The boys are seven and eight, and so small that their black helmets appear ready to topple them over at any moment. But they don’t.
“Count it out, loud and proud!” one of a handful of coaches and fathers shouts out to the two dozen Mighty Mite Juniors. “Are you ready?”
“Ready!” the boys shout back.
“Are you ready?!”
And so begins another Fairfield Pop Warner football season on Sullivan Field at the South Pine Creek Recreation Complex on Old Dam Road. Established in 1966 and known as the Fairfield Giants, the program is part of National Pop Warner Little Scholars, the only national youth sports organization that requires players to perform academically, too. More than three hundred Fairfield kids are participating this year.
Pop Warner, which runs from August 1 to the end of October, offers tackle football for boys seven to fifteen years of age, cheerleading for girls seven to fifteen, and flag football for children five to seven. Seven divisions of play are determined by age and weight. There are no tryouts and no cuts from teams.
On a recent early summer evening, as the little tykes stretch and grunt their way through conditioning exercises in one corner of the field, two dozen girls practice cheerleading moves at the far end. They work under the direction of cheer coordinator Michele Scholz and volunteer cheerleaders from the high schools.
At the same time, in an opposite corner, Lee Battista works with a group of Mighty Mite Seniors. An economics professor at City University of New York, and executive secretary on the Pop Warner board, Battista got involved in 2003 when his son, Patrick, now fifteen, and daughter, Mollie, seventeen, joined the program.
“When I played Pop Warner football growing up on Long Island, there were two coaches per team,” he recalls. Things are different these days. “Now there are five or six and the kids get a lot more instruction.”
They also get in shape with a secondary goal in mind. “We always tell them we want them to be conditioned because we want them to be safe,” he says. “In every drill we say keep your head up and be aware of what’s going on around you.”
But as coaches and parents involved in Fairfield Pop Warner stress, many less tangible benefits are to be gained from participating in the program. “Football gives kids discipline,” notes Battista as an example. “Parents say how better organized their child-ren are, and how they get their homework done on their own, once the season starts.”
“There’s a confidence benefit to playing in Pop Warner for a young man,” adds Dave Houghton, athletic director and head coach of tackle Pee Wee players, who works as senior director of event operations for none other than the NFL.
And there is value in playing a team sport. “In baseball, a star pitcher can help a team perform well, but in football it’s how everyone plays together,” says Richard S. Bercik, M.D., an assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine, who serves as medical director for the organization and training to the coaches. “I’ve observed that my youngest son, Connor, and his friends have really matured through playing the game and being taught by the coaches.”
The program has also groomed a number of young high school athletes in the area.
“Quite a few of our players are playing at Warde, Ludlowe and Prep,” says Houghton, who himself played in high school, then for the University of Southern California. “I really believe that Pop Warner training—not just the football but the respect and discipline and playing with others—is a huge complement when kids go to high school.”