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Football games on crisp fall nights are like food and water for the neighbors who live in the McFerrin Park area—essential. So when the East Nashville Bobcats were told their league might have to fold, it was very bad news.
“I worried the kids would not have anything to do any more. This league united the whole community—even families not in the program would come out and watch the games,” said Coach Ronald Ballet.
The Bobcats have two decades of history in a mostly disadvantaged East Nashville neighborhood. For more than 20 years players in four age groups, starting at age 5 on up to 12, have filled the spectator seats with parents, grandparents, extended family and friends. Sisters are the cheerleaders and every team has volunteer coaches and a “team mom.”
Last spring, all of that was in danger when their sponsor ran out of money and had to drop the team.
“The coach walked into our clinic saying that that someone had told him we could help,” recalled Robert Miller, M.D., associate professor of Medicine, who is the mentor and medical director of the Shade Tree Clinic, a free clinic, run by volunteer Vanderbilt University medical students. The Bobcats’ practice field lies literally out the back door of the clinic.
“We knew that the team was vital to the community. When you see the kids playing with the support of hundreds of parents, it is important to the community,” said Miller.
On Saturdays, students would step outside the clinic’s double-wide trailer and into a football rally.
“I came out after seeing patients and every Tuesday night was practice night and Saturday was game day. It was one big, barbecuing, neighborly party,” said Adam Wegner VMSII, student co-director of the clinic. “We really got into watching the games and cheering the teams on.”
Any Tuesday evening practice showcased what the neighborhood wanted to protect and preserve: the chance to play. Miller says deciding to help was a no-brainer.
“I knew it would not be insurmountable for Vanderbilt and of all the things we’ve done in this neighborhood, this would be the one that builds the most trust,” Miller said.
Within a couple of weeks, faculty and fans from the very highest levels at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center wrote out their checks. Helmets alone cost $55 for each boy, to outfit 100 players cost upward of $11,000. Despite the steep price, the EastSide Bobcats found they had a very dedicated fan base at Vanderbilt.
“For some boys, this is their most enjoyable activity of the whole fall,” said John “Dick” Dixon, M.D., associate professor of Medicine.

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