who believed baseball and softball could restore a community.
Cloudy skies couldn’t stop a summer evening game at Rutgers-Camden Community Park between two girls softball teams from the North Camden Little League.
As parents and fans cheer the players on, some younger players are at batting practice, coached by the league’s founder, Bryan Morton.
“They call it swagger!” Bryan told one smiling girl as she gripped her bat and prepared to swing. “Let’s go get it, let’s go get it.”
Bryan tossed the softball, and the girl swung and hit it with a decisive thud. He tossed another ball. Another swing and hit. “There we go!” Bryan said.
Bryan founded the league in 2011. The first year, about 100 kids joined.
“I am blessed to be able to give back to my community,” Bryan said, “because there was a time in my life when I took from my community.”
In his 20s, Bryan was caught up in the drug trade. He served eight years, turned his life around, got a master’s degree.
Now in his 40s, Bryan gives kids what he didn’t have.
“We didn’t have those mentors and supports that were there, that begin to grab you when you go astray,” Bryan said.
Over the years, the league kept growing, adding hundreds of players. This season, 600 boys and girls ages 5 to 19 play on almost 30 teams, with more than 70 volunteers.
“Did you ever think in your wildest dreams that this was going to be this successful?” CBS3’s Don Bell asked.
“No,” Bryan said. “You know, when we started, our biggest hope was we would have a few kids, a few parents, and the biggest dream in that was that we would keep those few kids safe.”
Julissa Aguilar is 10 and in her second year as a North Camden Little League player.
“I think he’s a good coach because he pushes us, to trying really hard and to believing in ourselves,” said Julissa.
“The number one thing I talk about,” Bryan said, “is it’s important for you to believe in yourself, because I already do.”
Bryan also worked with Camden County Freeholders and the community to secure millions of dollars to improve Camden’s baseball fields and play spaces, such as Pyne Poynt Park, which reopened in 2014 after a $4 million renovation.
Bryan is thinking of another idea, too.
“I want to start an urban equestrian academy,” he said.
But for now, play ball.