Painted on a wall inside the Lonnie Young Recreation Center is the phrase “Our Turf Knows No Boundaries.” The motto is accompanied by a Northwest Raiders youth-sports league with the tagline “Est. 1971.”
On a recent Thursday night, that East Germantown facility was abuzz with activity. Both the youth basketball teams and the cheer squads were practicing. But in front of that mural, three young children, none older than six, were tooling around the lobby with a football.
“Look, Coach Missy,” said one, “I’ve been practicing my kicking!”
That declaration led to a punt, and the two other youngsters scrambled to stay in the game.
The coach to whom he was speaking was S. Missy Johnson, a one-time Raider herself now in her 13th year of coaching for the program.
She was there that night, along with head coach Dwayne Selden and Zach Hughes, to talk about the challenges of teaching football to children under the age of seven (as long as they weigh less than 75 pounds) in a day and age where parental concerns have turned toward concussions.
A changing game
Selden has been a Raiders coach for the past 16 years, and Hughes has logged seven years; along with Johnson, they’ve given these countless hours in a volunteer capacity.
They mention the fact that they’ve spent more money than they can count on the kids they coach, and have been called to step in at local schools if their players are acting up or struggling academically.
With all those years logged, however, things have changed lately. Handed down from the national Pop Warner league have been instructions to shed drills that put the kids in danger of brain injury, most notably the “bull in the ring” activity that was used in the past to see who really wants to be out on the field and who is just there because their parents want them to be.
At this level, the biggest problem faced in that regard is how the children “like to lead with their helmet because they like the sound it makes,” said Selden.
But that’s become a no-no.
As a result of the shifts, it “takes a little longer to teach them the techniques of open-field tackling,” the trio agreed, noting that they spend more time focusing on proper stances, holds and execution because “if they get the basics down when they’re young, they’ll excel.”
The end result, however, was that there was just one concussion reported in the fall season across the Raiders’ program, in which a child can stay until they’re preparing to join the MLKs or Imhoteps of their local world.
Why they do it
When asked to reflect on how the youth league has changed through the years, their immediate reaction is that the parents have seemingly gotten both younger and more competitive. (The Raiders program offers football, basketball, baseball, cheer and just started with a lacrosse team this past fall.)
If they get too competitive, a simple conversation about how they could leave and take their children with them tends to fix that up right quick.
From a positive standpoint, they’ve also noticed that there are more two-parent support groups than before.
All three either got involved because their own children were among the 35-kid roster at some point in the past. But they remain involved because of the personal ties that grow between coach and young players. Namely, there’s a joy that comes along with seeing former players (or opponents throughout the city’s Pop Warner league) becoming successful in their teens and beyond.
“They know nothing about football when they come into the program,” said Selden, “but then we see these little dudes come together, learn the game, play as a group. We’re coaches, parents and counselors, really.”
“And one kid, every year, comes out of nowhere. They’re so happy to learn, to do new things,” added Hughes.
“Five years later, they remember who you are,” said Selden. Being involved “is a way of giving back to the community. My father died when I was five, so I know how important it is to have somewhere to go, to a safe haven that the Raiders provide.”
For her part, Johnson just loves seeing the kids grow up, knowing that their time with the Raiders helped their maturation process. Plus, she just loves the excitement of pre-college athletics.
“But school comes first. We see their report cards. They need to go to the doctors and get physicals so we know they’re healthy,” said Selden. “We’re the heart of the organization. It all starts right here.”
“We get them at five, and we just fall in love with these kids,” she said. “You want to see them do well. And the best thing is that those kids end up coming back for the little kids’ games, too.”