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Tackle football: Too tough for youngsters?

[ 0 ] April 10, 2013 |

Years ago, Nate Kaeding and Larry Brown were on opposite sides of the football rivalry between West High and City High.

When it comes to youth football, though, and the push to make it safer, Kaeding and Brown are a united front. They both think it’s counter-productive and dangerous to allow kids younger than seventh grade to play tackle football.

Kaeding, who is entering his 10th season as a kicker in the NFL, is so concerned about the health risks that he is helping form a youth flag football league in Iowa City for elementary-age kids as an alternative to playing tackle football. Practices and games for the Red Zone Youth Football League will start in August.

“I agree completely with Nate,” said Brown, who led City High to three states titles during his reign as football coach from 1980 to 2000. “I’ve always been opposed to tackle football for elementary-age students.

“As far as I’m concerned, just physiologically and mentally, psychologically and every other way, they’re not ready for tackle football.”

Kaeding, a former West High and University of Iowa standout, has two sons, ages 3 and 4. He said he isn’t opposed to them playing tackle football some day, he just thinks elementary-age kids would benefit more from playing flag football or a form of touch football while being introduced to the sport.

Iowa City has leagues that offer tackle football for kids as young as third grade. Cedar Rapids has a league for kids entering fourth grade, and the Quad Cities have one for kids as young as 8.

“It just doesn’t make sense to be banging heads at that age,” said Kaeding, who last week signed a one-year free-agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Brown said he began noticing a rise popularity in youth tackle football leagues in Eastern Iowa about 15 years ago. Some states now offer tackle football for kids as young as second grade.

Brown disagrees with the theory that kids will be better prepared to play tackle football once they enter junior high if they already have some experience.

“There was never an issue about having enough time to prepare students from seventh grade on for varsity-level competition (before these youth leagues were formed),” Brown said. “So basically, I think up until seventh grade, flag football is just a tremendous game and a great game for kids of that age.”

Regina football coach Marv Cook said he is starting to think more strongly that kids younger than seventh grade aren’t ready to handle the physical and mental demands of playing tackle football.

Cook said Regina is taking a closer look at its youth football program to determine if changes are needed. One change could be to not offer tackle football until seventh grade. Regina currently has a tackle football league for fifth- and sixth-graders, and, until recently, had one for kids as young as third grade.

“We are right now in a full-evaluation phase of where we’re at with our youth program,” Cook said. “We are really constantly looking at all the new information that’s out there and in the process of trying to come to a conclusion or a consensus as far as what Regina’s position is on it.”

Part of the information is data that suggests that some kids become disgruntled and disinterested with playing football at a young age because of the tackling aspect.

“We had 22 third-graders go out one year, and literally, the next year probably seven wouldn’t have come back out if we hadn’t changed the structure,” Cook said. “You’re talking 30 percent. If those kids don’t come out in fourth grade, when are they coming back out?”

Brown also said he thinks that some kids turn away from football at a young age because they aren’t ready to tackle.

“I’ve never understood the rationale why people want to start that early,” Brown said. “I bet you there are a lot of youngsters that give up on football because of the physicalness of it at that level. If they have a chance to mature physically, mentally, emotionally, there probably wouldn’t be anything wrong with it. But obviously that’s not the case. They’re just too young and too immature physically and emotionally to play tackle football as far as I’m concerned.”

Cook’s two sons already have been through the introductory phase of football — his oldest son Drew, who is a sophomore at Regina, started playing tackle football in fifth grade and his younger brother, Ashton, started two years ago in third grade. But if Cook had it to do over again, he wouldn’t allow his sons to play tackle football until they were in seventh grade.

Cook, who played seven seasons in the NFL as a tight end after a standout career at UI from 1985-88, praised the people who ran the third- and fourth-grade leagues for his youngest son, saying they did a phenomenal job under tough circumstances.

“As far as it went, I was very pleased with it,” Cook said. “But it’s just too young.”

One of Cook’s biggest concerns with elementary-age kids playing tackle football is he thinks that many of the helmets are unreliable because they don’t fit properly.

“Basically, in youth sports, you have two sizes of helmets,” Cook said in reference to large and small. “And you’ve got these kids that are 15 different-sized kids.”

West Branch coach Butch Pedersen has been around the game long enough — Cook played for him in the early 1980s — to have seen it evolve from the days when laying somebody out with a vicious hit was celebrated to today’s growing concern about the long-term effects of head injuries.

Pedersen said he thinks kids can benefit from playing tackle football as early as fifth grade if they’re taught the proper techniques and have equipment that fits properly, especially with regard to helmets.

West Branch has tackle football for kids in fifth grade.

“I think the real key is making sure all those helmets fit,” Pedersen said. “You’ve got to get that chin strap tight. And you’ve got to also really instruct kids completely on how to not use your head.

“In the old days when I played and when some of the other coaches in the area played, you know, we always heard, ‘Stick your head in there.’ No. We don’t lead with our head. We have been teaching proper technique. And where it starts is fifth and sixth grade.”

Kaeding recently met with Dan Sabers, the City High coach since 2001, to express his concerns and to get Sabers’ support for a flag football league. Kaeding’s league, which will be facilitated by former Iowa football player Tyler Blum, also will teach fundamentals and techniques in addition to playing games.

“It all made perfect sense to me because we want to make sure that kids are more ready for tackle football and stuff,” Sabers said. “I think the physical component of it can wait. I have actually pretty strong feelings that way.”

As for Pedersen, he supports Kaeding’s quest to make youth football safer for kids. Pedersen might not agree with Kaeding about when kids should start playing tackle football, but they both agree that kids in second through fourth grade aren’t ready to tackle each other.

“I think that’s too young,” Pedersen said. “We play flag football. We let them have fun. We let them watch the planes fly over head.

“That’s the purpose of those real young groups.”

Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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