For the past 36 years, Walt Lodes could be found each fall walking a football field and teaching football to 12- to 14-year-olds.
The head coach of the Comstock Park Bengals of the Northern Rocket Football League in Michigan just wrapped up another season coaching the sport he loves, and Lodes has enjoyed every minute of the experience.
“I got into youth football because I have two sons,” Lodes said. “I was at practice with one of them one day, and they needed another coach. I don’t know if I volunteered or if I got drafted, but I ended up there.”
That was 1977, and he’s been hooked ever since.
“I enjoy working with kids and getting them to pull together and be a team,” Lodes said. “That’s the thing I probably like the most: trying to bring a group of kids with various skills and experience together so they can become a team. That’s the thing that makes it a challenge.”
In 1989, Lodes was approached about becoming league commissioner. He was hesitant to accept and only envisioned serving the role for a year or two,
Last season marked his 23rd year as president of the NRFL – the largest youth football program in Michigan.
Since then, the league has grown to more than 8,500 kids on 225 tackle teams. He said he’s met countless parents over the years and covered a wide variety of topics, but safety remains the most important issue for youth football administrators, coaches, players and parents.
Lodes stresses the importance of safety with all new coaches and tells them to always keep in mind that they are coaching kids.
“It’s all about playing the best you can, playing safe and having fun. And I think that’s what makes kids want to come back,” Lodes said. “You can’t overemphasize safety. That’s why it’s been really gratifying to me and some of the other coaches I have talked to, to see what USA football and the NFL has done as far as concussions are concerned.
“We always tell parents that you’ll hear us yelling on the sideline ‘heads up, eyes open,’ and there’s a reason for that. You can’t look down and lead with that helmet. That’s something I believe in, especially with youth sports.”
Lodes’ focus on player safety has been the same since he began coaching. The fundamentals never change even as players get bigger, faster and stronger and have a better handle on the game.
Lodes said he’s coached more than 800 kids, including both of his sons. What keeps him coming back year after year is when former players come back to thank him for coaching them and looking out for them as they grew up or just to say “hi.”
Those are the moments Lodes cherishes the most.
“I originally said I was going to retire after this year, but between my wife, who wants me to continue coaching, and some of the players I had and the parents, I put off retirement,” Lodes said. “My wife said ‘You like it, you’re good at it, and you won’t be underfoot.’ That was the order she put it, but I think in her mind the order was reversed.
“It’s been a great time, and I have enjoyed it. I am definitely going to be around for a 37th year, and after that, who knows. As long as I’m healthy, It’s fun and my wife doesn’t want me underfoot, I guess I’ll be doing something in the fall.”