Football For Dummies (2015)
Football for Everyone
Youth Leagues and High School Football
In This Chapter
Deciding when to let your child play football
Understanding and succeeding in the high school game
On the youth level, football isn’t like baseball or basketball. My experience with those sports is that not playing well is okay because you’re not putting yourself in danger. With football, on the other hand, you can really get hurt if you’re not physically and mentally equipped to handle the game — especially if you’re a young kid.
But football can teach you a lot about life; it’s a character-building sport. Young players can discover the rewards of hard work, dedication, teamwork, and discipline. Football, like a lot of sports, is a great way to bring families together.
In this chapter, I discuss the benefits of youth football, from Pop Warner and flag football to high school football. I offer my own thoughts on coaching, the father-son relationship, and the things that young players need to focus on to be successful with the game and with life. I also look at making the transition from high school to college football.
Determining When to Start Playing
If your young son has the desire to play the game, let him play; just don’t push him to play. Football either is or isn’t the right sport for him, and everyone will know quickly whether he made a good choice.
I didn’t start playing football until I was 15; my oldest son, Chris, played football for the first time when he was 12, and now he’s a defensive end for the St. Louis Rams. Because he was bigger than most boys his age, he couldn’t play with his friends and other 12-year-olds; he had to play on the junior varsity football team with boys who were 15 and 16. Because of age differences, he got physically whipped. But I tried to help and support him.
If you want your son to play at a young age, you must be committed to supporting and consoling him during the tough times. Young players — particularly those who have talent but haven’t had a lot of success — need encouragement. However, fathers who care too much and try to live vicariously through their children often ruin the football experience for their children. Find a good balance.
Pop Warner Football and other local junior tackle programs have teams for 7-year-olds. I think starting football at age 7 is a little too young because kids that age are too small and may get hurt. But if your child is mature for his age he may have fun. With young kids, though, every parent should monitor practices and make sure the coach knows what he’s doing and that he encourages the players to have fun.
Signing Up Your Kids for Youth Football
Depending on where you live in the United States, your child has multiple options for playing youth football. The following sections explain what these options are.
When you sign up your child for youth football, you need a copy of his birth certificate and a current report card. (Most leagues won’t enroll students who are failing in school.) Also, examine your health insurance and make sure that your child is covered for all types of injury.
If you can’t find sign-up information, check with your town or city’s recreation department. Most know how to locate league officials and know where teams are practicing.
Pop Warner and similar programs
The nation’s largest youth football organization is Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc., which is the legal name for Pop Warner Football. Pop Warner has leagues in 42 states and several countries. More than 300,000 boys and girls (the girls take part in cheer and dance teams) participate in those programs.
Pop Warner has stringent safety rules, including an age-weight schematic. This system ensures maximum safety because players are evenly matched in size and physical maturity. Pop Warner also has a no-cut rule, which means players don’t have to try out. “First come, first on” is how Pop Warner operates. Pop Warner has different age-group divisions for players ages 5 to 16. Players move up to different divisions until they reach the Bantam division in which the 16-year-olds play. In many parts of the country, school districts no longer have junior high/middle school football programs, and youth leagues fill that void.
To find a Pop Warner program in your area, check your local phone book; email the organization at email@example.com; write to Pop Warner Little Scholars at 586 Middletown Blvd., Suite C-100, Langhorne, PA 19047; call 215-752-2691; or visit www.popwarner.com.
Punt, Pass & Kick
Every year, thousands of boys and girls ages 6 to 15 participate in the NFL Punt, Pass & Kick competition. Since this competition began in the early 1960s, numerous participants — including quarterbacks Dan Marino, Drew Bledsoe, Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, and Randall Cunningham — have gone on to play in the NFL.
Kids compete by age group in this competition, which is offered on the local level in every NFL city. The competition is then regionalized, and those winners compete at the end of the NFL season in a prearranged NFL city. Every young athlete is judged on how far he or she throws a pass, punts a football, and kicks a football off a tee. Points are awarded by distance and accuracy, and most winners have won one if not two of the three categories. For more information, visit www.nflppk.com.
Coaching a youth football team
To coach any youth team, you must be able to give your time freely and want to do it for the kids. You must be committed to making the game fun; to helping develop a player’s physical, mental, and social skills; and to winning the game. There’s nothing wrong with trying to win, as long as you encourage the team to play the game fairly and teach your players good sportsmanship. Nothing can be gained from whipping an opponent 40-0 in a league of 10-year-olds. Think of how those kids on the losing team would feel!
You must make sure that every child has an enjoyable and successful experience. You need a lot of patience because you have to play every child, and sometimes you have to play a child in a position he isn’t very good at. Your job is to make sure each player can cope with his limitations and be placed in a position where he can succeed. Try to get to know your players individually — every kid is different.
To be a coach, you must know the rules of the game and understand the tactics of the game. If you don’t, you may want to buy some coaching books and attend coaching clinics, which are held in every state. Check with local high school coaches about available clinics. And consider reading Coaching Football For Dummies by the National Alliance for Youth Sports with Greg Bach (Wiley).
Your practices need to be well-organized, and you need to start the season with a set of rules that applies to every member of the team. One rule should be that if a player misses a certain number of practices, he has to sit out a certain number of minutes during the game, even if he’s a star player. Rules about players being on time for practices and remembering their equipment teach players how to be responsible. In the end, football is about building character. Remember, too, that children view most adults’ actions from a right-or-wrong perspective. They can tell when a coach is playing favorites; that’s why your rules need to be uniform.
Realizing What Sets High School Football Apart
Some high school principals believe that football is the most important extracurricular activity on campus. Football generally starts off the school year in September, and a winning football team can create a positive attitude on campus. The spirit and enthusiasm that a football program generates can form a building block for a positive school environment.
At most high schools, the number of students who participate in the sport (including student managers and cheerleaders) can amount to ten percent or more of the student body. For these youngsters, the football experience can create a special bond that lasts forever. Because of its physical and mental demands, football is a sport that can make men out of boys. Of course, it’s essential that the young men have the proper role models and authority figures in the head coach and his assistants.
All across America, high school football teams are part of small towns’ identities. The team can serve as a rallying point for the community, mainly because of family ties to the players. In small towns, most people know everyone else; consequently, a lot of people take pride in a successful high school team. Local businesses usually purchase advertising in the football program or donate services that help the program succeed financially.
Every state has its own high school federation or association that governs football and other sports. These federations oversee all-state awards, name district all-stars, and compile records of achievement. The following sections provide even more insight into the high school game, including the scoop on rule differences and how to use players who play both offense and defense.
Table 15-1 shows how the rules governing high school football differ from NFL rules.
Table 15-1 Comparing High School Rules to NFL Rules
High School Rule
Any ball carrier who touches the ground with any part of his body except his hands or feet is ruled down; the ball is dead at that spot.
A ball carrier is considered down when he’s touched by an opponent while on the ground. For example, if an NFL runner slips and inadvertently touches the ground, he can get up and keep moving forward.
The defense can’t advance a fumble. The ball is ruled dead where the defensive player recovers it.
The offense and defense can return fumbles.
A player is considered inbounds on a pass reception if he catches the ball with one foot down inside the sideline.
A player must catch the ball with both feet down inside the sideline to be considered inbounds.
The goalposts are 23 feet, 4 inches wide, and they rise to 20 feet.
The goalpost width is 18 feet, 6 inches, and it rises to 35 feet.
The hash marks are 53 feet, 4 inches from each sideline. Because the hash marks are close to each sideline, high school offenses can attempt more running plays to the wide side of the field.
Hash marks are 70 feet, 9 inches from each sideline.
Games are 48 minutes long.
Games are 60 minutes long.
Style of play
With a few exceptions, high school offenses generally run the ball more often than they throw it. Developing a good running game is easier than finding a quarterback who’s capable of accurately throwing 25-yard passes and finding receivers who are fast enough to get off the line of scrimmage to catch the ball. Limited practice time (most states allow only 14 days of practice prior to the first game) is another reason many high school teams opt for a run-oriented offense; they can develop this type of offense more quickly.
Offense seems to be the priority in high school football. Coaches gamble more often on fourth down, believing that they can easily gain a yard or two to get the first down and keep the ball. Unlike pro quarterbacks, most high school quarterbacks are good runners. You see more old-style offenses in high school, too: You see a full-house backfield (three running backs lined up straight across behind the quarterback) and double-wing formations as coaches attempt to use more blockers in the backfield to better the chances of a successful play. For the most part, high school teams concentrate more on offensive preparation than on defensive preparation unless they’re facing an opponent that operates a formation that’s totally unfamiliar to them.
High school teams don’t kick as often as pro teams because finding an accurate high school field goal kicker can be difficult. Some high school teams can’t find a player who can even convert an extra point, which is basically a 20-yard kick. Plus, they don’t have the time to concentrate on special teams play because of the time constraints on high school athletes.
The players on a high school roster may not compare in size to those on an NFL team, but high school players are definitely getting bigger. Today, a high school offensive line averaging 260 pounds isn’t uncommon, whereas 25 years ago that average may have been 220 pounds. In the last few years, more illegal use of steroids has been reported among boys 18 and under than among college and professional football players. Unlike college and the NFL, no mandatory testing system for steroids is in effect at the high school level. (Some schools do test for marijuana and other drugs, though.)
You find more two-way players at the high school level because most high school teams don’t have enough quality players. A two-way player is one who plays both an offensive position and a defensive position. Here are some examples of the different combinations of positions: Receivers may also play defensive back, quarterbacks may lead the offense and spark the defense at safety, and blocking backs are also linebackers.
When a school is forced to use a lot of two-way players, you may see sloppy play in the fourth quarter when the young players tire and begin to lose their concentration, which may lead to injury. Although two-way players don’t always run out of steam at the end of a game, an opponent that doesn’t need to use two-way players may have an advantage.
Making the Most of the High School Game
The first thing parents and young men should realize about high school football is that players experience many ups and downs. You win a game against your rival and nothing feels better. Next week, you lose and you feel down. But you have to bounce back. Football teaches you to be humble about success because when games go badly, you have to work hard to battle back.
Losing a football game isn’t unlike some experiences that you go through in other aspects of life. You have to learn to deal not only with success but also with failure. I think that football is a great teacher of those lessons — more so than any other sport. Unlike high school baseball and basketball teams that play multiple games every week, in football you play only one game, which heightens each game’s importance. You focus all week on one game, and if you lose, the pain may linger for days before you get an opportunity to redeem yourself in the next one.
The next sections give some tips to help players, coaches, and parents keep the game in the proper perspective and enjoy football to the fullest.
If you’re interested in playing high school football, go to the school’s main office and ask where and how to sign up. The employees in the main office can send you in the direction of the athletic director or head football coach.
As a player, you need to adhere to the team rules and most likely get involved in a weight-lifting program. Most schools have programs that are monitored by a coach or teacher. In most parts of the United States, football players have a few weeks in the spring in which they work out without equipment. To make the team, you must take advantage of these training opportunities. Coaches like to see athletes working year-round and attending every practice. If your coach recommends that you attend a football camp, ask your parents for permission and find a way to earn the money to pay your way.
Ultimately, you play football (or any sport, for that matter) to have fun. It should be a worthwhile experience, not drudgery. But if you possess special athletic ability and your goal is an athletic scholarship, remain focused and work as hard as you can. Good things come from hard work.
Coaching is a demanding career. High schools are having more and more trouble finding quality coaches because coaching is a time-consuming, low-paying profession. High school head coaches are usually also teachers, and teachers aren’t paid well. Still, regardless of the financial rewards (or lack thereof), a high school football coach’s chief reward is the personal satisfaction of working with young people and watching them grow. And that satisfaction is so meaningful to many high school coaches that they would gladly work for minimum wage rather than give up coaching.
If you coach high school football, make a point of recruiting other teachers. Get them on your side so that they understand what your values are and how hard your athletes are working. Every week, invite one or two teachers to the pregame meal and ask them to ride the bus to away games. Doing so will make them feel like a part of your program. You must educate them about the game and about what’s happening with your team. If they know how much time the kids and coaches spend practicing and working at football, and if they’re aware of the discipline you’re teaching, they may view your program more favorably. Remember, you’re a teacher, too, not just some jock.
The other benefit of building a good relationship with other teachers is that you need to know when players are failing classes. You need to do grade checks every four to six weeks. Some schools don’t allow students to play sports if they’re flunking one or more classes. Developing a good relationship with the other faculty members helps everybody.
I think most fathers expect their sons to go out for football because they played the sport in high school. Often, football is a family tradition. The grandfather played, the father played, and the uncles and cousins played, so a boy grows up wanting to emulate his relatives, particularly his father. Kids quickly learn how tough playing football is. Going to football practice is like going to boot camp. It’s much different from practicing baseball, where you play catch and run around and have fun, or basketball, where you’re mostly playing the sport all the time. With football, you spend a great deal of practice time working on conditioning, as well as hitting — and two-to-three hours of practice a day is hardly fun.
When your child asks you why he should bust his butt for three hours a day and have people hit him and yell at him when he can stay home and play video games, that’s the time you can have some real influence. Preach the benefits of teamwork and of not quitting something you start. Remind your child how much pride he’ll feel in being successful at such a difficult sport.
Here are some other recommendations for parents:
· A football player has to make a lot of sacrifices, so try to give your son some slack with chores; he has made a huge commitment to the team.
· Encourage your son to have a good work ethic and to study hard and maintain good grades.
· If your son has the talent to earn an athletic scholarship, consider sending him to summer football camps during his high school career. Many colleges and universities offer these types of camps.
Judging high school players’ talent
The average college football coach would give his right arm to know which high school players will become college football stars. How can you tell whether a high school football player will achieve on the college level? College football recruiters can study tapes of players. They can measure a player’s speed (in the 40-yard dash, which is the benchmark for measuring speed in football) and strength (in the bench press and other weight-lifting tests), but being a college star requires an extra something that’s hard to quantify. This extra something usually goes by the name “heart” or “desire,” and no test has yet been devised for measuring those intangibles.
Still, a cottage industry for judging high school football players has grown up in the past ten years. Web sites such as Rivals (www.rivals.com), Scout (recruiting.scout.com), PrepStar (www.prepstar.com), and ESPN College Football Recruiting (espn.go.com/college-football/recruiting) rate high school players; each year these services rank colleges to determine which have the best recruiting classes. Looking at these services’ rankings from past years is fascinating. You can see just how difficult it is to tell which players will succeed in the college game. Some players who are highly ranked never make it in college football; often a player with a low ranking turns into a bright blazing star. For example, Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers, runner-up for the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year award, was a walk-on at USC. A walk-on is someone who tries out for a college football team without first receiving a football scholarship.
Thinking Ahead to a College Football Career
High school players have many opportunities to play college football and receive financial assistance. In fact, if you include the smaller division schools, I think that more colleges and universities are giving scholarships to play football today than 40 years ago. Just as many schools are recruiting high school players, and the entire recruitment process has really advanced.
Forty years ago, the University of Southern California (USC) could give as many football scholarships as it wanted. Now, all Division FBS schools are restricted to 85 scholarships. Although not as many players have the opportunity to earn football scholarships at big-time schools like USC and Notre Dame as in the past, other colleges are picking up the slack. Colleges like Boise State and Montana go to small suburbs in California to find good players. Long story short? Good athletes don’t get overlooked anymore because colleges are on a mission to find them.
If you’re a parent and you believe your son has the ability to play college football, meet with the high school’s guidance counselor during your son’s freshman year and find out what course work is required by colleges that your son may be interested in. Doing so is a must to ensure that he’s eligible to play at the college level when he graduates from high school.
If you’re a student, remember that you go to school to receive an education. Of the thousands of young men who play college football, fewer than 300 are drafted by the NFL each year. Because college players have only a one percent chance of having a professional football career, education should be the number-one priority.
If you’re a parent or coach, prepare young athletes for the realities of college by stressing the importance of academics and keeping track of athletes’ academic records. To find out about the eligibility requirements for your son, check with your high school guidance counselor or the NCAA Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse ( www.eligibilitycenter.org). And start your research in his junior year if you believe that he has the ability to play college football.