Within what has been described as this "rat's nest of psychological horrors," it is not unusual for a child to have his parent and/or coach falsify his birth certificate to get him into a favored division, one in which he might excel. Or submit to starvation diets to make a weight. One coach in Florida says that he sees these kids "flying around so high on diet pills they can barely tell you their names."
A parent can ruin his son early, according to one Kansas City child psychiatrist, "by making him feel like a scrunge for not playing football" when the son might be more inclined toward the piccolo. But the coach deserves as much credit; and coach and father may be one and the same. Chuck Ortmann, the former Michigan All-America who quit as chairman of a league in Glen Ellyn, Ill. in which strife and debate over recruiting violations had long been rampant (a fist to the lip of a league official ended one discussion), believes that if kids' football does not turn boys into men, it certainly turns men into boys. "They want to win at any cost," he says. "They tell their players, 'Go out there and break that guy's arm.' They won't even let all their kids play. Forty on a team, but only 11 or 14 play much."
One poignant protest from a little league mom appeared in a recent letter to
The Miami Herald
. Her son's coach screamed at referees, screamed into the faces of the boys and, worst of all, allowed only 12 of his 18 players to play. She wrote, "The other boys sat on the bench for the second week in a row, not being allowed in for even one play. These are 11-year-olds who give up every night of the week to practice, come home late, tired, dirty, hungry, but with the thought it will be worth it when they play on Saturday. Ha." In Minneapolis, adults running one "midget" division silenced this kind of insubordination by waiving the must-play rule for 12- and 13-year-olds. By that age, said a suburban little league official, the inferior players "know it's not their sport."
With so much riding on the outcome-bowl bids, adult egos, bragging rights at the local pub—it was predictable that violence would creep into kids' football, and last month in Kissimmee, Fla. a mob of adults attacked four coaches of a winning team of 12-year-olds with clubs and pipes, sending one coach to the hospital. A cry from the crowd, "He's dead!" apparently satisfied the mob and it withdrew just before the police arrived. The coach was not dead, only unconscious for four hours. One little league pop in Miami got into a fistfight with a coach who wasn't playing his son at his idea of the right position. A coach in Palm Beach strode to the center of the field after a particularly heartbreaking loss and extended his hand to the star player of the rival team, then punched him in the stomach, knocking him down. When he realized what he had done, the coach did not wait to be suspended. He quit.
Such incidents have caused massive end sweeps into the nearest circuit court, where big-league litigation is the next thing the little fellows are taught. The Optimist Athletic Conference has twice been to court in Miami in recent months, once when an entire 250-player group was expelled and again when a coach was suspended for threatening a commissioner. The teams won reinstatement; the coach did not.
The New York Times
used the word "grotesque" to describe a kids' bowl game it covered on Long Island, and LIFE Magazine pointed out that the American Academy of Pediatrics was opposed to little guys banging each other about because of the vulnerability of their epiphyses (the soft bone tips where growth originates). Deformities were said to be around the corner. LIFE added that the greater danger was psychological. "In sandlot ball you can always pick up and go home," it quoted a Big Ten physician as saying, "but in this game you must remain in competition. You must make your blocks and tackles. This can make a boy wary of competitive sports—either because of sheer boredom or because he's afraid."
It would seem the campaign against boredom is one that coaches must wage relentlessly in kids' leagues. When the trains pass, the kids stop and watch; when the planes go over, they stare. "Let a fire truck go by and it's Looney Tunes," says Dickie Maegle, a star halfback at Rice in the '50s now coaching little leaguers in Houston. "Suddenly they're out of it. I've seen 'em so excited at kickoff, with the crowds yelling and bands playing, that the kicker completely missed the ball. I've seen 'em running for a touchdown when their pants fell to their knees. I've seen crepe paper draped down from the cross bar and when the kids tried to run through, they fell down."
Maegle is one of those muddled thinkers who do not object to this kind of foolishness. He thinks kids ought to be allowed to act like kids. So does Galen Fiss, an ex-Browns linebacker. The other day in Kansas City one of Fiss' linemen came out of the huddle hopping and skipping to the scrimmage line. "For an instant, our coaches were horrified," said Fiss. "That's not the way you're supposed to approach the line. Then we realized, he's a 10-year-old kid! That's his way of having fun."
Bob Cupp is a 35-year-old father of two, self-described as having a Charlie Brown head under a Buster Brown haircut. He lives in Tequesta, Fla., a punt and a pass up the waterway from Palm Beach. An all-sports star in high school, Cupp went to the University of Miami on a baseball scholarship, played quarterback on his service football team (coaching high school football on the side), became a professional golfer and then a golf-course designer. He is still a golf-course designer, for Jack Nicklaus, out of Nicklaus' Golden Bear offices in North Palm Beach. Cupp is also a professional illustrator, and he sings professionally as well as in the church choir.
Bob Cupp is one of those curious people who love small children, even their own. His only other weakness is that he enjoys coaching children, even other people's. He somehow finds time for this year round: kids' football, basketball and baseball. Cupp smiles and laughs a lot, as though he might know something about life that no one else knows.