With the latest NFL season complete, football fans around the nation now are looking to fill a void until training camps and the 2012 season commences in August.
However, for a few spring tackle leagues, their upcoming season is fast approaching.
The Columbia Area Youth League in Augusta, Ga. opens its fifth season of spring football on March 10with 28 teams and 500 players. Trevor Kitchens is one of the founding members.
Kitchens’ league fields players from age 6 to 14, and some already have filtered onto high school varsity rosters. Kitchens said playing year-round builds camaraderie.
In the Columbia area, high school baseball programs across the county have won 20 state championships, but none in football. Kitchens is hoping to change that and make his county – home of golf’s Masters Tournament – known for football.
“The high school coaches probably have 20 sophomore kids on the varsity team, and they can already see the difference,” Kitchens said. “Every game they play makes them better players.”
Playing year-round also shows that additional practice and experience will develop the athletes and the teams.
“There’s no way to replicate game speed at practice in football,” said Chris Zook, who runs the Houston Select Football League in the spring. “This way they’ve doubled their game experience when they get to high school.”
“It just cuts your practice time in half and speeds up the whole process. A 10-year old kid, it will take him six to eight months to get acclimated with the coach,” Kitchens said “I had (coached) a 9-year old one year that wasn’t able to do much, but the second year he just dominated.”
One of the biggest struggles for Kitchens in the spring is something he can’t control: Georgia’s heat and humidity.
For this, the league plays more early morning and night games spread across four days a week.
In Texas, Zook’s spring league features 850 middle school students on 32 teams. He wants his players to represent their middle schools during the fall, so the spring league allows them to play football in the offseason and hone their skills.
Also, Zook feels if the players prefer to stick to other sports such as baseball or lacrosse for the spring, they should. But for those whose passion is to play football year-round, the Houston Select Football League is that opportunity.
With a select group of players, the teams benefit from playing a faster game at a higher competition level.
“When they get to high school, the game is slower for them and they can adjust to the speed of varsity,” Zook said. “We have had many players start as freshmen or sophomores on varsity.
“They play slow and play down to the competition in the fall. In the spring, everybody’s good and they have to step up their game.”
Zook walks a tight line to make sure the players don’t get burned out with year-round football. To offset this, the players typically practice two or three times a week rather than every day.
Zook also plans many off-the-field activities to help the players balance their workload. He organizes a college day experience to instill the importance of education. Last year, the team visited the University of Houston and met with players and coaches – but also academic counselors, team nutritionists and scouts.
“There is more than just football, it’s about life and being a man of character,” Zook said. “Their football career will end one day, whether it’s on Saturdays, Sundays or Fridays. They have to hear and see what the world is like outside.”
Most of all, this allows those involved to be part of American’s favorite sport every day of the year.
“You don’t just teach kids football, you give them life lessons,” Kitchen said. “I love football. I could not get enough of it. It’s my passion.”