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Fields of Dreams in Florida Turn to Nightmare for Pee-Wee Football Team

November 28, 1989

CHICAGO (AP) _ Two pee-wee football teams set out last week for Florida to play in their league’s Sunshine Bowl. Countless delays, a stolen bus and two decisive losses later, the players’ dream trip had become a nightmare.

″The experience was like something you read in a horror book,″ said a parent chaperone Russ Hayes, who broke into tears. ″It was very traumatic.″

There was one consolation.

″Well, we got to Disney World,″ Hayes’ 12-year-old son, Michael, said of the Thanksgiving trip. ″The worst part was we didn’t get much sleep.″

On Monday - a day later than their scheduled return - 12 of the 116 players, coaches and chaperones returned to Chicago. Others were expected to straggle in by bus.

″It’s been one terrible experience after another,″ Michael’s mother, Jacqueline, said as she waited at O’Hare International Airport. ″It’s been a terrible nightmare for all of them.″

″We’re totally exhausted. We’ve had a very, very trying five days,″ coach Rino Liberatore said after stepping off the plane. ″We lost the football game, we lost the bus, we lost our money, but hopefully we didn’t lose our spirit.″

The 1,100-mile bus trip to Florida got off to a bad start Wednesday night when one of the three rented buses arrived three hours late.

Things went downhill from there.

Once the teams got on the road, two of the buses broke down, filling with exhaust and causing many in the group to fall ill.

Delays for repairs made the players arrive 13 hours late in Orlando, Fla.

The 9- to 14-year-old members of the two Chicago teams had to cut short a visit to Walt Disney World and rest up for the next day’s games against two Florida teams.

Then, while they were playing, one of the buses was stolen - along with at least $3,000 in cash donated to help pay for the trip and many wallets belonging to the travelers.

To make matters worse, the teams lost their games - 22-0 and 48-6.

″I wasn’t into the game a lot,″ said Michael Hayes, a running back from Burlington, Wis. ″I was still thinking about the trip.″

The players, from the Pop Warner League, earned the money for their trip after winning the bowl invitation in local play.

The teams financed the trip by selling candy and collecting contributions. Local corporations, including the Chicago Bears, matched the sum collected by the youngsters.

Team officials blamed the problems on Falcon Motorcoach Co., complaining that the Chicago company rented them buses that were old and poorly serviced.

″We’ve been put in a situation that I don’t think anybody should have to when they’re traveling on the road like that with a group of kids,″ said Liberatore, adding that he hopes to get a refund from the bus company.

Kenneth Arnold, co-owner of Falcon, said two of the three buses had been leased from another company. He declined to name the company or say why Falcon leased from it, adding: ″A breakdown can happen at any time and anywhere.″

Michael Hayes said he was glad to be home. Despite all the problems, he said he’d go on such a trip again - under the right conditions.

″If I ever go again,″ he said, ″I’d have someone look over the bus first before we leave.″

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