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It's late August. It's the first week of football practice and it's time for the nutcracker. The sweat-drenched players lie on their backs about five feet apart with their helmets pointing toward each other. At the whistle, they get up and slam into each other as hard as they can. One of the players gets twisted and corkscrewed into the ground. He lies there for an anxious moment, two, three -- finally, he rises gingerly, rubbing his back and crying just a little, he goes to the end of the line. All coaches breathe a sigh of relief.
"Everybody was watching you," he says during a Houston-to-Idaho phone call. "It was the one time on the practice field when everybody was watching you. The backs, quarterbacks, the coaches, all your teammates were there. So there was a fairly significant pressure to do well."
Manliness is important in Texas and this ultimate test of manhood is starting earlier than ever.
Take Joshua Hughes, right tackle for the Trojans of the Spring Branch Memorial Sports Association.
"I like football 'cause you get to hit people," he says in a barely audible voice while looking at his cleats. "You get to drive people back until you make them fall down." He pauses and his dad asks him what we call that: "pancake them" Josh replies.
Joshua is six years old.
The Trojans practice three days a week, two hours per practice. Under Vince Lombardi, Kramer's Packers practiced an hour and a half a day, maximum.
"Coach wanted us to be alert and sharp and going full speed, and after an hour of that you kind of lose your mental and physical edge and so he always felt it was counterproductive to practice longer than that, and I kind of believe that," Kramer recalls.
"I think the game oughta be fun for a long time until you really fall in love with it," he says. "High school is all right to start working hard. I don't think you should be busting your hump when you're seven or eight years old.
"I'm not real big on getting kids thrown into the nutcrackers and one-on-one drills, I don't think that's very bright."
Trojans head coach Chris Beavers disagrees. "I think it's one of the safest things they can do on the football field because they're starting from a standstill," he says. "The most dangerous thing is when two kids run into each other at full speed."
An offshoot of rugby, the game of football was invented in 1879 at Yale University. The National Football League was formed in 1920 and the "Pop" Warner Conference was officially inaugurated in 1934. Most players at that time were at least 15 years old and a few were over 30. By 1947, Pop Warner teams were composed of 15-year-olds or younger and rules including minimum and maximum weights were applied. That was also the first year for a youth bowl game. Called the Santa Claus Bowl, it featured Frank Sinatra's New York Cyclones against the Clickets, sponsored by a Philadelphia supper club. The Philadelphians prevailed, 6-0.
Today there are more than 300,000 boys and girls, ages five–16, participating in Pop Warner programs in the United States. Teams in Mexico and Japan have also joined the Pop Warner family. There are now more than 5,000 football teams, playing in eight different age/weight classifications.
The Spring Branch Memorial Sports Association began in 1961 as a baseball program. According to Football Program Director Murphy Graham, tackle football came in around 1965, with six- to eight-year-olds beginning to participate in 1978. Today it is comprised of six sports and about 5,000 kids. All directors, commissioners, managers and coaches are volunteers and the programs are financed by player registration fees, donations, fund-raisers and concession receipts.
While the Spring Branch Memorial league operates on slim pickings, youth sports is becoming a big business. H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Friday Night Lights -- which Sports Illustrated has voted as the fourth-best-selling sports book and the best ever written on the subject of football -- points out that in Denton, Texas, they recently built a new stadium, complete with instant video replay, that cost around $20 million. And there's a school in Indiana that built a new stadium for $10 million, he says.
"And they're selling naming rights and licensing rights and you can have your name on the locker room and I ask, in the name of what? It's selling a false dream and you know this country is in crisis, it's in educational crisis.
"Every study has shown that boys do much worse than girls and I think behind it, at very young ages now, boys kind of learn, because of elders, because of teachers, because of parents that, you know, sports is where it's at. And that becomes the primary focal point of school and academics is a diversion.
"But this country is losing its edge, it's losing its edge really, really rapidly and I think we have reached a crisis of true epidemic proportions in sports, and I'm not just saying that for the hell of it. I've studied it and I've thought about it, and it's not just football in Texas, which is extreme; it could be lacrosse in Long Island, it could be basketball in New Jersey, you know it's just all over the map."
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