As the coach blows his whistle, 25 boys line up, many attempting a tackle for the first time. "Give it all you got" the coach yells as the first player throws himself, all 80 pounds, against a pad almost as big as he is. "Keep your knees up," another coach yells as a player navigates a maze designed to improve agility and footwork.
Moms watch from folding chairs, catching up with parents from past teams as younger siblings run around. Dads watch from the sidelines, some helping with the practice. Water jugs line the field. Football season is here.
Players ages 8 to 13 are being introduced to tackle football through the Ashburn Youth Football League (AYFL). More than 500 young players will practice three or four times a week between now and the championship game in mid-November. Players will learn both the physical and mental elements of football. They will learn their position and how to work as a team. There will be some ups and downs this season and players hope more wins than losses.
Despite the heat, schedule and work, these boys can’t wait to get on the football field.
"I just love this sport," said 10-year-old Michael Dillon of Ashburn who has been playing since he was 4.
Michael has learned the fundamentals of football, but his father Matt Dillon, an AYFL coach of the Sharks, said there is something more to the game.
"Of all the sports, baseball, basketball, football, there’s nothing like football for learning to depend on your teammate," Matt Dillon said. "It’s the camaraderie more than anything else."
Many parents agree. "My primary goal is that my son learns the value of teamwork. It’s something he can use at any point in life," Jenny Butcher, whose son Daniel is on the A League Spartans, said.
PLAYERS ARE assigned to teams through a draft. Generally, seventh- and eighth-graders play in the A League, fifth- and sixth-graders play in the B League and third- and fourth-graders are in the C League. The AYFL also offers flag football for 5- to 7-year-olds as well as cheerleading.
Each team has a head coach and assistant coaches. There may be an offensive and defensive coordinator, a line coach or a conditioning coach. These men put in hundreds of hours each season preparing for practice and strategizing for games.
Troy Cromwell coaches 9- to 11-year-olds on the Wolverines. He played wide receiver for Penn State in the early '80s and credits his college coach with his interest in coaching.
"Joe Paterno told us the integrity of the game was at stake. He told us to find a field, get out there and teach these kids how to play football the right way," Cromwell said.
Among Cromwell’s players are two of sons. His older son plays in the next age division.
Ashburn mom Lesley Pulley has two sons in the AYFL. Leonard plays on the Falcons in the A League and Jay is on the Bearcats in the C League. She has been impressed with the coaches.
"We have been exposed to a very high caliber of coaches. These are men you want as a role model for your son," Lesley Pulley said.
MANY COACHES played themselves as children and hope the players make some wonderful memories.
"I still remember my first year of tackle and I want these kids to look back on this experience with fondness," Ron Robey, C League Bearcats coach, said. "I want to help these kids develop self confidence. That’s what gets you through the tough times later on."
Coaches face some challenges. It’s not easy to keep 25 9-year-olds focused. "I try to make practice fun," said Robey. "There’s structure and repetition but I keep it entertaining."
Robey said the players get a lot out it when their work pays off on game day. "There’s a real benefit when the kids see the game plan come together," he said.
Heather McDonald’s 8-year-old son, Kevin, is playing tackle for the first time on the Jaguars.
"He played flag and begged me play tackle. Of course, I’m a little nervous, but he’s ready and they really emphasize safety," said Heather McDonald.
Kevin said his first week of practice "has been really good." What’s the most important thing he has learned about making a tackle? "Keep your head up," Kevin said.
The McDonalds, like many AYFL families enjoy game day.
"It’s fast paced, fun to watch and we enjoy the team spirit," Heather McDonald said.
Coaches find they take away more from the season than they expect. League president and Panthers coach John Manning has watched some of his former players play in high school and college.
"These seniors in high school who played for me will see me at dinner and come over and shake my hand," said Manning. "It’s great because I know these young men when they’re 25 or 35 will be right back on the field coaching, passing on the game."