Youth football is a growing and changing movement across the nation, serving as a catalyst for change in the kids of today. The sport captures imaginations like few other past-times, transforming youth players – like millions of us have been – to life-long enthusiasts of the game, who are better people for the experiences and friendships that football has afforded us, regardless of race, creed, or socioeconomics.
USA Football’s League Excellence Program (LEP) encompasses our country’s top youth programs, displaying high standards toward player safety, coach certification and inclusivity with a series of new game-types. The leagues that adhere to the highest standards in these areas earn LEP Gold Level status.
USA Football recently asked two Gold Level leagues a few questions about how they operate, what being in the LEP program has done for them, and what the future holds for their organizations. Here are the responses from Charlie Holloway, Vice Commissioner of the Junior GAC Youth Football League in St. Louis, Mo., and Commissioner Marc Basis of the Western Communities Football League in Wellington, Fla.
Tell us a little bit about the makeup of your league:
Holloway (St. Louis, Mo.): The JRGAC Youth Football league is a feeder league to the local high schools in St. Charles, Lincoln, Washington and Warren Counties (located just outside St. Louis). These high schools are in a conference called the GAC (hence, JRGAC). We have 17 programs in the league, and all of the programs feed into their local high school. Our league has two seasons.; The fall includes K-2nd grade flag football, 3rd and 4th grade rookie tackle and 5th-8th senior tackle. Spring is our K-7th grade flag season with grades 3rd and up playing 7v7.
Basis (Wellington, Fla.): The WFCL is a recreational (non-travel, self-contained) tackle and flag football league. We draw athletes ages 5 – 16, from all the Western communities in Palm Beach County. The league is a place where those just starting their football journeys can come and compete with some of the top talent in the area.
What challenges (if any) have you faced in your league in recent memory, including the Covid-19 period? How has your league faced and recovered from these challenges?
Holloway: We were extremely fortunate to have a modified season during the height of Covid with significant restrictions that were put into place. Numbers were obviously down that season but have since recovered and shown growth within the league. Our biggest challenge lately has been the equipment shortage crisis. Programs are borrowing equipment from other programs and high schools and doing their absolute best to be ready to go for the season. The referee shortage has also given us cause for concern. Recently we have run into a shortage of athletic trainers, which is not discussed much but is becoming an issue.
Basis: COVID was bad for the WCFL. We were forced to shut down our 2020 spring flag season early and did not have a tackle season in the Fall. Our tackle enrollment, more than flag, suffered as a result. As participation has started to grow again, a new challenge is the equipment shortages in both flag and tackle, which has been difficult. The flags we normally use were not available, and new ones from a different supplier were smaller than the existing ones, creating problems with coaches. For tackle, we ordered 320 new helmets, but still did not have enough for the increased demand this year.
What is the biggest thing your league “hangs its hat on?”
Holloway: The league has shown a 22% increase in athlete participation from last year, with several of our programs showing a 40-50% growth year-over-year. Since 2019, the league’s participation rate has grown 43%, and we currently have 3,200 athletes enjoying youth football, making our league one of the largest in the Midwest. Our coaches are all USA Football certified which is something we pride ourselves on and we are diligently working on getting all of our programs enrolled with the League Excellence Program…Most recently, the JRGAC has started a referee training program. We bring in current and former high school players to officiate our flag and rookie games. We have just announced a scholarship program for those high school athletes that are not going to further their career in college and still wish to be part of football. We will pay for the state certifications and cover their uniform/equipment expenses to work with local state certified referees in our league.
Basis: The WCFL believes it has the best football facilities in Palm Beach County, with four fields with press boxes, large stands, scoreboards, announcers for every game and each field is completely fenced in. We have grown our numbers substantially over the past few years. Our flag numbers were down to under 500 and tackle was down to 260 in 2021. Post-COVID, we hit 733 in flag this year and we have over 350 in tackle and are still taking kids in certain divisions.
We are excited to be the new home of the Youth National Championship, which brings over 3,000 families per day to a two-week tackle football tournament sponsored by Battle Sports in our park. This prestigious event brought a lot of excitement to our league last year and we are looking forward to hosting it again in 2022.
How has your involvement in USA Football’s LEP program benefited your league up to this point, or if you are a recent enrollee, how do you think it will improve your league moving forward?
Holloway: As you know, maintaining a league and program is quite expensive and every little bit of extra benefits help. Last year, programs that qualified and enrolled in the LEP took advantage of the equipment grants offered through BSN Sports which were just huge for them. This year we are working harder to improve the programs and their involvement with the LEP. The digital benefits are so beneficial for our programs as we are already starting to notice social media posts with shout outs to our programs that have earned their LEP status with USA Football.
Basis: We believe that the training our coaches receive from USA Football is an invaluable asset to our league. We have 19 head coaches in tackle with almost 100 assistant coaches, so training all of them on the importance of a solid coaching philosophy, let alone how to teach tackling, would be impossible without the resources of USA Football. Many of our coaches finished their football playing careers over 20 years ago, and without Heads Up Training we would be trying to teach outdated tackling techniques (at best). We believe Heads Up Training is saving the sport of football at the youth level, and we put it out there as a true selling point to concerned parents all the time.
USA Football promotes the Football Development Model and its impact on improving the safety of the game for younger generations. What does this movement mean to you and how important of a cause is this for you in your league?
Holloway: This is make or break for us. If we don’t continue our efforts to improve the safety of the game, there will not be a JRGAC in 10 years.
Basis: The days of football being an unnecessarily violent sport are over. “Hurting” an opposing player was rewarded years ago when many of us played, and that has been to the detriment of football at all levels. USA Football teaches coaches how to approach coaching with a thorough, thought-out plan where aggressiveness can still be encouraged, but in a manner that’s safer for all involved.
What are your short term (next 1-2 years) and long term (5-6 years out) goals for your league?
Holloway: Our long and short term goals will always be to be a better league tomorrow than we were today. In the next 1-2 years, we want to see continued growth not just in numbers but in officials, trainers and coaches in our league. We pride ourselves on our continuous efforts to provide a safe and FUN place for our athletes to participate in what I consider to be the greatest sport in the world. 5-6 years from now, we want to be what we are now, a great youth football organization. There’s nothing better than seeing kids strapping on their helmets and the look of excitement in their eyes before a kickoff and the smiles on their faces after the games. Those smiles make all the negative news about football, the struggles we face and the worries we have all worth it! Without the continued education, encouragement and knowledge USA Football has given us, we wouldn’t be who we are today, so thank you USA Football!
Basis: Short term, the WCFL is building two new storage units, giving us a total of 760 square feet of room for our equipment (which is currently housed in a rented storage space). That should be happening in the next 6-8 weeks. A significant mid-term goal is to focus on girl’s flag football. We have always offered co-ed flag but want to offer the community a place for girls to compete with other girls. We had our first season in the Spring of 2022 with four teams in the 12U division and it was a great success. Next year we are looking to expand and offer a range from 6U through 13U.
Long term goals for our league are to be the gold standard in Palm Beach County youth football, and to bring the WCFL participation, as well as total participation in youth football in the area, back to the levels they once were. There was a time when the WCFL had over ten teams in every tackle division, and we believe we can get close to those kinds of numbers by continuing to invest in the total football experience for our families. The Board of Directors works harder for our non-profit than most do at their normal jobs, and we do it proudly.