Paul Arias doesn’t want any parent to feel the way he did on a Friday night in the fall of 2010.
Smith-Cotton High School was taking on Kearney and his son, Raymond, who was an all-district football selection at running back that year, lay motionless on the field at Jennie Jaynes Stadium. After being stabilized, Raymond was carted off the field in an ambulance.
“That was a scary night,” said Paul, who as a parent and youth football coach encouraged his son to be a driving, punishing runner but didn’t realize Raymond was leading with his head. Concussions ended Raymond’s football career, and Paul still carries some guilt over it.
As part of the new regime leading the Sedalia Youth Football League, Paul Arias and the other board members have taken significant steps to improve player safety and, they hope, increase enjoyment for local youngsters. Two key initiatives are moving players in kindergarten through second grade out of tackle football and into the NFL Flag Football program; the other is joining USA Football in the Heads Up initiative to teach proper techniques to reduce the incidence of concussions.
Arias, SYFL commissioner, is among a collection of returning faces and newcomers who have taken the reins for the league, including president Darren Lefevers, vice president Phil Kemp, assistant commissioner Jamie Volk and board member Ryan Boyer, head coach of the Smith-Cotton Tigers program.
Kemp said new blood was needed to reinvigorate the league, which “was stagnant, not growing. … It was starting to go the wrong way – instead of being a positive there was too much negative.”
“Like any change, it wasn’t easy,” Boyer said. “(SYFL) was supposed to be a Smith-Cotton Tigers feeder program as it was originally established. You can see it in the original bylaws. For whatever reason, it got away from that and there were people who wanted to bring it back to that — and I obviously wanted to bring it back to that.”
Boyer’s assistant coaches and varsity players will be actively involved with SYFL. Each Wednesday, S-C players will attend SYFL practices to mentor the young players. And while re-engagement with and support from the varsity program is seen as beneficial for SYFL, parents should be excited about the safety and player development changes. Arias said that under the Heads Up program, all coaches have to be trained and certified on proper blocking and tackling techniques and concussion awareness.
Kemp said when the league started 20 years ago, the youngest age groups played flag but at some point they were switched to tackle. Arias said he believes the NFL Flag program will give those players “a better foundation of fundamentals” and will help them enjoy the game more, which should lead to them playing longer.
With tackle football, “You can get kids who are aggressive at that age and kids who aren’t, and you get that mix and you can ruin the game for somebody who may have been a tremendous player,” he said.
The new board was worried about switching the K-2 group from tackle to flag. Kemp said they “caught a lot of guff” from some parents who said flag is not “real football” and won’t be competitive. But Boyer spoke with football program leaders in Webb City, which has a state championship tradition, and they have their youngest players in flag.
“The numbers are there,” Kemp said. “Whether they have a bad experience, a bad coach, equipment doesn’t fit right, anything that happens like that, more than likely … they never come back.”
In addition, “It puts parents’ minds at ease. There is a three-year window where (players) aren’t going to be taking any hits. They are going to learn the game, learn how to keep their head up, learn to see what the situation is and make them a better tackle football player because they will have the basics at a younger age.”
While player safety is the primary motivating factor for the switch to flag at the youngest level, another benefit is avoiding burnout.
“If they start when they are 5 years old and we get them when they are 14,” Boyer said, “that is almost 10 years — that is a long career no matter what sport you are in at any level.”
Despite early pushback on some of the changes, the new SYFL board is confident about its direction and is reaching out to the community to clear up any confusion about the league and where it is headed. SYFL does need a few more coaches and is still accepting players.
“I’m sure with this first year there will be bumps, but overall our focus is a positive experience for the kids, get them wanting to play football throughout middle school, throughout high school,” Boyer said.