A longtime Kirkwood resident who has fed countless Pioneer sports fans over three decades is the inspiration behind a nonprofit organization aimed at helping kids play youth sports.
Thomas Watkins, a 71-year-old grandfather, is a fixture behind the grill at Friday night football games at Lyons Field, even though his own six sons and a daughter have long since graduated.
Watkins, a 36-year member of Pioneer Boosters Inc., believes that playing sports helps keep kids from heading down the wrong path in life. So come Friday night, at the Pioneers’ home game against Parkway West, you’ll likely find him turning hot dogs on the grill outside the concession stand.
“The pay I get is to see these kids excel in life,” Tom Watkins said.
His dedication to youth sports through the years led his son, Robert “Robbie” Watkins, a multi-sport athlete at Kirkwood High School in the 1990s, to form a nonprofit organization whose goal is keeping kids on the playing field and off the streets.
“There’s a lot of kids roaming the streets who if put in the right direction would have a chance to have a positive impact on our society,” Robbie Watkins said.
Playing sports teaches discipline, respect, leadership, work ethic and teamwork, the younger Watkins said. But as a volunteer coach, he knows participating can be expensive and some kids won’t ever get the chance.
“I am passionate about it because of growing up watching my dad and my mom and my aunts and uncles and my older cousins…. making everyone feel like they belonged and letting everyone have an opportunity to be on equal ground,” he said.
Watkins, 30, has been coaching kids, starting with his younger brothers, since he was 13 years old. Now married with five kids of his own, he helps coach some of his children’s teams and works as a trainer for local athletes.
“I’ve been a sports guy since I was born,” said Watkins, who played football, basketball and baseball and ran track at KHS before graduating in 2000. He has long been involved as a coach with the Kirkwood Webster Junior Football League and the Kirkwood Junior Pioneers football team for middle school students.
Last year, he began developing a plan to help some of the kids he knows pay for registration fees, camps and equipment. From there, the Thomas Watkins Sports Foundation was born.
Finding a name for it was easy.
His father, now retired from a 42-year career with Chrysler, is an unofficial “ambassador” to Kirkwood sporting events, according to the KHS Athletic Hall of Fame, in which he was inducted in 2009. He has been like a second father to countless kids who came through his home while his own children were growing up.
“This was a man who took care of everybody and that’s what I want my foundation to be about,” Robbie Watkins said. “It just made sense to be named for my dad.”
Watkins, who works at the Kirkwood McDonalds, also dreams of going back to school to earn a teaching certificate. But for now, he is focusing on building his fledgling foundation – raising money, finding volunteers and trying to get the word out.
“Robbie has natural leadership ability and is a great influence on these kids,” said Mike Scott, a Kirkwood parent and CPA who is on the board with Watkins. “He’s always looking out for the kids who are underprivileged – making sure they could make it to games and practices.”
Scott said the goal this year was to help at least 100 kids play sports, whether it’s football, basketball or another sport. This past summer, Watkins put together a free football camp and is planning more such events.
“It’s small right now,” Scott said, “but it has the foundation pieces in place.”
Watkins hopes one day to expand the organization to tutoring and mentoring.
“You have to get kids involved in something,” he said. “Whether it be sports or music or theater. You need to be involved; you need something constructive to do.”