Youth winners receive 2024 season tickets

A young girl attempts a kick at the “Kick, Throw and Go Mayors Challenge skills challenge at SJSU’s CEFCU Stadium. Photo by Kaylee Arca

By Kaylee Arca

Morgan Hill Mayor Mark Turner thrust his fists skyward in victory, having just edged out San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan in an intense football skills challenge on the field of San Jose State University’s CEFCU Stadium.

The lighthearted competition marked the triumphant return of the Bay Area Panthers to their home region for the 2024 season.

Photo by Kaylee Arca

For the nearly 250 aspiring young athletes looking on that Saturday afternoon, it was a memory they’d treasure forever — their own chance to share the field with local heroes and dream of future football fame.

The Bay Area Panthers welcomed young athletes and their families to witness the “Kick, Throw, and Go Mayors Challenge” Nov. 4. Before the competition started, the two elected officials addressed the young athletes and their families.

“We’ve got two cities coming together which adds to the fun rivalry,” Mahan said. “I’m a little intimidated by Mayor Turner. He’s got a tight spiral.”

The Panthers and San Jose Sports Authority welcomed the young athletes onto the football field where they lined up on the 30-yard line to watch the challenge unfold. Each mayor was given two chances to throw a football into coned-off boxes to score points.

The scores were close after the first round. For his last throw, Turner launched the football with all his might. The ball sailed through the air and landed in the farthest coned-off box in the endzone 30 yards away, securing him the win.

The Panthers are the 2023 Indoor Football League Champions. They hosted the event to thank the South Bay communities for their support last season.

“This was an idea that percolated with our two mayors,” the team’s co-owner Roy Choi said. “Both are football fans who are supportive of the Panthers. It evolved into a fun challenge to also include kids, welcome back the Panthers, and raise awareness with future fans.”

Photo by Kaylee Arca

The indoor football team practices at the Morgan Hill Outdoor Sports Center and plays home games at the SAP Center in San Jose. However, at the end of the 2023 season in August, the Panthers didn’t know if the team would be able to stay in the area. Thanks to sponsorships, the team will remain in South Valley.

“Once we won the championship, and we had these communities and fans that are supporting us and telling us to stay, it just didn’t make sense to leave,” Choi said. “Morgan Hill is like our house where we sleep and practice, and San Jose is like our office where we go to work.

Chase Lazarus, event specialist at San Jose Sports Authority, helped put on the event.

“With the Panthers staying in San Jose and the area, we’re really excited,” Lazarus said. “Hopefully this is going to develop a lot of interest and excitement for the Panther’s 2024 season.”

Having the Panthers based in Silicon Valley is also a way to make sports more accessible to families so they don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on tickets or travel far to go to a game, Mahan said.

“The Panthers provide good family entertainment at an affordable price,” Turner added.

Turner wasn’t the only one who emerged victorious that day. After the challenge, the team invited the young athletes to rotate through a set of football drills spread out around the field to test their speed, strength, kicks, and throws. The boys and girls, in third through eighth grades, were divided into age groups and competed for the chance to win season tickets.

One winner from each age group was awarded two season tickets, and each young athlete in attendance received two free tickets to the first game of the season in March.

“For a young person who’s just coming up in sports and still has the dream of playing college or professional football, to be out here on the field is a dream come true,” Turner said.

What a young person learns and does on the practice field can transfer into life skills, he said. “Listen to your coaches and do the work,” he said. “Most importantly, whatever you do, show up and do your job.”

The Panthers and SJSA hosted the challenge to encourage local kids to develop a love for football, Mahan said.

“I think that playing team sports is one of the best things you can do as a young person,” he said. “You learn teamsmanship, hard work, and how to pick yourself up when you fall.”

SJSA’s Lazarus grew up playing football and, during the event, he was on the field coaching the kids at the kicking drill station.

“I’m really excited to see it all unfold,” he said. “This event is a full circle for me. My first job was coaching flag football. This is a much bigger scale than that, but I’m glad we’ve had a lot of support from the community.”

Kaylee Arca is a Morgan Hill-based freelance reporter.