G. Michael Graham Photo. The Fort Thomas Youth Football League is purely instructional. That keeps kids interested and is a huge reason why the Bluebirds are 94-3 with six straight state championships since the start of 2007.
By G. MICHAEL GRAHAM
Fort Thomas Matters Sports Reporter
Youth football leagues around the country may be great or detrimental in the development of high school programs.
The Fort Thomas Youth Football League has been a major asset to the success of the Highlands Bluebirds football team. That’s a big reason why nearly 100 sophomores, juniors and seniors grace the sidelines for the Blue and White on Fridays.
“Ít’s awesome how we have a junior league and how the coaches make each of the kids on the team work hard and they don’t push them to the point where they don’t want to play anymore,” said Kyler Dalton, Highlands junior offensive lineman. “When they get up to freshman year, we’re all really excited to play Highlands football.”
Dalton even said the coaches encourage the high school players to interact with the players in the league. That often adds to the excitement of becoming a Bluebird one day.
Players can join the league starting in the third grade. You have third and fourth-grade teams, then fifth and sixth-grade teams before going to a seventh and eighth-grade team. Each level has four teams. Flag football is offered to first and second-graders. The league plays games at David Cecil Memorial Field.
“Even if they don’t (develop), we still keep them on the team. The overall goal of high school sports is to make it a positive experience,” said Dale Mueller, Highlands Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator. “The players don’t get paid to do a service for the coaches. The coaches get paid to do a service for the players.”
Doug Merkle is in his second year as the president of the league. Merkle and Mueller said the league is purely instructional.
“We try to keep things as positive as we can,” Merkle said. “People are people. They have different personalities. But for the most part, our coaches are stressing the fundamentals. Kids are going to make mistakes. It’s not the end of the world. We want to show people what we can do to make that mistake. We might have missed a block here. But next time, we’re going to do what we can to get in better position.”
Players develop at different stages of their lives like Patrick Towles, who now plays quarterback at the University of Kentucky. Towles grew to 6-foot-5-inches as a sophomore. But Towles did not start as a freshman. He played on defense in 2008 before being thrust into the starting varsity role as a sophomore in 2009 against Cincinnati St. Xavier in the huge 12-7 win when Will Bardo went down with an injury. Bardo now starts at the University of Dayton.
“They want to focus on a couple kids’ developments instead of the overall team,” Merkle said. “We’ve seen some kids that may be the smallest on the team as fifth and sixth graders end up being three-year starters at Highlands. So we want kids to enjoy playing the game even when they’re that small kid as a fifth and sixth grader.”
Former Highlands running back Stephen Lickert started playing in the league as a fifth grader. The 1997 Highlands graduate played flag football in the third and fourth grade. Lickert is in his third year as the head coach at Campbell County.
“I think the Fort Thomas Junior Football League does a good job of getting kids to play football. When you split 44 kids into four teams, that’s 11 kids that are playing football on a given day,” Lickert said. “Those kids get to play all the way through the eighth grade. By the time they’re freshmen, they’re not going to go do something else because they’re football players. It keeps kids interested. That is the main thing you have to have when you’re running a program.”
Crosley New is in the Eighth Grade at Highlands Middle School. He plays running back and middle linebacker on the 7/8 red team sponsored by Crawford Insurance. New said the teams are made of players all over the city and not based on where they live. That gives players the opportunity to meet new coaches and teammates.
“They give everyone a chance because the skills and positions have changed over the years,” New said. “Nobody’s treated differently by what they are, what they’re known or what they’ve done in the past. Every year is a new with a new coach. They really care about us. The coaches put a lot of time and effort into it. A lot of them played in this league.”
Some parents have a hard time deciding when the time is right for their sons to start tackling. Merkle said that is left up to each family.
“If the kids are developed, third and fourth grade are great years to start them at,” Merkle said. “They have the understanding what they’re getting involved in. In fifth or sixth grade, they’ve seen their older siblings play and are ready to go. In the third and fourth grade, everyone has to be comfortable with it.”
The end of the season normally sees a big night before the high school coaching staff welcomes the eighth graders to the program. They then start lifting with the high school in the winter.