The little league football season is in full swing, and we are reassured by its advocates and commercial sponsors that it is good stuff,. keeping kids off the streets and out of the clutches of juvenile authorities. Also teaching them discipline, teamwork, respect for authority (i.e., coaches), zone defenses, veer and winged-T offenses and the value of making more effective use of their little bodies—forearms, heads, elbows and Other weapons.
Little league football, being more costly to operate, did not catch on as quickly as Little League baseball (the latter is capitalized, courtesy of the Congress of the U.S.), but once it did it spread like tidewater across the country. Now, apparently, there is no stopping it. From the lofty hamlets of Colorado to the red-neck towns of Mississippi, in spacious Montana and spaced-out Manhattan, 8-and 10-year-olds, wearing globular helmets that sometimes spin on their heads at impact, go to war against other 8-and 10-year-olds, often bewildered but always stylish in eight pounds of vinyl, poly-urethane and viscose tailoring, at $100 per costume. Miniature cheerleaders bounce up and down like fish on a line, cheering indiscriminately (it is difficult at that age to tell offense from defense). Sometimes bands play.
Little league moms and pops, bursting with pride that their youngsters have been detoured from lives of crime, crowd the sidelines to encourage them, the veins sticking out on their necks. Grown-up officials in striped shirts blow their whistles in a cacophony of authority and tower over the action like Gulliver over the Lilliputians. Coaches scream and yell at the pint-size warriors and sometimes tell the officials a thing or two as well, in the best tradition of American athletic encouragement. "I've been asked if I sometimes think I'm Vince Lombardi," says one kids' league coach in Boston. "I say that sometimes I think I'm Lombardi and other times I think I'm Knute Rockne."
Little league football runs along very well-organized lines, like Little League baseball, but it comes in a greater variety of packaging. Most popular is the Pop Warner League, credited with launching the whole business in 1929 when Joseph Tomlin, a Philadelphia stockbroker, formed the league and named it after the old Carlisle coach, Glenn Scobie (Pop) Warner. Warner must have made a big impression on Tomlin because he also named his son after him (Glenn, not Pop).
The Pop Warners have lost a little of their luster and a few of their members in recent years because, for one thing, some nitpickers in California couldn't get answers to the question of where their registration money was going. They requested a financial statement and were refused. Nevertheless, the Pop Warners still account for 5,700 teams (about 175,000 young people) in 39 states and Mexico, and make up the only national group. Other local and regional leagues such as Football United International, American Youth Football and Khoury League have sprung up like pizza parlors across the country and are structured along similar lines, usually requiring a franchise for the league, and proof of birth and registration fees of $10 to $30 for players. Those whose parents do not pony up get their unconditional release.
League makeup does vary. If a parent has the nerve, he can shove Junior into the Dallas recreation department's football program at five, providing he is potty-trained, but usually a boy must reach the ripe old age of seven before he is strapped and cushioned and sent to battle. Leagues are divided by age (7- and 8-year-olds, 9- and 10-year-olds, on to 15) or by grades in school; and by weight (40-to-70-pound "tiny tots," 50-to-80-pound "junior peewees," on up to 150-pound "giant bantams"—nomenclature differs regionally).
The kids must wear suspension helmets, face guards, mouthpieces, hip and kidney pads, cleats (or sneakers) and thigh and knee guards. For the most part they play their games on regulation fields, with paid adult officials. Injuries are said to be minimal; some coaches would have you think they are nonexistent. The figures are indeed impressive—one broken bone in 17 years of play in Pop Warner ball in Boston, etc. Certainly, trussed up the way they are, and incapable at seven or so of delivering many foot-pounds of force per square inch, the kids are relatively safe. The only danger would seem to be muscle and eye strain from lugging home and studying the thick pro-type playbooks some pro-minded coaches dispense.
There is a long list of "name" coaches who have been, or are, in the program. Former LSU halfback and ex-pro Ray Coates and Dr. Les Horvath, the Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State, coach kids. So do Charlie Doud, star tackle at UCLA, and Leon Clarke, an ex-USC and Rams end. Many other coaches have played at the college, or at least the high school, level or have learned a lot watching weekend games on television. The latter pick it up as they go along, together with fanatical enthusiasm for kids' football. That Boston coach (Lombardi-Rockne) was quoted by the Globe as saying the three things in his life he is proudest of are his family, the Marine Corps and his association with Pop Warner football. Others take their glory where they find it. One San Francisco coach's claim to fame is that some years ago, while holding tryouts on a patch of grass near Kezar Stadium, he selected a dozen players and told O.J. Simpson to go home.
The animal clubs—Elks, Lions et al.—put money into the act, as do dry-cleaning establishments, mortuaries, taco emporia and pest-control firms. Around Boston, Pop Warner has franchises in 40 communities, each operating on an annual budget of about $17,000. There are 2,448 players on 115 teams in the Minneapolis Park Board lineup. In the Detroit area 200 teams play in three counties. In Southern California exact figures are not kept, but estimates range from 800 to 1,000 teams, or about 30,000 players. Outside Kansas City, Johnson County, Kans. has a 40-acre complex on which 11 games can be played simultaneously, two under lights at night. As many as 10,000 fans may turn out for the Saturday program, to say nothing of 1,500 girl cheerleaders. Houston has 11 separate booster clubs soliciting donations, publishing game programs and conducting dances and raffles to maintain two stadiums. Individual clubs sell advertising space on the fences, and seven adults are assigned to take up collections and maintain order at each game. In Illinois, kids' league banquets are said to be more elaborate than those of many high school or college teams. Trophies and gifts are passed out like supermarket flyers. The boys' pictures appear on the place mats. "It's too much," says the athletic director at a high school in Elgin, who also says he sometimes wonders what it's all about.
There have, of course, been many salubrious side effects of the kids' league phenomenon, according to its advocates.
The New York Times
reported some years ago that delinquency was truly on the wane in Westchester County because of the lessons being learned on the playing fields of Scarsdale. Dean Rusk was seen there, coaching his son in the kicking of a football. Entire communities have mobilized around their little Packers or Redskins. In Levittown, on Long Island, community spirit seized and uplifted (by prop jet) 25 parents who escorted their 12-year-old heroes to a Daytona Beach "bowl" game. Travel money was gleaned from door-to-door candy sales and by putting the touch on local merchants.