New London, CT. — They appeared on television during last weekend’s divisional playoffs and they’ll appear again this weekend: infomercials from the National Football League encouraging parents to check out the burgeoning popularity of flag football, maybe the last bastion remaining to save the sport at youth levels.
Overwhelming evidence from the National Federation of State High School Associations suggests that participation levels continue to decline on youth and secondary levels, likely the residual effect of parental fears that stem from concussion injuries.
Ah, but now there’s the alternative, a game that still teaches football, but spares kids at youth levels from getting their eggs scrambled.
Our corner of the world is joining the revolution. Heavy Hitters USA, a local non-profit foundation dedicated to teaching life skills through various athletic endeavors, once sponsored two teams in the league at the Wide World of Indoor Sports in Montville. Heavy Hitters, with teams from New London and Groton, are up to nine teams now and more than 100 kids, including a group headed to Orlando soon for a tournament.
“Parents are scared of having kids hurt,” said Jose Carmona, who organizes the Heavy Hitters teams and has two sons playing. “This gives you the skill level of football. You still learn the game without fear of your kid getting hurt. A different outlet. It builds confidence of the younger kids and gets rid of that fear when it comes time for them to finally wear shoulder pads and helmets.”
Flag football games are 5-on-5 and last an hour. The kids run, run and run more. They learn many skills of football, such as throwing it, running good routes and covering receivers.
Shannon Brenek, whose son, Jake, grew up on flag football, is Heavy Hitters’ executive director, working closely with founder Kent Ward. Jake Brenek was the only St. Bernard student to participate in the high school football tri-operative this past season with Grasso Tech and Norwich Tech.
“It’s great practice,” Shannon Brenek said. “It’s no pressure. I think that’s the best thing about it. Pressure will come sooner or later in football. This is complete fun and he’s learning.”
Flag football’s emergence comes as participation in tackle football has declined. The most recent data (the 2017-18 school year) illustrates a drop in Connecticut from 10,815 kids playing high school football in 2009 to 9,241 in 2017, a 14.6 percent decrease in nine years. Youth level coaches across the region say participation is down as well, amid concern over head injuries.
The Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C., wrote a 27-page report recently on the emergence and benefits of flag football, following interviews with doctors, educators, former NFL players and college coaches and surveys from parents, high school and youth coaches, athletic trainers and medical professionals.
“Our overarching conclusion,” the report said, “(is that) children, the game and communities are likely to benefit if flag football becomes the standard way of playing before high school, with modifications. A key modification: Proper tackling technique is taught in practice settings, and in a controlled manner, in the age group leading into it.”
The report found interest increasing nationally, including how “flag football surpassed tackle football as the most commonly played form of the game among children ages 6 to 12, according to annual survey data by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.” And in Florida, a youth flag league founded by former University of Maryland quarterback John Kaleo has served more than 7,000 kindergarten through middle school-aged children since 2014. It even has a corporate sponsor: Under Armour.
Brenek said Heavy Hitters is looking to alleviate the cost of the program for some of the kids in New London and Groton. Anyone interested in contributing can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, there are tryouts for the next round of teams Feb. 18 from noon-2 p.m. at the Wide World of Indoor Sports.
Maybe football will make a comeback around here after all.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .