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Rams Give Area Kids Reason to Dream
Tuesday, June 14, 2005
By Collaborating With Area Youth Football Organizations, Rams Deliver Important Message of Teamwork
By Nick Wagoner
On just about any fall weekend, there are hundreds of young people playing football all over St. Louis with dreams of one day strapping on a helmet and lacing up their shoes for the hometown Rams.
Those dreams are some of the most difficult to obtain because of how hard it is to make it in professional sports, but without the aid of that aforementioned hometown team, those young people might not have the opportunity to dream at all.
As one of the Rams’ cornerstone programs, youth football is one of the constant passions of the organization within the community. The goal is simple, the Rams, in conjunction with the NFL want to “enhance, promote and recognize the positive aspects of football at every level.”
The steps to reaching that goal, however, are not so simple. In fact, it is downright difficult. That’s why the Rams have teamed up with the St. Louis/Tom Lombardo chapter of the National Football Foundation to work on many of their youth football initiatives.
Michael Yarbrough, Manager of Community Outreach and Player Involvement for the Rams, is a key cog of the youth football programs in the area. As the representative from the team that is most closely associated with youth football, Yarbrough serves as a sort of liaison between the groups.
“Participation in youth football transcends geographic, economic, ethnic and even gender categories,” Yarbrough said. “As a true team sport, it provides an opportunity for young men and women to learn and live the values necessary to build strong character and community.”
The National Football Foundation, which is closely associated with the College Football Hall of Fame, is actively involved in a number of youth football initiatives in St. Louis. Through the tireless efforts of the many volunteers and the Rams’ organization, youth football has made tremendous strides in the St. Louis area.
Bob Bunton, the president of the local chapter of the National Football Foundation, said the improvements made since the Rams arrived in St. Louis in 1995 are tremendous.
“I am old enough to where I was affiliated with the Junior Football League when it was called the Junior Cardinal League,” Bunton said. “The football boomed when the Cardinals came to town and then as their demise was met here, so was youth football. It’s booming again here because of the Rams. Now, kids have heroes to watch and heroes to emulate. With that boom comes this responsibility that we expose kids to the proper heroes.”
That is where the National Football Foundation and the Amateur Football Council (AFCO) come into play. As the umbrella organization, the National Football Foundation joined with the Rams to form AFCO, a group that is targeted to help with the education and development of youth football at ages younger than the high school level.
“We think we are affecting the football community and we’d like to be considered the umbrella so if anyone needs help, we can do that,” Bunton said.
The main focus of the National Football Foundation is to work directly with high school football. Each year, the N.F.F. sponsors a banquet that honors area high school players who have performed well on and off the field. Those students generally have achieved in the classroom as well as in the community and earn scholarships for their efforts.
That is just the beginning of the relationship the Rams and the National Football Foundation formed. Another major program the two groups have created is the Coaching Academy that takes place each year at Rams Park.
That program gives coaches from various youth football organizations an opportunity to learn the nuances of the game as well as important facets of teaching and educating kids about safety and other important parts of the way football works.
“It’s the responsibility of Coaching Academy and AFCO to get coaches to understand that it’s not macho to get kids lined up 20 yards apart from each other and run them head on…that borders on stupidity,” Bunton said. “We want to get them to understand the safe drills, safe equipment, educate coaches and gain the support of parents.”
Therein lies one of the greatest problems that every group has with promoting youth football. Getting parents to understand what the game is, how it should be played and what can be learned by playing it is one of the most difficult tasks that Bunton, the NFF and AFCO face.
Making matters worse are the differing views among coaches and parents on what football being played at a young age should be. Many parents see it as a dangerous sport that leads to serious injuries. Many coaches see it as an opportunity to win trophies. The reality is that there is far more to youth football than any of that.
Bunton said dispelling those myths is easily done, as even he once had to go through the learning process.
“Years and years ago we had a guy come in from St. John’s Mercy hospital, who I guess at that time you would have called a trainer,” Bunton said. “He just embarrassed all of us. He said ‘hey, how many of you guys are doing a duck walk? That’s great; you’re blowing kids knees out. How many of you guys are doing sit-ups and making certain they don’t bend their knees? That’s great; you’re tearing up their backs. How many of you guys are denying them water when they need it? That’s great, you are potentially killing them.’ Because of the ongoing clinic and educating us, it made us better as a coach and made it easier for us to sell this to parents.”
In addition to the Coaching Academy and the annual banquet, the NFF also helps coordinate the Rams’ Play It Smart program. The Rams, with the help of the NFL Youth Football Fund, have provided grants totaling $100,000 to the Play It Smart programs at Vashon High, Alton (Ill.) High and University City High. The program is dedicated to using football as a tool to assist students with personal development, decision-making, responsibility and leadership skills.
While the National Football Foundation oversees some of its own initiatives, perhaps its largest undertaking has been the development of AFCO. Headed up by Ken Leach, AFCO has taken on the difficult task of directing its efforts in youth football to kids who have yet to reach high school.
AFCO formed in 2001 in an effort to help bring the various youth football communities together for a common goal. That seemed to be an unenviable task when AFCO first formed. With upwards of eight youth football organizations in St. Louis, it appeared almost impossible to pull representatives from each group into one to work together.
Leach said there has been some serious headway made in that department in recent years.
“One of the really promising things that I have seen that is really starting to happen is we are getting a unity of all of the youth groups in St. Louis which we never really had before,” Leach said.
While all of those groups had a common denominator in football, there are always going to be competing priorities when eight separate entities are brought together. The leagues are also different on their face, such as some are weight leagues while others go strictly by age.
Since the introduction of AFCO, it has begun to explore a number of initiatives of its own. At the top of the list of consideration is a sports learning and resource center. That “football library” would contain hundreds of books, videotapes and other reference materials for coaches to study.
The material would range from simple instructional guides to ideas on safety. Area coaches would be able to rent out those materials and study them to put into use in their programs. “The whole idea is to provide self-improvement in the area of coaching football,” Leach said. “I don’t know of anyone else who has that; I think we will be pretty unique in that area.”
Leach is also investigating the idea of a coaching diagnostics test for youth football coaches. That test would be available to coaches online and give them an opportunity to answer questions pertinent to handling the coaching duties for kids. In practice, it would allow a coach to find out his or her areas of weakness by giving them a score on the test and telling the coach where he or she struggles. The test would complement the learning and resource center, allowing a coach to find out the weakness and then study up on how to improve it through the materials available.
One of the issues AFCO and the National Football Foundation will continue to address is the misconceptions of youth football as a dangerous sport. Many parents are still hesitant to get involved and understand the game. One parent who was not, though, is Kathy Shipley.
With two sons involved in youth football, Shipley had the worries of any other mother.
“I was worried all the time about injuries,” Shipley said. “My oldest son was always one of the smallest kids on the team and I was saying no way. When I thought of football, I didn’t think of the full-contact, I thought of them hitting hard.”
So it would make sense then that Shipley was probably not a big fan of allowing her sons to play. Instead of shying away from it, though, Shipley decided to get a better understanding of the game.
Now, Shipley is AFCO’s Administrative Director.
“I became more and more passionate about football as I started to understand it better,” Shipley said.
That newfound passion helped Shipley play an instrumental role in establishing a clinic for moms that would help them get a better grasp on the intricacies of football. Shipley is helping develop Football 101, a program intent on helping anyone who wants to attend get a better grip on all things football.
With all of these plates in the air, it would seem to be too much for AFCO to take on, but Leach, with the continuing support of the Rams, sees it as just the beginning of what could be.
I’d like to see it be a central node for all of youth football activities in about a 100 mile area of St. Louis,” Leach said. “We’d like to use the Rams as a central point to draw kids in, coaches in and then win them over by the contacts and resources we have.”
That progress has been years in the making for Leach, who has been involved in some way or another with youth football in the area since he was eight years old. He watched as the football Cardinals came and left town, taking with them the area’s support for youth football.
As the downturn of youth football in St. Louis hit its peak, the Rams moved from Los Angeles in 1995. The return of professional football to St. Louis meant more than the return of games on Sundays. It also meant the return of games on every other day of the week.
“I’d say it’s possible, but improbable to have the success we are without the Rams,” Leach said. “The Rams have just got such a recognizable name. It makes for a great draw. They are essential to the success we have had so far. The Rams are the catalyst of this whole thing.”
The chances of most of those kids playing professional football are probably slim, but without the tireless work of the Rams, Bunton, Leach, Shipley and countless other volunteers, there might not be a reason to dream.
Re: Rams Give Area Kids Reason to Dream
Re: Rams Give Area Kids Reason to Dream
As stated, the objective of these types of programs (NFF, AFCO) is not to produce athletes to play pro football but to help the kids dream and grow.
To dream and grow. That's altruism and social responsibility at its best.