Don Reese of East Hampton Youth Football has embarked on a campaign to breathe new life into a program that in recent years has experienced a decline in numbers.
“It’s two things,” he said during a conversation Friday. “Parents’ fear of concussions is part of it, as is the fact we now have a very large Latino population in the early grades who grow up playing soccer and know very little about football.”
He was well aware of the concern having to do with concussions, said Reese, who emphasized that he puts “safety above all. . . . In the five years I’ve been doing this, we’ve only had one kid suffer a concussion in a game, which isn’t bad when you consider we have had as many as 130 kids go through the P.A.L. program each year. . . . It happened as he was tackled, it was helmet-to-helmet. I told his parents that it was best to skip it the following year. He hasn’t gone back to football.”
Asked if any parents had actually talked to him about their concerns, he said, “No, they haven’t, I’ve not gotten any feedback, but I know they are concerned. . . . As I’ve said, we’re very safety-conscious. That’s number-one with us. We pride ourselves on our equipment. Our helmets, for instance, cost $220 apiece. They’re Riddell helmets, the best on the market, the same kind D-1 colleges use.”
While the risk of receiving a concussion in football, whatever the age, never could be utterly eliminated — doctors have said they’re more likely to result from a jarring blow to the neck than to a helmet — “you can get hurt doing anything, in so many sports or activities other than football. A player on one of our championship youth basketball teams has been out six weeks since being concussed by a flying elbow.”
“Frankly, the flag football program at the Ross School last fall was far more dangerous than youth football. They had 80 to 100 kids there. No equipment, just a flag. Can you imagine what could happen if two or three of them knocked heads going up for a pass?”
Further on the safety front, Reese said that he had recently signed an agreement with U.S.A. Football, an organization that has the backing of the N.F.L., to run East Hampton Youth Football’s volunteer coaches, parents, and players through its Heads Up tackling clinics designed to teach proper tackling techniques, and he added that his organization is thinking seriously of having its young players undergo preseason baseline cognitive assessment testing as is done at the high school.
“I understand the concern about concussions,” said Reese. “I’m concerned about my own son, who’s the seventh-grade team’s quarterback. I want John Krupp to have good kids blocking for him. I’m happy to talk to anyone about it. You don’t see concussions so much in youth football. One kid in five years. But, by the same token, I can’t make guarantees.”
He was pleased, Reese said, that the new East Hampton High School varsity coach, Steve Redlus, “has been very receptive to what we’re doing. He knows that in order for the high school football program to improve it’s got to be from the bottom up.”
“It’s so different from the way it was before. John Krupp, the new coach at the middle school, has been doing an excellent job. He comes to our games, he’ll ask about the kids, I go over our rosters with him. . . . The best group is the seventh grade. There’s a lot of talent there, 20 really good players. I hope they stay with it.”
“Steve Redlus,” he added, “will do a clinic for our coaches in July and he and his staff will open our camp in the first week of August at the high school.”
“We’re going to bring everybody who’s signed up for P.A.L., kids from 5 through 11 years old. There won’t be pads. They’ll do drills, work on conditioning, they’ll be shown the proper way to tackle, how to throw properly, how to catch. . . . And, on the third day, Aug. 3, Steve Redlus’s staff and our players will have a barbecue that the Lions Club is going to do.”
As for youth football’s numbers, “We’re probably down about 35 percent compared to two years ago, when we had 130-plus players. I’d like to get it back up to that, or higher. If I could have at least 25 to 36 per team that would be ideal. . . . We’ve been signing kids up since mid-April. You can still sign up at ehyfootball.com. We tried to do sign-ups at the schools this year. Sag Harbor won’t allow us, nor Amagansett, but we did do them at John Marshall, the middle school, Montauk, and Bridgehampton. We handed out fliers, and we had 24-by-36-inch posters. We didn’t get a great turnout, but a lot of have come back in the mail and are still coming in. I know there’s so much other stuff going on now, Little League, lacrosse . . . we’ll keep our registration going until May 31.”
“We’ll combine the fourth and fifth graders — we’ve only got eight fourth graders and 13 fifth graders. Twenty-one makes a team. We’ll drop into a lower P.A.L. division competition-wise because of our fourth graders.”
“We were behind when it came to the sixth graders, but they’re starting to come in. We’re about six or seven players away. . . .”
As for the young Latino students, Reese said he would definitely make a play for them. “I’ve sent the high school liaison an e-mail saying that I’d be happy to talk with the Latino kids, to do whatever I have to do. If I can get them to get involved at a young age, then there’s a good chance you can keep them. Soccer’s become a great program here, thanks to all the hard work Rich King and Donny McGovern have put into it, but there are not as many on a soccer team as on a football team. There are only so many soccer spots.”
Essentially, Reese said, he’d like to see youth football here become as strong, numbers-wise and talent-wise, as East Hampton’s youth basketball teams, all three of which, he said, had won championships this past season at the Southampton Recreation Center.
And then he’d like to see the community get behind the football program. “We don’t get the support for football here that we should. You see 50 in the stands at a home game, hardly any of them students. The only good turnout we get is at homecoming when the game is played under the lights. . . . If you want to get serious, you’ve got to have lights. They have them in Southampton and Westhampton. We have a million-dollar field and no lights!”
“And you need to play on Friday nights. The kids will come, they’ll have something to do, and the players will be energized because it’s a lot more exciting to play in front of 2,500 people than 50.”