Blue sky. Green grass. Fresh white lines marking the football field.
Last Saturday presented an ideal setting for Flathead Valley Little Guy Football, which kicked off its 18th season as one of the region’s premier youth sports organizations.
Over 550 pint-sized players from across the valley, including Polson, suited up in new uniforms, strapped on pads and helmets, and enjoyed the first games of the season at Kidsports Complex on Sept. 12. For some kids in fourth through sixth grades, it was their first introduction to football. For others, it marked the renewed chance to play their favorite sport.
“Seeing all these kids out there playing football, that’s the reward,” said Mike Rauthe, co-founder of the nonprofit organization and one of the volunteers who runs the league.
“These Saturdays make the other 10 months of the year and all the hard work worth the effort.”
The season will unfold over six games with players learning the basics of offense and defense through designed plays. High school players from across the valley — most of whom started in this league — referee games, providing younger players a chance to meet their older role models. Scores and records are not kept, following the organization’s philosophy that it’s more important to have fun and possibly develop a passion for the sport than it is to strictly compete at this age.
“We stress to the kids to compete regardless of the scoreboard. We like to teach kids that life doesn’t always have a scoreboard but you still go out and work as hard as you can,” Rauthe said. “We’re teaching them discipline.”
Another tenet of the league is participation, and every player who comes to practice is guaranteed to see at least one half of action each game.
“Our goal is we want kids to fall in love with the game, whether they play past any certain levels. That’s a success for us,” Rauthe said.
For Wade Rademacher, one of the volunteers who has been involved from the beginning, the league is similar to the one in Minnesota where he first was introduced to football.
“I was fortunate enough to play in a program similar to ours, and that’s how I developed the passion,” Rademacher said.
That passion remains strong today among Rademacher and the other volunteers who make the league possible.
“You put in so much time behind the scenes and to see the kids out there running around playing football, it’s a blast for us,” he said. “It’s just a lot of guys who are really passionate about football.”
Nearly 20 years ago, Rauthe and Tim Severson established the program as a way for kids to play tackle football in a safe, organized manner. In those days, there were only flag football programs for kids until seventh grade, at which point some kids might be leery of jumping into tackle football without any prior experience.
There was clearly an interest; the first season 220 kids signed up. It is approaching 600 players this year.
The league has experienced some dips in participation in recent years, and Rauthe attributes it to the economic recession and concerns of concussions.
New research has raised awareness about the dangers of players suffering repeated concussions at all levels of the game. Players can experience brain injuries after repeat concussions, leading to new policies across the country aimed at preventing them. In 2013, the Montana Legislature passed a law that promoted statewide concussion prevention in sports.
Rauthe said the Flathead Valley Little Guy Football organization has elicited the help of local doctors who have developed a policy for the league and coaches to prevent repeat concussions. Doctors are present on Saturdays during games, and any players who may have experienced a concussion are evaluated before they can return to play, Rauthe said. An education pamphlet is also sent to players and their families before the season starts raising awareness about concussions and the importance of preventing them.
“We’re following the protocol,” Rauthe said. “We want kids back on the field but you have to protect them. We’re trying to be proactive.”
The league also has a system in place identifying players who are larger than others and cannot advance the ball forward to ensure fairness and to avoid smaller players from being bulled over.
By teaching the basics and helping kid have fun, Rauthe hopes players will develop a solid foundation that will give them life skills and put them in a position to succeed at higher levels.
“We want to make sure kids get a chance to get introduced to the game early on. It’s not for everybody, just like any sport,” Rauthe said. “But now kids get a chance to play earlier.”
For more information about the Flathead Valley Little Guy Football program, visit www.flatheadvalleyfootball.com.
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