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Teams have been sent to other midget bowls—to the Steeler in Fontana, Calif.; the Junior Liberty in Memphis; the Junior Orange in Miami; the Auto in Grosse Pointe, Mich.; the Carnation Milk, Santa Claus, Sunshine, Piggy Bank and Mighty Mite bowls elsewhere. Several years ago a Pop Warner team from Marin County, Calif. was flown, with parents, to the Honolulu Bowl, at a cost of $10,000. The money was raised by public subscription, much to the consternation of some stick-in-the-muds who reasoned that the money could have financed three more teams, or 105 boys, in regional competition. The junketeers didn't help matters by allocating $500 to an all-parents cocktail party.
Detractors of midget football have not been heard from much lately, but there are still some around. They include George Welsh, the Navy coach and ex-All-America quarterback, who said right out the other day that he was "absolutely opposed" to it. Welsh thinks organized football is too tough a game, physically, mentally and emotionally, for 8-and 9-year-old children, and that they become mired in it too early. "A kid becomes a tackle at eight and he stays a tackle the rest of his life," Welsh says. "How could that be much fun? At his age he should be learning all the skills. He should learn to throw and catch and run with the ball."
Pickup games would be better, Welsh believes, because football presents unique problems in this respect. A Little League baseball player, no matter what his position, gets to throw, catch, hit and run bases. All basketball players get to dribble, pass and shoot the ball. Football—formal, 11-men-to-a-side, blood-and-guts football—could be played with a pecan waffle as far as offensive tackles or guards are concerned. They wouldn't have to know the difference. This truth is not lost on the kids, though some do prefer to hide in a position that will not draw much attention (or criticism). And perhaps there are others who view it as did 12-year-old George Kinkead of St. Paul, who was put at offensive guard a couple of seasons ago and came home in tears. "They got me playing the position that pays the least," he wailed.
Larry Csonka went out to watch a boys' team practice one afternoon in Fort Lauderdale and was appalled. Csonka is not a man who recoils from spilled blood, his or anybody else's, but he was horrified by little league football. "The coaches didn't know much about what they were doing," he said. "They just yelled a lot. They acted like they imagined Lombardi or Shula would act. Why, they had those 8-year-olds running gassers [postpractice wind sprints], for crying out loud."
Csonka will not let his two sons play in the kids' leagues. "Take a little kid, put him under the pressure of a big championship game before his parents and his entire world, and it can be very bad for him," he said. "Especially if he loses. The whole country loves football, and so do I. But parents don't stop to consider all the things that can go wrong for a young fellow pushed into that kind of pressure. For one thing, he can come home with a handful of teeth. Worse, he can come home soured on athletics for life."
The problem of the jaded peewee athlete is no laughing matter to Jim Nelson, who has been coaching for 26 years at a small Missouri college. Nelson yearns for the good old days, "not because we did everything right, but because we had fun. Nobody watched us play, and the fact that we played anyway proves we had fun. Now you see kids who've played little league five or six years. By the time they get to high school they've already been to bowl games and all-star games and had all that attention. What's left? It's too bad, because they need football more at the high school level. Not many sixth-graders are exposed to liquor and cars and drugs. High school kids are. They need an interest like football."
The burned-out football player is not unusual, of course, but when Minnesota Viking Center Scott Anderson quit training camp last summer he pointed out that he'd been playing organized football since he was eight and had had a bellyful. It doesn't have to take that long. Gerald Astor, writing in The New York Times Magazine , told of a Ridgefield, Conn. 10-year-old with "star potential" who quit because he tired of practicing "every day after school" and of "never having time for myself." And of a 13-year-old who was alienated from his peers by a coach in Westchester who objected to the boy's dad dragging him home to supper at 6:15, since it was 45 minutes before quitting time. "The coach thinks football is the only thing in the world," said the boy. He retired at 13.
A more widely shared complaint against kids' football, one that applies to any regimented kids' sport, is that it brings the virtues of adulthood down upon all those little heads. It is argued that too many parents and coaches are bequeathing to children the same dogged intensities that make them the cocktail-party bores they are today. It is also claimed that many parents eagerly clog the sidelines to hurl profanity at coaches, players and officials. A California psychiatrist once took a tape recorder to a little league football game and set it up near the stands. "You've never heard such vile, vicious language," he said. "With clenched fists and livid faces those parents goaded their children with nasty needling [and] yelled at the referee as if he were a criminal!"
Such gung-ho parents flock to the kids' leagues. Or become coaches. In Scars-dale, Gerald Astor wrote, one coach addressed an errant young warrior as "you stupid bastard." Others simply call their irresolute players "stupid," "slowpoke," "dumbass" or, when things are really bad, "crybaby."
As a result, even the less outgoing adults sometimes feel coerced into joining the fun, to protect their interests. Says a little league mom in south Florida, "If you want your kid to play, and not get yelled at too much, you volunteer. Your husband becomes an assistant coach. You become a sideline regular. You run car pools and work refreshment stands. You never get supper on before 8 p.m., and you develop sciatica sitting on fold-up parade stools." Another mother, taking a more direct route, wound up in divorce court after her friendly persuasion made too noticeable an impact on the head coach. The coach said he knew he was hooked when he made her boy—who "ran like a cow on ice"—a starting halfback.