Before he was an all-conference athlete at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Michael Carlson was an East Side kid who loved playing football for the Lower East Side Football Association.

For 40 years, the group has been part of the Payne-Phalen area, and after Carlson was killed while serving as a soldier in Iraq in 2005, his family gave $10,000 to the association because "that's what he wanted to do -- to keep the program up and running," coach Sylvester McCray said.

But the association's checks began bouncing in the fall of 2009, and when board members investigated, they discovered just $246.36 in the organization's checking account. That triggered a police probe that on Tuesday led to a felony theft charge being filed against former president Tiffany D. Washington, 36, of Blaine.

Still, the Lower East Side Football Association, known to fans and families as "L.E.S.," has carried on, and on Nov. 4 the group will hold the year-end banquet that two years earlier signaled big trouble in its accounts.

"We are doing pretty good," McCray said. "We are kind of holding our own."

The association has persevered with help from the Carlson family, he added.

As an East Sider, Michael Carlson developed skills that led to him blocking for then-quarterback Joe Mauer at Cretin-Derham Hall, where Carlson also was an all-conference wrestler.

He had been living in his parents' former East Side home with his older brother before entering the military. On Jan. 24, 2005, Army Sgt. Carlson was one of five soldiers killed when their Bradley fighting vehicle overturned in Mohammed Sacran, Iraq.

His mother, Merrilee Carlson, has since become one of the nation's leading "Gold Star" mothers. She could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

McCray said that the family's initial $10,000 donation was being used to help former L.E.S. athletes as they moved from high school to college or the military. McCray and others would treat kids to dinner, he said, and give them $100 or some other modest amount so they could buy bed linens or other items.

"So maybe they'll give back to the community someday," McCray added.

In 2009, after the group was alerted to overdrafts in its checking account, board members discovered that Washington had removed their names from the account, according to the Ramsey County District Court complaint filed against her.

The charges say members confronted Washington about the missing money and were told initially that a debit card was stolen and then returned. Later, Washington admitted to making ATM withdrawals and promised to replace the funds, the charges say. She has yet to return any money.

Washington is scheduled to make her first court appearance Friday.

During the current football season, McCray said, the association has fielded four tackle-football teams including about 110 kids between the ages of 8 and 14. In addition, the program launched a flag-football program this year. The association has a youth cheer group, too.

Next month, at the year-end banquet, the group plans to continue its custom of giving each player and cheerleader a trophy, McCray said.

Teams still are practicing, however. And they're still having fun on the side despite the setback caused by the theft. In fact, those who play for coach McCray should quit reading now because the next paragraph contains a surprise.

At Thursday night's practice at Arlington Playground, there is going to be a cookout.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041