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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Flag Football and Throwing a Football Around

My six year-old plays in a flag football league with a bunch of other first graders, and it's hilarious to watch. The kids wear colored jerseys and are named after college teams (and, yes, there is a Miami), and the jerseys are the size of hospital dressing growns for the big and tall set than rather particularly tailored to the skinny boys that tend to populate this game. The kids wear the jerseys, black pants and cleats, and they are required to don mouthgards (whether they can keep them in their mouths or not hold onto them while they play is another story).

And then there are the flags, which rest on either hip at the end of a belt contraption and which are the source of every defensive player's attention. Grab a flag, and you've "caught" or "stopped" your man. The kids line up with five kids on the line and two in the backfield. Most of the plays are running plays, some reverses, some misdirection, and an occasional passing play. Sometimes it looks like a fire drill, and at other times you get the one kid who is quicker than others, sometimes because he's spent a lot of his free time chasing after his older siblings. My kid's team has one of those kids, and every time he touches the ball he runs at least for half the field. And he's also the kid who makes most of the stops on defense.

My son likes to block, and the coaches tell the kids to hold their blocks. Sometimes the kids take their coaches too literally and simply hold, so instead of holding their blocks they are holding their opposite numbers. He likes to snap the ball and play quarterback, and he's had some keepers where he's scrambled into the secondary, if only to have the fastest kid on the other team get one of his flags right before he is able to break into daylight. He threw an incomplete pass and was lucky to escape the fate of one of his teammates, who threw an interception that, yes, the fastest kid on the other team -- and boy was this kid fast -- ran in for a score.

There's also the kicking game, and, no, they don't kick points after touchdown. Rather, they try two-point conversions, but they do kick off. When it was my son's turn, I figured that he would suffer the fate of his teammates by running up to the ball and then stopping his momentum (and torque) and then dribble the ball on the ground for about ten yards. But he didn't do that. Instead, he kept his momentum and hit a line drive that went about ten or more feet in the air and many yards downfield, well over the heads of the boys on the opposing team. I was amazed, agape.

So what happened?

The fastest kid on the other team scooped up the ball and made a beeline right up the middle of the field. In essence, my son outkicked his coverage -- on a kickoff. Fortunately, he had kept on running straight downfield and yanked the flag out of the kick returners belt, making the stop. So who said kickers aren't tough enough?

Amazed and agape, again. But very mellow in my celebration, of course.

Most parents are mellow, and the league has a code of conduct that prevents parents from doing anything other than encouraging the teams. Occasionally, there's a parent who's on the sidelines pacing, waiting to see his kid's talent emerge and break a run. I'm told that the parental interest (or is it interference?) increases markedly as the children age, but I doubt I'll be one of those parents (and I doubt my son will be one of those kids who will be a star running back at high school, but there are those who look like they could be on their way). Still, the kids are only six, and it will take many years for the talent to develop and, importantly, separate.

My wife isn't a huge football fan, and when she's gone to the games I've asked her for a report on what's happened, and she shrugs and smiles. "It's hard to say," she has offered on more than one occasion. "It looks like a bunch of kids running around, and it's hard to see what they're supposed to be doing." And then she adds, with a smile, "But it looks like they're having a lot of fun."

Which is the way it's supposed to be.

I don't know whether my son will continue playing flag football or will graduate to the Pop Warner's tackle division. He and I and my daughter (who's nine) love throwing a football around the yard, and my daughter has offered that she can throw a football better than any girl in her fourth-grade class (the gym teacher has taught them how to pass). After receiving some of her spirals last weekend, I can testify that she has quite a good arm and probably throws better than some of the boys (she wants to be a softball pitcher). And it's a really fun thing to do, tossing around a football, on a sunny weekend afternoon with no time constraints, laughing and pretending to be the favorite pro football player of the moment. We do it in the fall, we do it in the summer, and we look forward to do it on Thanksgiving. On that particular day, there's something very special, and we're thinking of talking with a bunch of families in the neighborhood to combine for a Thanksgiving morning touch football game.

That, too, should be a lot of fun.

To be clear, I am not sold on the overall football climate in this country, but when you individualize it and make it fun the way we have tried to, well, to a large extent that's what really should matter.

Just remember that when you send your six year-old to "go long", don't send him on a collision course with the mailbox.


Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon said...


Since you like soccer, you really ought to go to see a soccer game played by six-year-olds. It resembles real soccer not at all.

From a helicopter what you'd see was a white ball with 20 kids swarming around it. The ball and "the swarm" would move up and down the field almost as an organism. And then there'd be the two goalies alone at each end of the field occasionally watching the game and often sitting down to play with blades of grass or a pebble.

Sports for kids at that age are great things - flag football, soccer, tee-ball. And part of why they are great things is that they aren't exactly like the "grown-up" sports they try to mimic.

Thanks for your very good post...

3:06 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks, Curmudgeon.

My son started soccer at 3 1/2 and my daughter at about 6, and they played up until last year. He might go back to it. All of those games are a hoot. My son liked to run around and engage friends of his on the other team in conversations or in fake "Light Saber" duels -- he did chase the ball every now and then. My daughter had a knack for scoring goals. Not much speed, but she knew where to hang out and liked offense better than defense (kind of like many NBA players).

Thanks for the post.

4:54 PM  

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