To tackle or not to tackle? |

To tackle or not to tackle?

Nate Peterson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Aspen’s youth football program has sacked full contact for third- and fourth-graders in favor of flags.

Ron Morehead, a local organizer and coach, called the new Aspen-only flag football league an “experiment” designed to attract more elementary school players to the game.

“We feel there’s a better chance of kids playing football at that age by playing flag football,” Morehead said of the league, which will be run though the Aspen Recreation Department. “With third- and fourth-graders at 8 and 9 years old, it’s really a challenge for them just to get the equipment on. A lot of the parents are not really comfortable with their kids playing tackle football at that age, either. Even though it’s been years since we’ve had a player get hurt, it’s a perception on the parents’ part.”

The experiment is one that Aspen will undertake on its own. After ongoing discussions, officials from the other valley communities which make up the Three Rivers Youth Football League decided to continue fielding full-contact teams for third- and fourth-graders this fall. Aspen will continue to field a full-contact fifth- and sixth-grade team for the valleywide league, which includes teams from Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Silt/New Castle, Rifle and Parachute.

“I don’t think [a flag football league] is a bad idea, but a lot of it, to me, has to do with the history of game,” said Paul Gonzalez, the Basalt representative for the valleywide league. “To me, football is a contact sport. There are parents out there who want to follow that tradition.”

Aspen high school football coach Mike Sirko labeled that kind of thinking as outdated. Sirko said he’s all for tradition, but not at the cost of turning youngsters away from the game by putting them in pads too early.

“I completely agree with the move,” Sirko said. “It’s a move by coaches who have the kids in mind, not themselves in mind. If you get coaches who are in it for their ego, they’re going to do it just the way their coach did it 30 years ago. Kids are different today.”

Sirko added that the objective of any good youth program ” regardless of the sport ” is for the players to have fun while learning the fundamentals. With a proven track record of rebuilding varsity programs in 31 years patrolling sidelines in Colorado, Sirko said he’s dealt with a number of high schoolers who don’t want to play varsity football because they had a bad experience playing tackle football when they were younger.

“I’ve been to youth games, and sometimes, when you start playing tackle football at that age, some kids are not maybe as physically ready and because of that they get put in a position … that they don’t really love,” he said. “They never see a football the whole game, and it’s not any fun.

“It’s pretty hard to tell what a kid is going to be in fourth grade. We want these kids to play so eventually they’re high school players. For some guys, it’s the end of the world if they don’t win the third- and fourth-grade championship in the valley. With all the pressure they put on kids, I wouldn’t want to play either.”

Morehead said the new flag football league would be an extension of the touch football games that elementary school boys and girls play at recess. Every player on the team would get to touch the ball ” either running, catching or passing ” and games and practices would be less structured by design. He hopes to field five or six teams of eight to 10 players to play round-robin games on Saturdays in the fall.

“Watching kids on the playground, they just come out there, divide up teams and start throwing the football and running around,” Morehead said. “That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to develop some of the skill sets for wide-open football that they don’t get when it’s a real rigid thing like tackle. … In my experience, you can always teach a kid to hit later on.”

Gonzalez, Morehead and Sirko all agree that there are varying opinions about the appropriate age to introduce tackle football.

“In Grand Junction, they don’t offer tackle football until fifth grade,” Morehead said. “In Texas, they start kids at 5 years old. They’re playing when they hit kindergarten.”

In his opinion, Gonzalez said he disagreed with the assessment that tackle football is too much to grasp for boys and girls entering the third or fourth grade. Depending on how the league is set up, he added that playing flag football league could put Aspen’s players behind their peers who are playing with pads.

“One, they don’t struggle with the equipment once they get used to putting it on,” Gonzalez said. “That just depends how on much help they have within their family. Then, as far as their attention span, there’s attention span deficits up to the high school level. Most third-graders lack an attention span, but no more so than a fifth- or sixth-grader.”

Morehead and Gonzalez did agree that statistics ” both locally and nationally ” show that serious injuries are rare in youth football, despite parents’ reservations.

Those concerns are understandable, however, both said.

“There seems to be some sort of standout player on any roster,” Gonzalez said. “There’s always a few parents saying, ‘I don’t want my kid getting crushed by that kid.’ But again, I think that goes on all the way up to the varsity level. I think flag football can turn into even more of a one-man show if you get one kid playing the game who is an exceptional athlete.”

“You have those kids who are innately aggressive,” Sirko added. “Some of those kids don’t have that until a little later on. Trying to get players to come out [for high school football], some of the biggest excuses I’ve heard were, ‘I tried that in fifth or sixth grade and I didn’t like it.’ It’s tough to convince them and say, ‘Well this is going to be different. You’ve grown up a lot and you’re a better athlete now.’ They had a coach who was a screamer and it wasn’t any fun for them.”

Morehead pointed out that, if the new league doesn’t take off, Aspen can always come back to offering full-contact football for third- and fourth-graders through the Three Rivers Youth League. Although, so far, the new Aspen league appears to be off to a strong start.

“We’ve had a really good response from the parents,” he said. “I think our numbers will ultimately go up … If we have a case of kids who are really enjoying football, moving into fifth and sixth grade we’ll have a larger group to work with when they get into pads.”