By Claire Walla
Their shoulder pads may reach up to their ears and their tiny frames may only be four-feet high, but their tackles and touch-downs never cease to make the crowd go wild.
Welcome to East End youth football.
Three years ago, after running the P.A.L. youth football league in Southampton, Gary Stanis started a P.A.L. branch in East Hampton. Before that, youth football opportunities east of Southampton were limited to in-house programs, where kids who signed up would merely end up playing against one another, which didn’t offer much in the way of competition, Stanis said.
“If you look at any successful high school programs, all of them have grown tremendously since they brought in youth programs,” Stanis said. The program costs $135 per player, and includes all equipment, including shoulder pads and helmets. While the numbers are strong enough to field four different teams, Stanis said he’d like to see more participation from more areas.
The league brings in seven to 11-year olds from Bridgehampton, Water Mill, Sag Harbor, Springs, East Hampton and Montauk, all the schools that combine to create the East Hampton High School football team. But, currently, there are only three players from Montauk and two from Bridgehampton.
The importance of bringing up the league’s numbers, Stanis said, is to build a passion for the sport early on.
“It all starts at the youth level,” he continued. “The more you can teach them, the better prepared they’ll be for the high school team.”
However, while forming team unity and developing skills is certainly one of the goals of the league, Stanis added that the benefits for players extend beyond the grid-iron.
Ron White, who coaches the seven to eight-year olds, said that while he teaches the basics of tackling, blocking and throwing the ball, “They’re also learning accountability and teamwork. Each player is important every second of the game.”
“Football is sort of like chess,” he continued. “Each player has an integral role on the field and they’re all working together to accomplish one thing. When you put on that helmet and shoulder pads, everyone becomes one.”
Allison Scanlon, whose sons Colin (seven) and Seamus (nine) currently play on P.A.L. teams, has noticed that her sons have already developed skills that extend beyond the field.
“Colin’s coach told [the team] at the beginning of the season that there are the muscle boys and there are the glory boys. The glory boys make the touchdown passes and get all the recognition. The muscle boys are on the line protecting their players,” Scanlon said. “Colin is a left tackle. He won’t touch the ball all season, but he gets it. He’s got those guys’ backs.
Plus, Scanlon added, being a part of a team that draws players from across the East End has its benefits.
“My sons recently switched schools, and even though they were nervous, they knew that the players from their team were going to be there,” she said. “I didn’t see kids come together like that with basketball or baseball.”
However, football is, historically, not without injury — sometimes very serious injury. Recent media coverage has attacked the sport for the dangerous nature of high-speed contact and helmet-leading tackles, which have caused serious brain injury in some players, sometimes paralysis.
But, Stanis maintained, at this level of play serious injury is not a big threat. Not only are players trained rigorously in how to tackle properly — “always keep your head up” — but every single player weighs-in at the beginning of every game. Those who don’t meet the weight requirements for each age level, Stanis continued, don’t get to play in the game. Plus, every single helmet is examined at the end of each season and — if it doesn’t meet safety regulations — it is replaced.
In all his years of running the league, he added, he’s never seen a football-related injury.
“At this age,” Scanlon added, “the kids probably get just as hurt as they would playing lacrosse or soccer.”
Bill Gardner, who coaches the nine-year olds, also said that the only injuries his players have encountered this year have happened off the field.
Gardner has coached Pop Warner teams as well as lacrosse teams in the past, but said that football is his true passion.
“As P.A.L. coaches, we like to think we’re contributing to the high school program,” he added. “But, only time will tell. The closer we work together the better it is for the players.”