Photo via Facebook/Milton Steelers
When former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Tim Lester retired in 1999, he devoted much of his time to mentoring at-risk youth, with a focus on preparing teenagers for the SAT.
When Lester had children of his own, he had a bit of an epiphany: He wanted to reach young people at an earlier age—and football would be the vehicle.
That’s when Lester started the Milton Steelers youth football program in 2012, with the help of friend and former teammate and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis.
Over the last five years, the league struggled with dwindling participation, shrinking to roughly 20 players last fall. That’s when Lester realized he needed to make a dramatic change.
Through the generosity of Lester and his wife, as well as in partnership with several local sponsors, the league decided to waive all fees and costs for players.
“If you’re paying $400-$500 and your kid doesn’t like football, you’re losing $400-$500,” Lester said. “So we did it for free and our numbers jumped.”
The money that once went toward marketing and recruiting efforts now goes towards paying for the players’ equipment and registration fees. That’s been an invaluable recruiting tool in and of itself.
So far for this coming season, Lester’s league, the NFL New Found Life North Georgia Football League, has more than 130 players registered, from kindergarten through seventh grade.
Erasing the financial barrier to entry has not only led to a boon in sign-ups, but to a diverse group of players from different socio-economic backgrounds.
A flag football option is also available for players who prefer to go that route, Lester said. Whether flag or tackle, football is the tool that Lester uses to teach lessons that stretch beyond the field.
His league places a priority on teaching character to its players, who wear a “character word” on the back of their jerseys and are required to learn its meaning and share it with their opponents. It’s part of the life skills curriculum that Lester employs.
“You can show up on game day and that other guy might be bigger, faster and stronger than you and you have to find a way to compete,” he said. “Football teaches you how to deal with obstacles that get in the way and to keep fighting and competing and never give up.”
In addition to character building, well-trained coaches comprise another pillar of Lester’s league. As the founder, Lester makes sure coaches are properly certified and turns to USA Football to do so. He’s recently introduced USA Football’s free shoulder tackling course to his coaches.
“You just can't put anybody out there to be coaching kids,” he said. “USA Football has created a platform that everyone falls back on. ‘Are you certified by USA Football?’ Everyone wants to know that."
That’s why Lester has also made sure that the coaches in NFL New Found Life North Georgia Football League are Heads Up Football-certified.
Lester believes his league is far from a unicorn. Rather, he views it as a model that other former NFL players can follow to help grow and develop the sport in their local communities.
“Coaching youth football and teaching kids life skills through it has been my way to transition out of football,” he said. “I see this as a template that a lot of retired guys can take. I want everybody to use it. The more people that use it, the more kids are going to get back out there (on the field).”