Work in Sports
Youth coaches still teaching the game
Posted: Tuesday May 23, 2000 11:10 AM
CHICAGO (AP) -- The bosses may be wrestling with image problems back at NFL headquarters in New York, but show up at Gately Stadium on Chicago's far South Side most any afternoon, and football looks the same as it always did.
Kids running with a ball, chasing, dodging and crashing into one other, jabbering and yelling directions and laughing all the while, reminding you what made the game so entertaining in the first place. That's easy to forget sometimes, maybe never more than after a week that started like the last one.
"Do these kids know about that stuff?" Frank Lenti said, repeating a question.
Over Lenti's shoulder, the sun slipped behind the west grandstand at Gately as afternoon turned into evening. Ten yards away, a trio of 13-year-old kids the Mount Carmel High School coach just finished teaching were horsing around, waiting for their ride home. All three were still wearing football pants, but one, Kelvin Ward, had already signaled split loyalties by tugging a Yankees cap in place.
Lenti considered the question. "My guess is everybody who watches TV, reads a newspaper or listens to the radio knows about that stuff," he replied. "The nice thing about these guys is that they're too young to let it color their enjoyment of the game."
But the NFL isn't taking any chances. It hired Lenti and dozen or so other top youth coaches to run free football clinics in 14 inner-city communities this spring as part of a continuing effort to get kids of all ages in all places playing football again.
Sports Illustrated reported last summer that during the last two decades, the number of kids who play football or attend games is down, enough in some places that the sport may disappear. In some instances, it's because of competition from basketball, soccer, in-line skating and even video games; in others, it's the expense, or the commitment of time, effort and discipline football demands.
Those numbers don't jibe with a National High School Federation report showing football participation numbers -- still the highest for any interscholastic sport -- have held steady at about 1 million for nearly a decade.
There are as many conflicting theories as ways to interpret the numbers. To the league's credit, it treats none of them lightly. The NFL wants to ensure both its future audience and talent pool remain well stocked. All this rash of criminal cases involving players has done is add to the sense of urgency.
"Anything that creates a favorable impression of the NFL is welcome," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello admits. But he quickly adds the league's involvement with youth programs traces back to a football team sponsored by the Cleveland Browns in the 1940s.
"The truth is the game sells itself," Aiello said. "Our task has always been to help kids connect in every way we can."
In the 1960s, that effort was channeled into Punt, Pass and Kick competitions. Today, facing more competition and a more sophisticated consumer, the league has committed $100 million during a 10-year period to an array of clinics for coaches and players, Internet sites and educational programs. But the real success of the effort depends more on men like Lenti than money.
During the last dozen years, he has won six state titles and turned Mount Carmel, a Catholic high school located in Chicago's inner-city, into one of the nation's premier prep dynasties. Drawing kids from the city, suburbs and even northwest Indiana, Lenti turned out NFL stars like Simeon Rice and Donovan McNabb.
But more important, he has turned out hundreds of young men who learned the virtues football teaches -- teamwork, discipline, responsibility and respect -- are as valuable away from the field as on it. Those Lenti deftly tucks into his lesson plans at the start of each clinic. He relies on the game to take over from there.
And now, with his sixth week running the Junior Development Program nearly finished, Lenti is gaining a sense some of the lessons are taking.
"We copy lots of things that NFL players do," Kelvin Ward explained, "but not everything. You should know for yourself what's right or wrong, or else find somebody who can show you.
"Me, for instance, I used to have trouble keeping my cool if somebody on my team screwed up. But Coach Lenti," he added, with a glance in the coach's direction "is showing me how being patient works better in the long run."