A heavy rain fell on the orange helmets of a youth football team as they take to their field for practice Thursday night. The drops drip of the facemasks as volunteer coaches give instruction. The youth’s uniforms are soaked as they battle to get better on the saturated grass and mud.
They know the storied past and the pride in being a member of the Uniopolis Browns.
A group of parents in Uniopolis got together in 1958 and formed the Uniopolis Browns youth football team. Now, 53 years later, a group of parents are again getting together to help re-establish the program.
In the small town of 256 residents, the football team for 9-12 year olds has
in many ways become the face of the community. In fact, with 32 players on the team for the 2011 season, generally a majority of the people in the community are somehow connected with the team, whether it be as a parent, grandparent, player, coach, or simply as a fan.
The Uniopolis Browns is similar to other small towns in America, where everybody knows everybody and strong bonds of trust are formed.
The residents suffered a severe setback to that way of life on Aug. 8 when Karen Bailey, the wife of former coach Don Bailey, negotiated to a guilty plea for misusing team funds. Bailey was ordered as part of her sentence to repay more than $9,000 in restitution to the organization, which for a while was strapped financially.
While an audit of the team’s financial records discovered at least $25,510 missing, no cash deposits were among the records and the amount likely may be much more. However, with the difficulty of providing proof, the team agreed to the negotiated amount in order to recoup some of their losses.
Despite the blow the conviction delivered to the town, the residents have rallied behind their team and quickly restored it to a fiscally sound organization.
“There are a lot of people here that have had their families here from generation to generation,” said Jim Steinke, who is now the treasurer-secretary of the team. “I played for the team in 1972. My neighbor was one of the original cheerleaders in 1958.”
Originally starting out in the Pop Warner League, the Browns now participate in the Tri County Football League. In their storied history, they won division championships in 1971, 1979, 1981 and 1984.
Steinke said he was one of the first parents who began to openly question the fact that money may be missing after noticing that essential equipment was not being purchased.
He said from time to time it had been mentioned by others throughout the years.
“No one ever really pushed the issue,” Steinke said. “There was always a story to match. By the time you got involved your kid was done playing and went on.
“But we started to get a real good idea because we knew somewhat what our purchases were and what our income was,” he said.
Finally, a group of approximately a dozen parents got together and discussed the issue. Jennifer Birkemeier, a certified personal accountant at E. S. Evans & Co. in Lima, agreed to complete a fraud investigation pro bono in an effort to establish her company help the community.
“That was when we started to work with the (Auglaize County) Sheriff’s Office,” Steinke said. “It was discovered there was no cash deposits in the last five years.
When the accusations first began to surface, many people would not or did not want to believe what had been going on.
Don Bailey was the son of Art Bailey, who had been instrumental in helping start the program.
“No one wanted to believe it,” said Chris Buchanan, an assistant coach with the team. “At first it was a small group. It caused a little division at first, but then strong proof began to come out. I didn’t want to believe it myself but the proof was there.”
Resident Mike Hicks said the violation of trust was a setback for many citizens.
He said his family had helped Don Bailey when his wife was in prison for similar charges of theft from a former employer.
“We gave him food and took him into our home when he needed someone to talk to,” Hicks said. “We all placed our trust in him. My wife and I knew him for over 30 years. Sometimes, I think you just don’t want to know. I always thought I was a good judge of character. Obviously I am not.”
Ed Breitigam, who had a son play on the team in 1991 and now has another son playing, said he believes their is more behind the criminal case, an opinion echoed by other parents that attended the team’s Thursday night practice.
However rather than let the team fall into financial ruin, members of the community rallied behind their team and perhaps made it as organizationally sound as it has ever been. A full 501(c)(3) board was formed and officers have now been elected.
Fundraisers have been the strongest they have ever been and the team has quickly rebounded from being in debt to a surplus and is replacing equipment that was in dire need of replacement.
New home and away jerseys have been purchased, and new practice uniforms were purchased for pennies on the dollar from a defunct Lima youth team. Plans are now being formulated to purchase new pads and goal posts for the team, among other things.
“Last year we purchased new helmets because the other ones were so outdated,” another parent, Jim Reichenbach said. “We were able to replace some pants. We had pants that you couldn’t even put the pads in. Parents were taking them home and sewing them.”
Also, many other debt holders, after learning of the Browns’ dilemma, have pitched it. Income from corporate sponsors with their yearly football program, their biggest fundraiser, was as strong as it ever has been. Many debts to people such as insurance companies were simply let go in an effort to help the team recover more quickly.
“We have had a lot of people doing some serious legwork,” Steinke said. “Everyone has worked hard. We have formed a new board and there is plenty of accountability. We now have some great sponsors and everyone has gained each other’s trust back. We have got money that we have never seen before.”
The Uniopolis Browns have completed half their season and host the St. Marys Rams at 1:30 p.m. Sunday. The forecast calls for sunny skies once again in Uniopolis.