Parent Perspectives: Watching my child learn the game the right way

By Mike Lemons, a Youth Football Dad | Posted 2/15/2022
The following is a first-hand account of a family’s rookie season (2021) in youth tackle football, written through the eyes of a loving father. USA Football’s Football Development Model (FDM), created with insight from leaders across football and health, spanning The Ivy League to Children’s National Hospital, melds the timeless joy of playing the sport with 21st century thought leadership. The heart of the FDM encompasses high-quality and well-informed coaching, meeting athletes where they are developmentally, giving parents as much information as possible to make well-informed decisions, and to provide multiple entry points for participation and progressive skill development based on athletes’ needs and readiness. By embracing the FDM, which aligns with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s American Development Model, youth leagues nationwide meet their athletes where they are developmentally and provide for a progressive approach to skill acquisition to further their love for the sport and the fun and fitness it delivers.


Is he too young for tackle football?

That was the question my wife and I asked ourselves when our eight-year-old son wanted to play football with the Naperville (Ill.) Saints. As I’ll detail below, the short answer is that starting in tackle football at a young age was one of the best decisions we’ve made for and with him.

Hopefully sharing our experience with the Naperville Saints will help give some perspective if you’re thinking of having your son play for the Saints on the younger age teams.

My son had played flag football before, which was fun – but he wanted to play tackle.  We had considered it before but had some questions we asked ourselves: How would he like it? Is it safe? What should we expect during the season? Would he know anyone?

After some discussion with a former flag coach, friend and 9U coach for the Saints, we decided to sign him up for the Naperville Saints on the 8U (8 and under) team, 2021 season.

The Experience
Once registered with the Saints we were off to the races attending practices, getting equipment, and watching him learn the game, the right way. His confidence grew, his knowledge of the game grew exponentially, and he had a purpose with contribution to the team effort of success.

Over the weeks and months, I saw the boys learn fundamentals, teamwork, safety, physical conditioning, resiliency, discipline, achievement and have FUN!

While the games were a BLAST the fun didn’t stop there. His team had several events throughout the season including a season opener party, a homecoming game recognizing the moms and guardians, pizza parties, end of season parties, and more.

He made many friends as well. At the beginning of the season, he only knew one boy on his team. In a matter of weeks, he was fast friends with his teammates. The parents also came together, helping each other and cheering for all the boys on the team – not just their own. His teammates were a mix of local kids from St. Raphael, School Districts 203 and 2014 and Saints Peter and Paul.

Back to one of our first burning questions we had (and many have) is the topic of safety in tackle football. We felt he was safe and he did too for several reasons I’ve listed below.

The reality is that no youth sport is void of risk. For example, my son often (unintentionally) butted heads with other players playing soccer and flag football, coming away with bloody noses and bruised heads. He experienced neither with tackle football. One reason starts with how they are coached.

Coaching: As part of the Bill George Youth Football League, all Naperville Saints coaches complete USA Football Coach Certification, accredited through the U.S. Center for Coaching Excellence. This stringent certification covers areas such as head, heart and heat health, levels of contact and much more.

Size: We found that starting tackle football at a younger age was a safety advantage. When the boys are smaller and weigh less at a younger age is the time to start tackle. To learn early on to play the right way and in an organization which teaches safe play. We did NOT want him to continue to play flag then switch to tackle at or shortly before playing high school (tackle) football.

Another aspect of safety is the “striper” program. Players are designated as “stripers” when they meet or exceed a weight threshold, by age group. Those designated stripers have a highlighted stripe sticker on their helmet which easily identifies them as being ineligible to carry the football. This translates to a safer game as the bigger kids can’t run the ball. My son is a striper and he loved it, doing battle in the trenches as both an offensive lineman and defensive tackle. There were many smaller players who were able to play a variety of positions on both sides of the ball.

Conditioning: Conditioning was a major reason the boys stayed healthy throughout the season. Strength and cardiovascular conditioning meant the boys played with proper form throughout the games the entire season.

Equipment: Equipment sold today is built to absorb impact way more than when I was a kid. Equipment manufacturers have a vested interest in making safer helmets and pads. Even “entry level” equipment is built to the highest safety standards.

Last but certainly, which I cannot praise enough, was the quality of coaching in the Saints program which was second-to-none. His team was led three exceptional coaches. Their years of experience playing and coaching the game garnered immediate respect from the players. In addition to playing the game safety the coaches also imparted a sense of confidence, strength, care, and attention to each player. Each player on the team got playing time.

In summary, starting him young was the right decision for him and we are very excited about the 2022 season and beyond.