For years, the prospect of a youth football league team at the Marcus Whitman School District was nothing more than a dream for young boys and the men who coached them. Although the football team in Penn Yan was nearby, it was not within the district, and was certainly not ideal. Coach Rich Gulvin didn’t like the way things were going with the organization and how it was being run. He wanted the kids to have the opportunity to play more, and he wanted them to be able to discover the beauty of teamwork as he taught them a sport he loved.
When the Marcus Whitman High School team went to state semi-finals in 2005, enough momentum built to propel the idea of a district youth football team into action. Thus, the team members pulled out of Penn Yan, and were established at Marcus Whitman as the Junior Wildcat Football and Cheerleading program, which will be entering its third season in August. “Because the varsity team had done so well, that’s what all those little kids in the district wanted to have happen,” said Clark Brown, former president of the team and now board member. “They were so excited about the varsity team that they said, ‘Well, I want to play football too.’” The team now belongs to the Finger Lakes Youth Football and Cheerleading League, and Brown is certainly glad of that.
“I said, ‘Man, we’ve got to have football,’” said Brown. “I don’t want kids growing up without it because it’s just so cool.” Brown says he thinks his level of involvement in the league stems from not being able to play as a child.
Like Brown, Coach Gulvin had no football league in which to play as a child. Instead, he remembers getting some guys together and playing on a street corner or in a hayfield. “It’s such a great opportunity for kids, and I’d hate to see anything stop them from having that opportunity that I didn’t have,” he said.
He now makes it his goal to help every young man on his teams make the most of that opportunity. When he coached for the league in Yates County, Gulvin was unhappy that at certain points, there would be more kids than could actually play, as there were nearly 60 players on his squad. “Some kids were lucky if they got in two to three times a game, and I just didn’t think it was fair to the kids to practice all that time and only do a few plays,” he said.
The Junior Wildcats are now divided into three divisions, with roughly 25 kids in each, allowing them much more playing time, as well as better, more personal coaching. “It’s age and weight-governed, so small kids aren’t playing against big kids,” said Brown. “It’s all very controlled and extremely rule-oriented and safe.” The three divisions are for ages 7 to 9, 9 to 11, and 11 to 14, with an additional section of flag football for children ages 5 through 7. Practice begins August 1, with the first game held August 23 for each division. Each division plays a two-hour game every Sunday.
Unlike many sports, football necessitates special – and even individualized – coaching. “People don’t understand that with football every position on the field requires a whole different coaching and education process,” said Brown. “People ask, ‘Why do you need so many coaches?’ Well, come to a practice and try to explain a play and tell every single player that they have to do a different thing on that play.” Brown said that during the first year of the league there were one or two coaches, but that number increased to five or six for the second year, with the majority of them being parents.
“Since we’ve started in this new league, I’ve had a lot of parents interested to the point that we have to turn people away because there’s too much involvement,” said Gulvin. Whether in coaching, running the concession stand, fundraising, or doing something else, the league has set a regulation that parents be active volunteers, which Gulvin said provides a great way for the workload to be spread so it doesn’t fall on only one person’s shoulders.
Just as adults depend on each other to run the league, the players must learn to work together on the field. “The whole thing is dependent on everyone doing their job,” said Brown. “If one of the 11 kids fails, the play fails. And the kids begin to see a level of teamwork required in football as a metaphor for life. We talk about it all the time because of what has to happen working with the players. You have to know what to do and what your teammates are supposed to do so you can tell them if they forget.” Brown said he enjoys watching the kids help each other out, each whispering to another about what needs to happen next.
Parents, coaches and kids alike work very hard all season to train and make the most of their football experience, but a new addition to the schedule last year perhaps made the biggest impact of all. “I wanted the kids to play for the kids,” said Brown, of his vision of a charity game. “I wanted the league to take a more philanthropic approach, so I wanted to have an all-star game which was dedicated to raising money for local charities, namely other kids who needed help.”
When Marcus Whitman took on Dundee in the charity game last year, Buffalo Bills star Andre Reed was on hand to offer guidance and support. “We brought him in as a spokesperson,” said Brown, “and we raised money for one particular boy in our district who probably won’t live a whole lot longer, but who came to all the games and practices with his mother and siblings.” Brown said the family lacked a lot of things needed to care for the boy, including a ramp outside their home, but were able to afford them, once presented with the $4,000 raised by the charity game.
“It was unbelievable,” said Brown, who told parents mid-season that down the line, the charity game would be the one their kids would remember. “It was different,” said Brown. “It’s all about developing young men and women to think about something other than themselves. We went out and we played for fun, we didn’t even keep score, and we played to raise money for someone who would never play football.”
This year’s charity game will include many more selfless players, as 12 teams will be involved. Games will be played in the three different age groups at two sites on September 27, Gulvin said.
Even before the charity game, the kids realized it’s not about winning or losing, but how and why you play the game. “The mission statement of the league is not about winning but it’s about growing up and playing and learning the game of football while having fun,” said Brown. While Brown said many fathers still can’t be convinced that it’s not all about the wins, the smiles on the kids’ faces after a game show Brown that the score doesn’t matter a bit. “Win or lose, they’re all smiling,” he said.
It’s those very smiles that keep Gulvin coming back each season, even after his kids are grown and far removed from the days of youth football. “I love seeing the smiles on their faces when they succeed,” said Gulvin. “I guess that’s why I keep doing it.” Both Brown and Gulvin say they feel extremely rewarded, knowing they had a part in inducing that happiness.
“Those smiles on their faces are worth a million bucks,” said Brown.
by Kimberly Price