Southside Rams Youth Empowerment Network, a youth game-changer
Stefan 'Coach Cotto' Cotton and members of the Southside Rams.

The past few years have seen youth football leagues blowing up social media and local news stations due to far too many verbal and physical altercations between over-zealous parents and coaches, parents vs. parents, coaches threatening other coaches and everyone, including youth, attacking referees.  

That’s why the Southside Rams are a breath of fresh air, probably because they are much more than your typical youth football team. In fact, please refer to them as the Southside Rams Youth Empowerment Network (SRYEN)because their mission far exceeds gridiron glory.

“Our primary focus is mentorship to our inner-city youth through sports and education while developing positive values in our future leaders,” said SRYEN founder, executive director and head coach Stefan Cotton or “Coach Cotto,” as he’s known from his native Third Ward to Sunnyside and South Park. “We believe our kids need exposure to different career opportunities and an environment to help them achieve their dreams.”

Cotton, a proud Yates HS alum and coach’s kid, picked up traits from his father and grandfather, each of whom kept kids in the community busy and out of trouble by coaching them in football.  After college, Cotton pursued careers in hip-hop and marketing, but neither felt right to him. It was at that point in his life that one of Cotton’s friends invited him to coach the Southside Colts whose players came from Sunnyside and South Union.

Cotton enjoyed his stint with the Colts, but felt there was more that could be done with and for youth athletes. So, he ventured out to found his own team.

“It was hard at first. I started off, just me, two kids and one helmet. But from my good works of giving back in the community, the Most High blessed me with abundance of kids coming to join,” said Cotton who admitted those early days included a lot of freelancing which led to a “rough around the edges” start. Still, he created a quality team and organization built out of his personal experiences with the challenges of the neighborhoods from which his players come.

Cotton organized mega-fundraisers to lessen the cost on parents, but couldn’t find a league that would accept his team, until one did.

“Nobody wanted to let me in. It was a struggle, but I stayed persistent and I got a call from a league that invited us in with no fees, probably because they saw how other football leagues were treating me. They gave me an opportunity, and the first five years we won league Super Bowls.”

Not only did Cotton and his Rams gain the respect of area leagues, but they gained the attention of parents and youth looking to connect with a positive organization.

One of those parents was Dr. Toya Conston, a professor at UH and TSU, who is now the organization’s board president.

“I fell in love with Third Ward 20 years ago and met my husband there, and we have shared a common goal of enriching the lives of the youth in that community,” said Conston. “It is that shared goal that brought us in the path of Coach Cotto. We had our son in the football program and we were about to be off-season parents, and looking forward to it. Then, the opportunity came about again to re-engage. So, when that opportunity presented itself to serve on the board, it felt more like a calling than a request.”

Conston is on a mission to provide the SRYEN with a brick-and-mortar place to meet, practice, receive tutoring and prepare for success in life.

Such expansion is critical, since the Rams, who take on kids between 5-12 and build a family atmosphere where kids from rival communities become teammates and lifelong friends, have expanded to offer basketball and baseball for older youth.

“We don’t want to miss that 13 and 14-year-old guy that’s going by the wayside and falling into negativity. That’s where we want to close that gap and keep the SRYEN family going,” said Cotton.

To support the SRYEN or get more info, call “Coach Cotto” at (346) 899-0107.