INDEPENDENCE, Ohio—Residents of Independence have come together to create a travel football league for children who are in grades three through six. The league is made up of children who live in Independence as well as students who attend St. Michael School.
Independence resident with football coaching experience, Joel Woods, was the driving force behind creating the league after he saw other cities organizing recreation football leagues. His son had participated in a youth wrestling league that was integrated with Independence High School, and Woods said he wanted to do the same with football.
Woods reached out to the high school’s football coach as well as fathers in the city who would be interested in coaching. The result was 52 participants in the first year of the program.
Woods said the number of participants “surpassed my expectations for 2020.” The idea for the league came about in January of this year but was put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In springtime, Woods and fellow volunteers decided to move forward with starting the league for the fall.
The third and fourth grade players are divided into three teams and will play in a recreation league with teams from Avon. They will be playing a “padded flag” version of the game where flags will be pulled from a player instead of tackling. Woods said their games will begin on Oct. 3 and all games will be played in Avon.
The fifth and sixth grade players are divided into two teams and have already started playing teams from a recreation league from Hawken Schools. Half of the games will be played at Hawken, while the other half will be played at the football field on the site of the former Independence Middle School on Brecksville Rd.
Independence Recreation Director, Tom Walchanowicz said that the recreation department will be maintaining the field for play and will offer support to the league where they can. The fifth and sixth grade teams will be playing “rookie tackle” football where tackling is allowed but in a safer way.
Woods explained that the fields that the children will use are smaller than normal with only 40 yd. lines. He continued saying that with more field space, there is more room to run and a greater chance of someone getting hurt. The games will also only allow for seven players on each team to be on the field at once.
These safety precautions were put in place to follow the standards of USA Football, a non-profit organization that, according to usafootball.com, “establish[es] unmatched standards of safety, education and support for coaches and players in order to provide an environment where bonds are formed, skills are perfected and leaders are born.”
The organization works with those who are running youth leagues to promote athletic skills as well as leadership skills. Woods said the coaches for the Independence league took certification courses through USA Football and the organization “creates a safe [and] fun version of football.”
With a less aggressive version of tackling by the fifth and sixth grade players, Woods said it is “safe and predictable contact” that players can see coming and react to appropriately.
In addition to safety related to gameplay, Woods said precautions are also being taken in relation to the pandemic. Players and coaches wear masks on the field, temperature checks are given, and footballs are sanitized. Parents are asked to check a symptom list with their child before allowing them to come to practice. During practice, Woods said the team has a repeating system of practicing for eight minutes, taking a two-minute break to sanitize hands and then returning to play.
Woods said that everyone had to be resilient this year and that the children need football now more than ever. “[We are] using youth football as a platform for lifelong health and fitness,” said Woods. His goals with this league are to promote character development, general athletic development, and football development.