During the football season, much of the attention on the gridiron is directed toward the varsity players. They get the Friday night games under the lights with hundreds in attendance. However, many of them got started at a much younger age, playing flag football on Sunday afternoons.
A number of young football players in Orchard, Clearwater and Neligh get their start with flag football. Held every fall, the league gives kids from kindergarten through sixth grade the chance to learn the basics of football in a safe environment with the hopes that it fuels their desire to continue to grow on the field.
The Neligh-Oakdale league is coached by volunteers on Sundays while the Clearwater-Orchard league is on Saturdays and ran by Cyclones football coach Jeff Shabram.
Oftentimes, the Neligh-Oakdale coaches are helped by former players in the league who have now moved on to high school football, such as Neligh-Oakdale’s Tucker Knust.
“I just enjoy the game of football,” Knust said. “I get to see the kids develop their skills and interact with the young players.”
For the 2017 season, there were six high school volunteers. Knust, Nate Buck, Kaleb Pofahl, Austin Rice, Garret Belitz and Julien Hearn all gave back to the league by volunteering their time for games and practice while a number of other former players in junior high helped referee and run chains for the league. One of the league’s organizers, Logan Lawson, said the help of the students is invaluable.
“We really wouldn’t be able to do all this without the junior high and high schoolers helping out,” Lawson said. “They are always willing to fill in to make sure everything is running smoothly, especially on game days. They connect so well with the players and the young kids love it because to them, many of these kids are like celebrities.”
Knust said that the knowing the players look up to him and his teammates is one of the highlights of working in the league.
“These kids like to come out and watch us play on Friday nights, so it’s a good feeling know that someone is watching you and looking up to you,” he said.
Shabram couldn’t reiterate that statement more and said the flag football league is not only teaching the sport, but it’s helping to ignite interest in playing in high school.
“You start seeing them trying to emulate plays they saw the night before,” Shabram said. “They spend Saturdays talking about the Friday night game and watching the Cyclones, so it’s fun to see them getting excited about football.”
Shabram said he started the league in 2011 simply as something fun for his son, Gunner, and friends. It gave them something to do on Saturday mornings and still allowed them to play tackle football with the YMCA on Sundays.
The league rotates between Clearwater and Orchard with a couple of Cyclone players helping when they can. They have a K-2 and 3-6 division and spent about an hour and 15 minutes each Saturday working on drills and plays, followed by a scrimmage.
“I started this because it was something fun for the kids, and it still is,” Shabram said. “I do most of it myself, so the parents get to watch as parents and enjoy it. It’s really a lot of fun for everyone.
At Neligh, the balance that the high schoolers provide to the adults when coaching is a great way to keep the young athletes interested. The high schoolers have the chance to use their creativity to come up with plays and make it exciting for the players while the adults’ main purpose is to make sure no one gets hurt and that everyone gets a fair chance.
“The high schoolers are very competitive, which the kids love,” said Lawson. “Sometimes they need to be reminded not to get too crazy, and that’s us older coaches are here. Otherwise, it really is fun to just sit back and watch both the players and the high schoolers have fun.”
Knust has volunteered for a number of years in the league. As a former player, he knows it is worth his time, both because he enjoys it and because he wants to see the kids succeed.
“They are the future of Warrior football,” he said.