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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Youth Sports and the Automobile

It's August, the time of year where I return to my favorite volunteer activity coaching youth football in Silver Spring. Youth sports, despite my lack of athletic prowess, were a big part of my childhood and were probably the only thing that kept me reaching the age of 20 with any semblance of physical conditioning. To a suburban child, youth sports will offer exercise and teach social integration in a safe environment.

My 2008 squad.

Exercise is a valuable commodity in the suburbs. You don't burn many calories from the passenger seat of a minivan. The extreme, of course, is Saratoga Springs, where a student was recently punished for riding his bike to school. The policy against biking to school is of course disguised in the name of safety. Social integration is also more valuable in the suburbs. Suburban children grow up cloistered in pods that effectively segregate socio-economic classes from each other. And despite the marketing, the suburbs are not the safest place to be a kid. So a program that offers exercise, social integration, and safety ought not be undervalued, be it football, swimming, ballet, or whatever.

Are youth sports a rare positive side effect of suburbanization? The Mid Maryland Football League has 26 programs spread out over Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel, Howard, Baltimore, Frederick, and Carroll Counties, and could never survive without the suburban infrastructure. I used to think youth football could not survive without it at all.


The Silver Spring Saints, for whom I coach, are one of the oldest youth programs still in existence in the DC area. When I played on this team as a youth, however, it was Saint Bernadette's, a Catholic Youth Organization program. CYO football went under in 1995, however, and the Silver Spring Saints rose from the ashes, playing their home games at Saint Bernadette's field. When It was Saint Bernadette's, however, the program had two teams with about 23 or so players per team. At its peak, the CYO had 40 or 50 such teams in Montgomery, Prince George's, and DC, and they were broken into geographic-based divisions. It was the premier youth football program in Maryland for decades.

When the Silver Spring Saints joined the Capital Beltway League in 1995, the one-time parish-oriented program had to struggle to field teams in six weight classes, effectively tripling the size of the program overnight and drawing in players from a much larger area. As it struggled with finding enough players, the notion of playing games close by started to disappear. Montgomery Village, Clinton, Germantown, and Bowie were now the away games as opposed to other small teams in Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Rockville. This season, the Saints have joined the Mid-Maryland League to escape the poor organization of the CBL. They are now required to field 12 teams. Many of them will only have about 15 or 16 players. (For those of you not familiar with the sport, there are 11 on the field at a time. An NFL team has 53 players. 24 is an ideal number at the youth level)

I love the Saints organization, and what it does for young men between the ages of 6 and 14. Growing up in a single parent household, it gave me male role models, goals, and a sense of belonging that every boy should experience. But in the time between when I played and now that I coach, it has gone from a "mom and pop" program belonging to a community organization to a "big box" program. The parish still has a strong influence on the program, which in my opinion has kept it about the players and not about championships and egos (though we win our share of games).

No, it's hard to imagine youth football now without cars and giant parking lots at each field, where 12 games are played by each program every Saturday and teams drive as many as 80 miles to play each other. But it hasn't been that way throughout the history of the Silver Spring Saints. For their very first game 58 years ago, the first 12 Saints played Saint Micheal's of downtown Silver Spring, two miles away from Saint Bernadette's. To get there, they took a Capitol Transit Bus.

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