Taking the Fun Out of a Game

Kids play football because they enjoy it. But adults want kids to play little league football for a lot of other reasons—and that's where all the trouble starts
November 17, 1975

The little league football season is in full swing, and we are reassured by its advocates and commercial sponsors that it is good stuff,. keeping kids off the streets and out of the clutches of juvenile authorities. Also teaching them discipline, teamwork, respect for authority (i.e., coaches), zone defenses, veer and winged-T offenses and the value of making more effective use of their little bodies—forearms, heads, elbows and Other weapons.

Little league football, being more costly to operate, did not catch on as quickly as Little League baseball (the latter is capitalized, courtesy of the Congress of the U.S.), but once it did it spread like tidewater across the country. Now, apparently, there is no stopping it. From the lofty hamlets of Colorado to the red-neck towns of Mississippi, in spacious Montana and spaced-out Manhattan, 8-and 10-year-olds, wearing globular helmets that sometimes spin on their heads at impact, go to war against other 8-and 10-year-olds, often bewildered but always stylish in eight pounds of vinyl, poly-urethane and viscose tailoring, at $100 per costume. Miniature cheerleaders bounce up and down like fish on a line, cheering indiscriminately (it is difficult at that age to tell offense from defense). Sometimes bands play.

Little league moms and pops, bursting with pride that their youngsters have been detoured from lives of crime, crowd the sidelines to encourage them, the veins sticking out on their necks. Grown-up officials in striped shirts blow their whistles in a cacophony of authority and tower over the action like Gulliver over the Lilliputians. Coaches scream and yell at the pint-size warriors and sometimes tell the officials a thing or two as well, in the best tradition of American athletic encouragement. "I've been asked if I sometimes think I'm Vince Lombardi," says one kids' league coach in Boston. "I say that sometimes I think I'm Lombardi and other times I think I'm Knute Rockne."

Little league football runs along very well-organized lines, like Little League baseball, but it comes in a greater variety of packaging. Most popular is the Pop Warner League, credited with launching the whole business in 1929 when Joseph Tomlin, a Philadelphia stockbroker, formed the league and named it after the old Carlisle coach, Glenn Scobie (Pop) Warner. Warner must have made a big impression on Tomlin because he also named his son after him (Glenn, not Pop).

The Pop Warners have lost a little of their luster and a few of their members in recent years because, for one thing, some nitpickers in California couldn't get answers to the question of where their registration money was going. They requested a financial statement and were refused. Nevertheless, the Pop Warners still account for 5,700 teams (about 175,000 young people) in 39 states and Mexico, and make up the only national group. Other local and regional leagues such as Football United International, American Youth Football and Khoury League have sprung up like pizza parlors across the country and are structured along similar lines, usually requiring a franchise for the league, and proof of birth and registration fees of $10 to $30 for players. Those whose parents do not pony up get their unconditional release.

League makeup does vary. If a parent has the nerve, he can shove Junior into the Dallas recreation department's football program at five, providing he is potty-trained, but usually a boy must reach the ripe old age of seven before he is strapped and cushioned and sent to battle. Leagues are divided by age (7- and 8-year-olds, 9- and 10-year-olds, on to 15) or by grades in school; and by weight (40-to-70-pound "tiny tots," 50-to-80-pound "junior peewees," on up to 150-pound "giant bantams"—nomenclature differs regionally).

The kids must wear suspension helmets, face guards, mouthpieces, hip and kidney pads, cleats (or sneakers) and thigh and knee guards. For the most part they play their games on regulation fields, with paid adult officials. Injuries are said to be minimal; some coaches would have you think they are nonexistent. The figures are indeed impressive—one broken bone in 17 years of play in Pop Warner ball in Boston, etc. Certainly, trussed up the way they are, and incapable at seven or so of delivering many foot-pounds of force per square inch, the kids are relatively safe. The only danger would seem to be muscle and eye strain from lugging home and studying the thick pro-type playbooks some pro-minded coaches dispense.

There is a long list of "name" coaches who have been, or are, in the program. Former LSU halfback and ex-pro Ray Coates and Dr. Les Horvath, the Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State, coach kids. So do Charlie Doud, star tackle at UCLA, and Leon Clarke, an ex-USC and Rams end. Many other coaches have played at the college, or at least the high school, level or have learned a lot watching weekend games on television. The latter pick it up as they go along, together with fanatical enthusiasm for kids' football. That Boston coach (Lombardi-Rockne) was quoted by the Globe as saying the three things in his life he is proudest of are his family, the Marine Corps and his association with Pop Warner football. Others take their glory where they find it. One San Francisco coach's claim to fame is that some years ago, while holding tryouts on a patch of grass near Kezar Stadium, he selected a dozen players and told O.J. Simpson to go home.

The animal clubs—Elks, Lions et al.—put money into the act, as do dry-cleaning establishments, mortuaries, taco emporia and pest-control firms. Around Boston, Pop Warner has franchises in 40 communities, each operating on an annual budget of about $17,000. There are 2,448 players on 115 teams in the Minneapolis Park Board lineup. In the Detroit area 200 teams play in three counties. In Southern California exact figures are not kept, but estimates range from 800 to 1,000 teams, or about 30,000 players. Outside Kansas City, Johnson County, Kans. has a 40-acre complex on which 11 games can be played simultaneously, two under lights at night. As many as 10,000 fans may turn out for the Saturday program, to say nothing of 1,500 girl cheerleaders. Houston has 11 separate booster clubs soliciting donations, publishing game programs and conducting dances and raffles to maintain two stadiums. Individual clubs sell advertising space on the fences, and seven adults are assigned to take up collections and maintain order at each game. In Illinois, kids' league banquets are said to be more elaborate than those of many high school or college teams. Trophies and gifts are passed out like supermarket flyers. The boys' pictures appear on the place mats. "It's too much," says the athletic director at a high school in Elgin, who also says he sometimes wonders what it's all about.

There have, of course, been many salubrious side effects of the kids' league phenomenon, according to its advocates. The New York Times reported some years ago that delinquency was truly on the wane in Westchester County because of the lessons being learned on the playing fields of Scarsdale. Dean Rusk was seen there, coaching his son in the kicking of a football. Entire communities have mobilized around their little Packers or Redskins. In Levittown, on Long Island, community spirit seized and uplifted (by prop jet) 25 parents who escorted their 12-year-old heroes to a Daytona Beach "bowl" game. Travel money was gleaned from door-to-door candy sales and by putting the touch on local merchants.

Teams have been sent to other midget bowls—to the Steeler in Fontana, Calif.; the Junior Liberty in Memphis; the Junior Orange in Miami; the Auto in Grosse Pointe, Mich.; the Carnation Milk, Santa Claus, Sunshine, Piggy Bank and Mighty Mite bowls elsewhere. Several years ago a Pop Warner team from Marin County, Calif. was flown, with parents, to the Honolulu Bowl, at a cost of $10,000. The money was raised by public subscription, much to the consternation of some stick-in-the-muds who reasoned that the money could have financed three more teams, or 105 boys, in regional competition. The junketeers didn't help matters by allocating $500 to an all-parents cocktail party.

Detractors of midget football have not been heard from much lately, but there are still some around. They include George Welsh, the Navy coach and ex-All-America quarterback, who said right out the other day that he was "absolutely opposed" to it. Welsh thinks organized football is too tough a game, physically, mentally and emotionally, for 8-and 9-year-old children, and that they become mired in it too early. "A kid becomes a tackle at eight and he stays a tackle the rest of his life," Welsh says. "How could that be much fun? At his age he should be learning all the skills. He should learn to throw and catch and run with the ball."

Pickup games would be better, Welsh believes, because football presents unique problems in this respect. A Little League baseball player, no matter what his position, gets to throw, catch, hit and run bases. All basketball players get to dribble, pass and shoot the ball. Football—formal, 11-men-to-a-side, blood-and-guts football—could be played with a pecan waffle as far as offensive tackles or guards are concerned. They wouldn't have to know the difference. This truth is not lost on the kids, though some do prefer to hide in a position that will not draw much attention (or criticism). And perhaps there are others who view it as did 12-year-old George Kinkead of St. Paul, who was put at offensive guard a couple of seasons ago and came home in tears. "They got me playing the position that pays the least," he wailed.

Larry Csonka went out to watch a boys' team practice one afternoon in Fort Lauderdale and was appalled. Csonka is not a man who recoils from spilled blood, his or anybody else's, but he was horrified by little league football. "The coaches didn't know much about what they were doing," he said. "They just yelled a lot. They acted like they imagined Lombardi or Shula would act. Why, they had those 8-year-olds running gassers [postpractice wind sprints], for crying out loud."

Csonka will not let his two sons play in the kids' leagues. "Take a little kid, put him under the pressure of a big championship game before his parents and his entire world, and it can be very bad for him," he said. "Especially if he loses. The whole country loves football, and so do I. But parents don't stop to consider all the things that can go wrong for a young fellow pushed into that kind of pressure. For one thing, he can come home with a handful of teeth. Worse, he can come home soured on athletics for life."

The problem of the jaded peewee athlete is no laughing matter to Jim Nelson, who has been coaching for 26 years at a small Missouri college. Nelson yearns for the good old days, "not because we did everything right, but because we had fun. Nobody watched us play, and the fact that we played anyway proves we had fun. Now you see kids who've played little league five or six years. By the time they get to high school they've already been to bowl games and all-star games and had all that attention. What's left? It's too bad, because they need football more at the high school level. Not many sixth-graders are exposed to liquor and cars and drugs. High school kids are. They need an interest like football."

The burned-out football player is not unusual, of course, but when Minnesota Viking Center Scott Anderson quit training camp last summer he pointed out that he'd been playing organized football since he was eight and had had a bellyful. It doesn't have to take that long. Gerald Astor, writing in The New York Times Magazine, told of a Ridgefield, Conn. 10-year-old with "star potential" who quit because he tired of practicing "every day after school" and of "never having time for myself." And of a 13-year-old who was alienated from his peers by a coach in Westchester who objected to the boy's dad dragging him home to supper at 6:15, since it was 45 minutes before quitting time. "The coach thinks football is the only thing in the world," said the boy. He retired at 13.

A more widely shared complaint against kids' football, one that applies to any regimented kids' sport, is that it brings the virtues of adulthood down upon all those little heads. It is argued that too many parents and coaches are bequeathing to children the same dogged intensities that make them the cocktail-party bores they are today. It is also claimed that many parents eagerly clog the sidelines to hurl profanity at coaches, players and officials. A California psychiatrist once took a tape recorder to a little league football game and set it up near the stands. "You've never heard such vile, vicious language," he said. "With clenched fists and livid faces those parents goaded their children with nasty needling [and] yelled at the referee as if he were a criminal!"

Such gung-ho parents flock to the kids' leagues. Or become coaches. In Scars-dale, Gerald Astor wrote, one coach addressed an errant young warrior as "you stupid bastard." Others simply call their irresolute players "stupid," "slowpoke," "dumbass" or, when things are really bad, "crybaby."

As a result, even the less outgoing adults sometimes feel coerced into joining the fun, to protect their interests. Says a little league mom in south Florida, "If you want your kid to play, and not get yelled at too much, you volunteer. Your husband becomes an assistant coach. You become a sideline regular. You run car pools and work refreshment stands. You never get supper on before 8 p.m., and you develop sciatica sitting on fold-up parade stools." Another mother, taking a more direct route, wound up in divorce court after her friendly persuasion made too noticeable an impact on the head coach. The coach said he knew he was hooked when he made her boy—who "ran like a cow on ice"—a starting halfback.

Within what has been described as this "rat's nest of psychological horrors," it is not unusual for a child to have his parent and/or coach falsify his birth certificate to get him into a favored division, one in which he might excel. Or submit to starvation diets to make a weight. One coach in Florida says that he sees these kids "flying around so high on diet pills they can barely tell you their names."

A parent can ruin his son early, according to one Kansas City child psychiatrist, "by making him feel like a scrunge for not playing football" when the son might be more inclined toward the piccolo. But the coach deserves as much credit; and coach and father may be one and the same. Chuck Ortmann, the former Michigan All-America who quit as chairman of a league in Glen Ellyn, Ill. in which strife and debate over recruiting violations had long been rampant (a fist to the lip of a league official ended one discussion), believes that if kids' football does not turn boys into men, it certainly turns men into boys. "They want to win at any cost," he says. "They tell their players, 'Go out there and break that guy's arm.' They won't even let all their kids play. Forty on a team, but only 11 or 14 play much."

One poignant protest from a little league mom appeared in a recent letter to The Miami Herald. Her son's coach screamed at referees, screamed into the faces of the boys and, worst of all, allowed only 12 of his 18 players to play. She wrote, "The other boys sat on the bench for the second week in a row, not being allowed in for even one play. These are 11-year-olds who give up every night of the week to practice, come home late, tired, dirty, hungry, but with the thought it will be worth it when they play on Saturday. Ha." In Minneapolis, adults running one "midget" division silenced this kind of insubordination by waiving the must-play rule for 12- and 13-year-olds. By that age, said a suburban little league official, the inferior players "know it's not their sport."

With so much riding on the outcome-bowl bids, adult egos, bragging rights at the local pub—it was predictable that violence would creep into kids' football, and last month in Kissimmee, Fla. a mob of adults attacked four coaches of a winning team of 12-year-olds with clubs and pipes, sending one coach to the hospital. A cry from the crowd, "He's dead!" apparently satisfied the mob and it withdrew just before the police arrived. The coach was not dead, only unconscious for four hours. One little league pop in Miami got into a fistfight with a coach who wasn't playing his son at his idea of the right position. A coach in Palm Beach strode to the center of the field after a particularly heartbreaking loss and extended his hand to the star player of the rival team, then punched him in the stomach, knocking him down. When he realized what he had done, the coach did not wait to be suspended. He quit.

Such incidents have caused massive end sweeps into the nearest circuit court, where big-league litigation is the next thing the little fellows are taught. The Optimist Athletic Conference has twice been to court in Miami in recent months, once when an entire 250-player group was expelled and again when a coach was suspended for threatening a commissioner. The teams won reinstatement; the coach did not.

In 1963 The New York Times used the word "grotesque" to describe a kids' bowl game it covered on Long Island, and LIFE Magazine pointed out that the American Academy of Pediatrics was opposed to little guys banging each other about because of the vulnerability of their epiphyses (the soft bone tips where growth originates). Deformities were said to be around the corner. LIFE added that the greater danger was psychological. "In sandlot ball you can always pick up and go home," it quoted a Big Ten physician as saying, "but in this game you must remain in competition. You must make your blocks and tackles. This can make a boy wary of competitive sports—either because of sheer boredom or because he's afraid."

It would seem the campaign against boredom is one that coaches must wage relentlessly in kids' leagues. When the trains pass, the kids stop and watch; when the planes go over, they stare. "Let a fire truck go by and it's Looney Tunes," says Dickie Maegle, a star halfback at Rice in the '50s now coaching little leaguers in Houston. "Suddenly they're out of it. I've seen 'em so excited at kickoff, with the crowds yelling and bands playing, that the kicker completely missed the ball. I've seen 'em running for a touchdown when their pants fell to their knees. I've seen crepe paper draped down from the cross bar and when the kids tried to run through, they fell down."

Maegle is one of those muddled thinkers who do not object to this kind of foolishness. He thinks kids ought to be allowed to act like kids. So does Galen Fiss, an ex-Browns linebacker. The other day in Kansas City one of Fiss' linemen came out of the huddle hopping and skipping to the scrimmage line. "For an instant, our coaches were horrified," said Fiss. "That's not the way you're supposed to approach the line. Then we realized, he's a 10-year-old kid! That's his way of having fun."

Bob Cupp is a 35-year-old father of two, self-described as having a Charlie Brown head under a Buster Brown haircut. He lives in Tequesta, Fla., a punt and a pass up the waterway from Palm Beach. An all-sports star in high school, Cupp went to the University of Miami on a baseball scholarship, played quarterback on his service football team (coaching high school football on the side), became a professional golfer and then a golf-course designer. He is still a golf-course designer, for Jack Nicklaus, out of Nicklaus' Golden Bear offices in North Palm Beach. Cupp is also a professional illustrator, and he sings professionally as well as in the church choir.

Bob Cupp is one of those curious people who love small children, even their own. His only other weakness is that he enjoys coaching children, even other people's. He somehow finds time for this year round: kids' football, basketball and baseball. Cupp smiles and laughs a lot, as though he might know something about life that no one else knows.

He has been coaching little league football in both the Miami and Palm Beach areas for six years—his son Bobby, 11, was recently described in a local paper as a "grizzled veteran," which the Cupps thought was pretty hilarious—and has some revolutionary ideas about what ought to be done with kids' football, some of which he has put to the test. Cupp thinks that most coaches are not necessary, that referees are not necessary, and that parents are not necessary, except in a strict biological-familial sense. He also thinks every kid should get to touch the ball every game—throw it, catch it, run with it. But Cupp has learned to accept, or at least anticipate, the game as it is in the small time.

"We had a coach in one league who had access to diet pills," he says. "The kids could get them for nothing. You never saw such a hyper bunch. But one of 'em was a lost cause. He came to the weigh-in in his daddy's heavy rubber suit, his face red with sweat. He looked like a cherry sticking out of a duffel bag. When he took off his sweat suit, his poor fat little body was pink as a salmon, but he missed by four pounds.

"Parents will allow their kids to go through any torture to play. This fall the boy who'd been kingpin of the 80-pound league for two years tried to make the weight again. He dieted and dieted and still weighed 86. The coaches told him he was good enough to move up to the next division. His parents said no. The boy didn't think he was good enough. He quit. He couldn't face not being the star anymore.

"Coaches are as guilty as parents. One I know decided to give his team a little boost by injecting a stimulant—Benzedrine, Dexedrine, something—into the oranges he always fed them before a game. He used a hypodermic and kept upping the dosage. After the third or fourth game the players started complaining of headaches and throwing up. The coach later admitted to me what he'd done, but at the time everybody blamed the oranges.

"Most of the coaches I have seen, more than half, I'd guess, haven't even had high school experience. They teach a lot of things wrong, even fundamentals like stances and handoffs and blocks. They see something on TV, and even though they don't understand it they try to put it in. I had a guy try to use an end-in-motion on us. I pointed it out to the referee, and he laughed and threw his flag. The coach came running over. 'What the hell,' he said. 'The Cowboys do it, why can't we?' The ref explained that it wasn't the end the Cowboys had in motion, it was the flankerback.

"The sad thing is, the really qualified guy isn't always the best for kids. Can't always relate. We had one last year who had all the credentials and loved the game, but he was a wild man. He reduced his team to tears daily. I've seen him, and others, too, manhandle kids, pick them up and throw them around. He'd yell things at 'em like 'You're gonna block if I have to kick your ass all afternoon!' The kids were 8-year-olds. They'd just turn to jelly, walk off the field crying. Another coach criticized him one time for not playing some of his lesser kids. He said, 'Why should I play kids who look up at the sky and chew grass while everybody else is sucking up their guts in practice?' The other coach said, 'Maybe if the kids played more they wouldn't look at the sky so much.'

"We had a rule that the son of a father or legal guardian who is coaching has to play for his father or guardian. I looked up one day and a coach was trying to add somebody's grandmother to his coaching staff—a black woman with gray hair who happened to have three of the best players in the area living in her home. Two were brothers and one a cousin, all of them little O.J.s, just the right age. A gold mine. Grandma was their legal guardian. When the coach announced at the league meeting his plan to add her to his staff, the place went up in smoke. You never heard such carrying on. He finally withdrew his motion.

"This one really ticked me off. One of our less charitable coaches had a kid who was kinda lousy and the coach didn't want to play him. We have this must-play rule where every player is supposed to play a series every quarter. I let mine play longer so the poorer players can improve, but some don't think along those lines. Anyway, this guy worked out a scheme whereby he'd send the poor player, No. 50, say, in with, say, No. 60. The woman who checks the substitutes—we call her the watchdog—checks off 50 and 60, coming in. Then as soon as 50 gets to the huddle he turns around and runs back off with the player 60 was sent in for.

"The watchdog wasn't asked to check who went out, only who went in. No. 50 never played. And nobody caught on till the fourth or fifth game, after his team had won four straight. The watchdog who spotted it couldn't believe her eyes. She asked the boy if he'd played at all. 'No,' he said, 'I just run in and out.'

"The league called a special meeting to decide whether to forfeit the team's games or suspend the coach, or both. The league president made a good case for throwing the coach out. Then the team's sponsor got up. He waved his checkbook over his head and announced that if the decision went against his team in any way, his sponsorship would be withdrawn. He was serious, too. The league needed sponsors. The question never came to a vote."

Another challenge, says Cupp, is those pretty young mamas who want junior to play quarterback or some other glamour position. "They're not always subtle about it—they can come on pretty strong. When I see it coming I always start talking about my wife and kids, but I've known it to get pretty rough for some guys. Mama comes around in a tight pair of pants and a halter and wants to engage in a philosophical discussion about football. At her place.

"Fathers try to influence you, too, but they have to do it the hard way. Some of them lug big coolers of beer around and stash them behind the stands on a hot day so the coach can sneak back for a short one now and then. A couple beers and the coach is calling for his kid, to put him in."

Cupp says he has not escaped the behavioral pattern of kids' league coaches in one respect; no one seems to be free of bad temper. "I let my whole team have it after a loss a few years ago because I thought they'd given up, the one thing I told them I wouldn't tolerate. I chewed 'em out pretty good. When I got home afterward my son handed me his jersey and said he was now an ex-linebacker. He said he couldn't play for a crazy man. I got the message.

"In another game, on the very first play, a coach sprang a sneak play on us and scored. One of those sideline passes without a huddle. The receiver was all by himself. A sandlot play, but legal, and great. I should have just laughed. Instead, I blew my top. Ran out on the field, complaining and yelling at the ref. A regular buffoon. My ego had been hurt, see. I'd been had. And I wound up getting my kids so riled up they just poured it on and won 39-6. The other coach hasn't spoken to me since, and I don't blame him."

Cupp believes that "coaches and their personalities, the way they relate or don't relate" is the crux of what is wrong with little league football. "Coaches don't get along, don't even try. It rubs off. The drive to win is so great the kids don't learn anything. The Lombardi philosophy is ridiculous at this level. Losing isn't death, winning isn't everything. The idea is to have fun. Period. If a kid isn't, if he's not enjoying it and quits, the coach should ask himself, 'Would he have quit if I'd done a better job?'

"Last year in our league I proposed a selection process to make our teams more nearly even. The idea was foreign to everybody, but my boys had won everything the year before, so the other coaches listened. We had a get-acquainted clinic, and all the coaches rated all the kids on a scale of one to 10. Then we sat down with the commissioner, right out on the field, and drew for teams. And something happened to those coaches. We got along great the whole year. The league was tight, and I think we all had fun. I know my kids did. You'd see 'em during a game running back to the huddle and sliding in on their knee pads. It didn't look like the Dolphins, but it was fun.

"Our practices were chaos. Half the time I'd just tell 'em to go over there and play pickup. They should be playing more and practicing less, anyway—playing three or four games a week instead of seven or eight a season. Practicing one-on-one, hitting dummies—that's a drag. A kid wants to play. Lord knows, he's going to find less time for it later on."

Cupp believes that if everyone involved would step back and take a look at what is going on, most of these problems would be solved. Parents, he says, should stay home. At least in the lower levels of kids' football. "A preadolescent has a great need to please his parents, and his failures shouldn't be scrutinized. Just being watched puts pressure on a kid. Maybe by the time he reaches the ninth grade he can bear it. Maybe."

Fathers, suggests father/coach Cupp, should not coach. Not if their sons are in the league. "Fewer coaches would be better all around. At the youngest level one good coach could easily handle four teams. Two coaches at the most, providing encouragement, teaching a few techniques, refereeing the fights. Even officiating. Coaches could be impartial referees if the parents weren't breathing down their necks. And kids should get the idea that games can be played on the square without having to pay a policeman. A lot of our officials are just in it for the money, anyway.

"After kids advance to the older leagues, they still don't need more than two coaches per team. Qualified guys, though, who've played the game, who know at least enough not to teach them things that could hurt. The idea is to let a kid learn more on his own. Developing talent is really a kid's responsibility, not an adult's. A kid learns by playing, by imitating. The last thing they need is an unqualified coach messing them up."

The most radical of Cupp's proposals, his favorite and the one he knows is not going to get him elected little league coach of the year, is the one whereby every player gets a shot at glory by playing a position in which he actually handles the ball. Cupp says coaches laughed when he suggested the idea last fall. Later, "when we were running them out of the ball park," they quit laughing.

"I used to see stagnation set in when kids were relegated to a position like guard or tackle for the whole year. It was like a sentence. Before long, many of the linemen wouldn't even show up for practice. They were usually the smallest guys, anyway—that's the way it works in the little leagues—and what did they need with extra punishment? They were getting enough on Saturday. I couldn't blame 'em. They were typecast. One coach used to bring a roll of masking tape to practice and slap GUARD or TACKLE on the players' helmets, like a brand.

"Let's face it. Running the ball, throwing it, catching a pass, making touchdowns—those are the things kids think of as football. Sustained drives and quality blocking they may think about later, when they're in high school, but for now they don't and shouldn't have to. We're not a feeder system for the high school coaches."

A recent questionnaire gave league kids a choice of playing for a losing team or sitting on the bench for a winner, and they voted almost unanimously to play. "They'd rather play than sit any day," says Cupp. "Busting into the line with the ball can be an unforgettable experience for a fat little kid who will never get the chance again. Next year he may be a guard for good.

"So I worked out my rotation system this way. With my 15 players, I drew up three different offensive teams. Each player, every game, would have to play three positions: a ball-handling position such as halfback, quarterback, fullback, a receiver, and an interior lineman. The more talented players got to play two ball-handling positions, but every kid got a chance at least one.

"Funny things happened. The parents objected, some of them. Some of the kids objected, too. One kid refused to play anything but center. He said he didn't want to goof up. But after a while even the prima donnas came to realize there was more to football than being the star and everybody else blocking.

"One coach, a good friend of mine, said what I was doing was impossible. 'You're nuts,' he said. He beat us pretty good the first time we tried it. Then, when we got rolling, we beat him 20-0. He said, 'Maybe you got something.'

"The thing is, it was fun for the kids, and fun for me. I can't tell you the kick I get seeing a kid discover the joys of football. When I was coaching the real little guys, the peewees, I'd see one show up on the first day, thigh pads hanging over his knees, knee pads around his shins, shoulder pads on backward with the underarm straps under his crotch. He didn't know a linebacker from a carburetor. He wasn't interested in 'sticking' anybody. He didn't even know what that was.

"And then when he ran his first sweep it was a problem just holding onto the ball. But he excited you with the possibilities. You watched him run, all wide-eyed and open-mouthed, with a smile on his face. It's a joy.

"The trick," says Bob Cupp, "is to keep him smiling."