Football: National Programs Support Grassroots Growth
By Jennie Hanna
Baseball may be considered America’s favorite pastime, but football has been giving the stick-and-ball sport a real run for its money. Officials with football organizations on the national and grassroots levels continue in their efforts to make the sport accessible, competitive and fun.
USA Football, which serves as the national governing body for a majority of the youth football leagues in the nation, was formed in 2002 under the National Football League (NFL). Since launching in 2002, USA Football has expanded from helping to springboard new leagues and teams to providing much-needed resources that allow it to not only better serve existing member organizations but also reach new ones, according to Steve Alic, director of communications for USA Football. “We offer training and programs for the three major groups in football: coaches, players and officials,” he said. “Everything we offer helps our members, especially our coaches, who are all volunteers; it makes their job easier.”
USA Football’s programs for coaches include a click-and-create online playbook, online drills and online video library.
In addition, USA Football conducts more than 45 one-day coaches’ educational classes and workshops at some of the country’s top football schools, Alic said. “It really makes for a great football environment to be at some of these big-name colleges and universities. After just one day, our coaches will learn new ways—the right way—to teach the game.”
Alic said USA Football’s programs and workshops also emphasize coaches’ communication with players and their parents. “This sport isn’t just about the team; it’s a family event,” he said. “We couldn’t do it without the parents, so we emphasize how important it is to reach out to them, too. This really appeals to players and parents.”
Pop Warner Little Scholars, which started in 1929 and is the oldest youth football program in the country, operates under its own guidelines and regulations, but its coaches take advantage of the educational tools USA Football provides, according to Josh Pruse, national director of media relations for Pop Warner. “We have found USA Football’s programs, including the online resources and the coaching workshops, to be very educational and they provide us with good and current techniques and resources that we can, in turn, bring back to our children.”
According to Pruse, Pop Warner’s focus is on making sure all players age 5-16 have an equal amount of time on the field. The program stresses having fun while learning the game, rather than on performance based on statistics, he said.
Pop Warner has minimum academic requirements that players must meet and maintain to participate, Pruse said, although some exceptions are made when involvement in the program is considered to have a significantly positive influence for those who don’t have the grades. The program also awards scholarships annually to recognize those players who excel not only on the field but also off the field.
“I think a big draw to our program is the scholarships we offer to our players,” Pruse said. Last year, we awarded more than $100,000 in scholarships and have offered up more than $750,000 since 1993. I think the players and parents see that our program is more than just scores on a board and winning a game. It’s about winning in life, and that really helps them to get behind us and our program.”
American Youth Football (AYF) started in 1996 as an alternative to existing programs, which AYF President Joe Galat said were passing by too many players because they didn’t meet the weight requirements that other programs impose. He said AYF’s grade division allows children of all sizes to play football. “Personally, I wasn’t able to play Pop Warner—I was too big. But AYF’s weight requirements are higher than Pop Warner, so boys who weigh slightly more can still compete. High schools have really embraced AYF because our big guys will most likely play in high school as well.”
The pinnacle of American football, the NFL provides the NFL High School Player Development (HSPD) to high school players across the country. According to NFLYouthPD.com, the program provides 10 total hours of on-field training and player development over five days. Players who complete the HSPD program compete in 16 regional tournaments for a chance to represent an NFL market in the two-day 2009 NFL National 7-on-7 Tournament presented by The National Guard. The 2009 NFL National 7-on-7 Tournament presented by The National Guard was held July 10-11 at Winter Park, the Minnesota Vikings’ practice facility in Eden Prairie, Minn.
The NFL High School Player Development program has grown from only four teams in 2004 to 16 teams today. According to the website, organizers hope all 32 professional NFL teams will sponsor a team for the program.
National, International & All-Star Competitions
Pop Warner holds its annual Super Bowl in December. The weeklong event features 64 different games in Junior Peewee, Peewee, Junior Midget, Midget, and Junior Batnam divisions, with the Division I Midget National Championship televised on ESPN. “Last year, a clip from the Pop Warner Super Bowl was shown during a New York Giants game. That was so exciting for the players and for us,” Pruse said. “Although Pop Warner is the oldest organization in the game, it still helps to get our name out there and showcase what we do, especially on such a large, national scale as an NFL football game.”
Each year, at the beginning of the season in August, Pop Warner holds a nationwide kickoff day that includes a barbecue and other fun activities for players and their families, Pruse said. Teams all across the country participate in the ceremonial event, kicking off simultaneously. “This unites all of the players together on one day in a fun and exciting way as they celebrate another season of football. It helps keep the sport fresh and fun for everyone involved.”
AYF’s Conference All-Star game brings the top players from each region together as they vie for the national championship. The organization also recognizes its 8th grade players as they transition to a higher playing level. “That is the trend in basketball and football,” Galat said, “and we don’t see any reason why football should be any different. The skill development has come so far with youngsters nowadays that I think it’s our duty to showcase those kids that have an opportunity to go on.”
AYF’s “big-name sponsors” include Under Armour and Eastbay, which help bring exposure and attract players to the organization, Galat said. The organization also uses direct mail, telemarketing and Twitter to try to reach new players, he said, adding that community outreach is another important part in bringing the sport to new people and areas.
“Our teams do some really great projects to give back to the communities where they live,” Galat said. “Giving back not only brings the team more recognition but also teaches young players the importance of helping others, which makes them better overall.” AYF’s community projects have included raising funds to support the homeless and sending medical supplies to Darfur, Sudan, he said, noting that on a national level AYF has donated more than $14 million worth of equipment and clothing across the country.
This year, USA Football held the International Federation of American Football Junior World Championships held in Canton, Ohio. The first-year event featured national teams from seven different countries, including the U.S. Junior National Team. All 45 players on the U.S. team will be playing football this fall at 33 different colleges across the country, Alic said.
Planning for the International Federation of American Football Junior World Championships began more than two years ago. And while it took a lot to bring the event and teams together, Alic said it was well worth it. “This game is more than just the Xs and Os: it is about learning the value of playing on a team, the discipline of playing at such a high level, and the cultural exchange of playing teams from other countries,” he said. “This championship features some of the sport’s best rising stars, some players who will go one to be idolized as they play college ball and perhaps in the NFL. It makes for some really great football for any fan.”
Number of USA Football members: 875,000 (415,000 coaches)
Director of Communications
Number of American Youth Football members: 500,000
Number of Pop Warner Football members: 240,000
National Director of Media Relations
Number of NFL High School Player Development Teams: 16
NFL High School Player Development