By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
It's the first game of the season and the first game of tackle football ever for Ethan Woodward, who is excitedly bouncing amongst his teammates on the sideline. "We're killing them by seven points!" he cries in delight.
Nine-year-old Mitchell Dahmer (4-foot-8, 110 pounds), one of four returning veterans to the Trojans and self-appointed team goof, coolly replies, "Dude, just so you know, one touchdown equals seven points."
The Trojans demoralize the Falcons 34-0 and a big reason for their win is #5 Lynnard Rose. At seven years of age and measuring in at 4 feet 5 inches, 74 pounds, Lynnard has been called the best football player at the freshmen level of the Spring Branch Memorial league. He scored three touchdowns in the first half and, like Barry Sanders, handed the ball back to the ref after each score. Truth be told, Lynnard has probably never heard of Barry Sanders. His heroes are Terrell Owens and that other #5 for the Trojans, Reggie Bush.
"I'm going to go back to school to get my accounting degree so I can become his agent," says Referee Jonathan Lewis with a laugh. It may be a little early for that but if Lynnard ever does need an agent, he can turn to his dad, Lynden Rose.
Captain of the 1981–82 Houston Cougars basketball team, with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, Rose guided the Coogs to the semifinals of the NCAA Final Four where they lost to North Carolina. In that final game of his collegiate career, Rose led the team with 20 points. In 2004, he was appointed a regent at the University of Houston.
Laughing as these remarks are passed on to him, Lynden replies: "Obviously we'd rather have compliments than criticism but at the end of the day, Lynnard is just a good kid having fun. And as his father and a former agent, I understand that there are great expectations and you accept challenges that come to you in life, but whatever he wants to do in life I'm going to support him 100 percent."
Lynnard is so good, other teams scout the Trojans and plan ahead on how to handle him. "Every team in the league's job is to stop #5," his proud father says.
Murphy Graham, football director for the Spring Branch Memorial league, says that this age group has, by far, the loudest, most enthusiastic group of parents. Some coaches get a little caught up in the competition of the game.
"I want you to knock the snot out of somebody... give them a forearm shiver right to the head," snarls Titans assistant coach Skip Wagner to his players during the Trojans' third game, a Tuesday night game at the Memorial Middle School fields near Interstate 10 and Beltway 8.
At this age, with the equipment these kids are wearing, they are virtually indestructible. A 2004 study by the University of Minnesota on youth sports-related injuries shows the majority of youth sports injuries occur to basketball players, with footballers second. When charted by age, six- through eight-year-olds had very few injuries compared to the 11- through 13-year-old group.
The Trojans' fourth game is a Saturday afternoon affair with the Longhorns. Beneath his eye black and under the tape and the shoulder pads, six-year-old Josh Hughes has a secret, temporary, Longhorn tattoo.
"He is a Longhorn fan and that kind of goes against the household," his dad, offensive coordinator David Hughes, says with a grin. "We've been Aggie fans forever.
"He has a cousin that lives in Brenham -- my brother's son -- that has played tackle football since he was five, so he has had the want to play tackle since he was five, but last year we figured we'd put him in flag and let him get the feel for it, and that's when we decided to put him in tackle because he was going to be a lineman."
David is a big, gregarious man who works as a groundskeeper at Second Baptist. He graduated in 1987 from Sharpstown where he played defensive right tackle. He has no problem with Josh doing one-on-one tackling drills.
"We do all that at our practice and there's nothing that we slow down on. Before we entered Josh in tackle football, we talked to the trainer here at Second Baptist, we talked to the head coach and kinda got their thoughts on it and they both thought that with the kids having pads on and all that, it was probably safer than flag. So I'm okay with it, I'm 100 percent okay with it."
To outsiders, though, it is very much not okay. Bissinger spent a year in Permian, Texas researching high school football and writing his book.
"The image of these six- and seven-year-olds doing nutcracker drills just sickens me," he says by phone. "It does, it just sickens me. It's ludicrous and it's dangerous and it's antithetical to every value that sports should have. I mean, if it's not fun at that level, then what is the point. I mean, I saw at the high school level in Permian it wasn't fun. The pressures on these kids were intolerable."
The game against the Longhorns is close until the second half. The Trojans come into the contest with a 2-1 record while the Longhorns are a dismal 0-3. Lynnard Rose is having a good game. He scores a touchdown, makes the two-point conversion, kicks off, sacks the quarterback and recovers the resulting fumble.