In Tiny Mites football practice last week, 5-year-old Joshua Tree became pie-eyed when one of the coaches handed him the ball and told him to run it into the line during a blocking and tackling drill. His eyes told the story: He knew other players would be trying to hit him. And they did.
With the help of a block, Joshua ducked his Soldotna Saints helmet and eluded the first defender, but the second one plowed into his left side and dragged him to the wet grass. As he crumpled, he lost his grip on the ball, which dropped beneath him loose until he was able to lock his legs around it and retain possession.
About 30 feet away, Joshua’s mom, Julie Tree, winced a little as her son was hit, but smiled as he bounced up and continued the drill.
It was all part of the learning process. All part of the largely volunteer-run organization known as Pop Warner football, which involves athletes from ages 5 to 16 learning and enjoying the gridiron game.
Pop Warner, a nationwide program named for legendary college coach Glenn Scobie “Pop” Warner, got its start in 1929 as a means to quell the growing vandalism problem in Philadelphia and involve youth in healthy activities.
On the central Kenai Peninsula, Pop Warner got its start 12 years ago as the result of efforts of a group of local parents. Early on, the Soldotna team was known as the 49ers, then the Eagles and finally the Saints. Kenai developed a team of its own, named the Falcons. Currently, all levels of Pop Warner are based in Soldotna, and over the years peninsula Pop Warner teams have consistently fed skilled players onto the state champion squads at Kenai Central and Soldotna high schools.
The Tiny Mites are made up of 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds weighing no more than 75 pounds. Pop Warner enforces a strict age and weight matrix to ensure players are evenly balanced in size.
Julie Tree said Joshua has “had a couple days where it’s kinda rough. Like today, he’s, ‘I’m tired. I don’t wanna play,’ but now he’s fine. Once he gets going, he’s good to go. He’s had definitely more good days than bad.”
Although she’s pleased Pop Warner mandates that every player gets to play in every game, she wants to make sure he doesn’t overdo it and turn against the sport.
“I’m fine if he only plays 10 plays. I mean, he’s 5. A lot of these other kids are 6 and 7,” she said.
At the end of this season, Tree said she’ll let Joshua decide if he wants to continue.
“If he doesn’t want to do it next year, he’s not going to have to do it,” she said. “But I don’t really want him to quit (this year). He’s had a couple of rough days. There’s a couple of times he told me, ‘I don’t want to play anymore,’ you know. I’m trying to tell him, ‘It’s OK. We’ll get through it.’ I can’t let him quit right now, ’cause that’s what he’s going to remember: two weeks of practice and nothing else.”
Generally, he is excited to play.
“We get home and he’s tackling us. He’s tackling the couch,” she said.
“His biggest goal is getting tough enough to beat up Daddy. He’s trying to build muscle so he can beat Daddy, so he can win when they’re wrestling,” she said.
Out on the practice field, about a half-dozen volunteers and coaches, under head coach Lane Johnson, are moving the players through a variety of drills. Two of the more familiar faces are Allan Miller, former high school running and skiing coach, and high school football coach Sarge Truesdell.
Early in practice, Miller was running the players through warm-ups — a quick jog around the practice field, some stretching to loosen up. Later, he helped the other coaches run the football drills.
“Having never taught anything below fifth grade, this is a real stretch (for me), coaching a group of kids at levels I don’t understand in a sport I don’t understand on multiple levels,” Miller said.
Miller credits Truesdell, Soldotna High School head coach Galen Brantley and others with supplying the football expertise. All have players on the team: Mackenzie Miller, 7; Jersey Truesdell, 6; and Galen Brantley Jr., 6.
Miller said Mackenzie, who also participates in KPHA hockey and Boys and Girls Club soccer, decided he wanted to play football after watching his older brother, Xander, play last year. Xander, 9, plays at the next level, the Mighty Mites.
In the Truesdell family, football is a natural fit.
“Well, Jersey’s the kind of kid that just grew up with football, with me being a coach at SoHi, and he had an extra pair of shoulder pads before he was old enough to put ’em on,” Truesdell said.
Still, Truesdell he said he was “pretty skeptical” when a Tiny Mites team was formed.
“I didn’t start playing football until ninth grade,” Truesdell said. “And I went on to a college scholarship and stuff, so I didn’t feel like there was a tremendous amount of merit in the little-kids stuff.
“But (Jersey) really wanted to do it, and so I said, ‘All right, if you really want to do it, I’ll put you in it.’ And he really enjoyed it, even last year as a 5-year-old, and it’s the hugest gap there will ever be when there’s 7-year-olds on the same field as 5-year-olds — a tremendous amount of difference.
“And he got his butt kicked but loved it, you know, and
never not wanted to go to practice, enjoyed all the games, and so it was great,” Truesdell said.
Truesdell and Miller praised Pop Warner football, and sports in general, as benefiting their sons.
“Research sure supports the importance of an active childhood as the basis of developing healthy lifestyle habits that can control things like obesity, heart disease, et cetera. I also think it’s important to develop friendships with a broad group of peers in a wide variety of situations,” Miller said.
“Mackenzie’s involvement in sports has certainly been a very big component of his developing coordination and confidence.”
Truesdell said that, more than other team sports, football requires an unusual amount of focus for kids only 5 to 7 years old.
“It takes 11 guys lining up, correctly, sitting still, until one voice sounds the cadence, and then they are all expected to run in a certain direction and accomplish a play,” he said.
Out on the practice field, the sounds of instruction, cheering and encouragement were helping make sure that was exactly what would happen come game time.