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.
Jerry Kramer, an All-Pro guard for the Green Bay Packers during the '60s, author of the best-selling diary Instant Replay and my dad, says the nutcracker is the ultimate test of manhood.
"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."
Pop Warner football
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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 five16, 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."
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 198182 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.
"Go hit #5," shouts a Longhorns coach. "Your only responsibility is to hit #5 whether he's got the ball or not!"
Late in the fourth quarter, about to slide to 0-4, the Longhorns' quarterback is ejected for punching a player in the back while they're down. Coach Skip Cummins, a tightly wound ball of testosterone, explodes:
"Take your jersey off and go home, you're a disgrace to the Longhorns!" he's in the center of the field yelling at the boy, his own son. As the youngster sits crying on the bench, the coach returns again and again to chew him out. Finally, a bystander behind the fence has had enough and shouts at the top of his lungs that the coach is the disgrace.
Bill Hughes used to be a youth coach and he's never seen a coach explode like that.
"These are young kids. They need to be inspired, sure, about the game but they don't need to be chewed out in front of everybody where it makes them cry and feel bad."
Murphy Graham, the football director, was also upset over what happened.
"It's fricking seven- to eight-year-old football," he says with a tone of exasperation. "You know, I mean, do you remember anything from when you were eight years old? Kids don't remember. They may remember if they won the championship but they're not going to remember their record. Some of these kids don't know what offense or defense is.
Graham's fear is that of all youth sports program directors: to be a clich, to be on the news because some dad freaked out. He saw video of the alleged punch and says it was really weak and should not have been an ejection.
"The thing was, it wasn't even like a good punch, It was almost like a push," he says. "Because they both went down and the kid that got knocked down kinda, you know, looked at the kid and went nnnyyaah. I mean, you know, like they do at the dinner table with their little brother. I was really surprised that he got ejected for that, but you know we have to stand by our officials."
When asked what he thought about six-year-olds doing one-on-one tackling drills, he said, "Look, these kids have so much equipment on and their helmets are so big, they look like little Martians out there. I mean, it is football, they've got equipment on and the object is to knock people down."
The Trojans' fifth game, another Tuesday night contest, is against the 4-0 Raiders. The field is sopping wet and the smaller, quicker Trojans are stymied. They look tired. They've only had two days since they pummeled the Longhorns and they practiced yesterday. After halftime, Lynnard finally breaks loose with a 50-yard run down the right side of the field. Ten yards before the goal line, he starts some kind of high-kicking antics that smack of hot dogging.
After the game, which the Trojans lose 33-21, thus slipping to 3-2, Lynnard's dad explains that there was a lot of water on that end of the field and he was just trying to tippy toe through the water to keep his shoes dry.
After the customary mad dash to the concession stand for some well deserved candy, the Trojans have 12 days of rest before facing the division rival Cougars.
Unfortunately, in the interim, fullback Burton Schnake accidentally gashes his leg while playing at home.
When game time arrives, the Trojans come prepared with a totally revamped offense. With 25 seconds left in the game, the score is tied 12-12 when the Cougars heave a Hail Mary pass into the end zone and complete the touchdown.
"It was a tough loss," David Hughes said as the Trojans slid to 3-3. "It was a very tight game and a battle from the get-go. It made us realize how important of a piece Schnake is to the team."
That is made even more evident the following week as the Trojans suffer their third straight loss, a 39-19 beating by the Colts.
Watching a Trojan player writhe on the ground in a full-on temper tantrum, Rhonda Miller -- mother of Casey -- says she's surprised there aren't more of these. "Yeah, I mean, they're little, they're supposed to act like this. Tired, it's early. He probably didn't have much breakfast.
"I don't know if [losing] matters at this point...the only way they know if it matters is if the adults, the parents make a big deal about it and the coaches and see, ours are oblivious to the fact that they lost."
The Millers have recently returned from an eight-year stint working for Halliburton in Indonesia, where Casey tried soccer and played rugby for a while. But it's always been football for her sons, American football.
"It is OUR sport," she says. "That no one else can do. And it was such a big deal for them to come home and play American football. And I honestly think that's why we're here more than anything, is because my boys are so patriotic. When we were overseas, they would just make you cry. They would introduce themselves to you and they would say, 'My name is Sam Miller and I'm an American.'
"I don't want a superstar," she continues. "I just want him to have fun and to be a little boy and to be an American little boy; for us, being out for eight years, this is a big deal. This is what they were doing while we were in Indonesia, and now he gets to do it and it's really cool."
Why is it so cool? Why is it such a big deal? Particularly in Texas, where it's such a big deal they've written books about it, made a movie about it and now, a weekly TV show?
"Well, you know, I think a lot of it is just the nature of Texas," Bissinger reflects. "You know it's a macho state. It takes a lot of pride in its ability to be rough and tough and Texas has more small, isolated towns than any other state in the country with the exception of Alaska, which doesn't count. And you know, based on my research, since the early 1900s football was the glue that kept these places together. This really was the only show in town on a Friday night.
"Texans are about honor, they're about courage, they're about toughness, they're about independence and they're about durability and football plays into all of that, and Texas is also into violence and there's no more violent game in America than football."
Football director Murphy Graham says they're not training kids to go on and play in the NFL or get Division 1 scholarships.
"The purpose of the league is that we believe there are things you can learn playing tackle football," he says emphatically. "You can learn them in other sports, it's just not as simple. Things like teamwork, like persistence, like setting a goal, putting a team in front of your own immediate interests, respect, discipline, courage. You know when you first start playing football and there's some bigger, stronger kid you have to tackle in a drill, and you don't really realize the protection the equipment gives you. Man, it takes guts to step up there and do that. And you know, that does something to a young man. It gives you true self-esteem which comes from, you know, making yourself to do something that is difficult. Rather than somebody telling you that you're good.
"I get moms who tell me that their kids start making their beds, their grades are improving, they're saying 'yes ma'am' and 'no ma'am'. You know, I think it's a really important thing. My dad starting coaching in 1967, he coached for 18 years and he's got grown men that seek him out and want to talk to him. I mean, it's a really special thing. I feel like we're on a holy mission. I take it really serious."
This year the Trojans have lucked out. There are no ranting parents and Coach Beavers is a homework-first kind of coach. If you don't have your homework finished, you can't practice.
Rhonda Miller says when it's done like this and you make it fun and you make them want to come back again next year, it's great.
"I heard about parents acting out of line but to see it to that level (at the Longhorn game) was shocking. I shook for hours after that game. Because I've never seen...I didn't think parents talked to their children that way -- and other children.
"And if my child played on a team like that, he wouldn't. I mean, as hard as it would be to tell him, 'Sweetie, you're not playing this year,' there's no way, because I don't talk to my child that way and you're not allowed to talk to him like that either. I mean, it's supposed to be fun. All you want is for the kids to come back and play next year. Because all it takes is one bad one and scary one like that and you've ruined a child. Our kids talked about that game for days after that because they've never seen anything like that.
"But I really like this and I know the experience that we've had with our coaches and our team. Our parents are just fantastic. So it makes you, you know, you want to come out."
In the final game of the regular season, the Trojans defeated the Wildcats 34-6. At press time, the Trojans were slated to play the Mustangs, the No. 1 seed in the Blue Division in the first round of the playoffs. Whether they win or not doesn't seem to really matter, as long as there's plenty of ice cream at the concession stand.
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