By Conor Walsh
---- — It’s no secret to anyone involved in youth athletics that participation numbers are on the decline.
Perhaps more than anywhere else, that athletic downturn has reared its head on the football field. Some might chalk it up to the rising awareness of head injuries in football from the NFL on down, others have other reasons.
Rather than pointing the finger, though, a group of Gloucester football enthusiasts opted to seek a solution.
That solution, they hope, began last night when a group of six-to-eight year-olds met at Gloucester’s O’Maley Middle School for the first meeting of the Gloucester youth flag football league.
The league will meet each Friday at 6 p.m. and is open to any child that would like to play, free of charge.
“Sports numbers across the board are really on the decline, so we figured this might be a way to get kids interested,” said Fran Gibbs, one of the program’s organizers. “We kind of brainstormed, me and my board, about it and just threw ideas out on the table on ways to get kids interested in playing football. We figured the best place to start is with the younger children, and what better way than flag football?”
The idea somewhat mirrors that of T-ball: a way to ease children into the sport and teach them the fundamentals without introducing them to all the intricacies of the sport at once.
That’s exactly what Gibbs and Co. are looking to accomplish. The first 45 minutes of each Friday session will be dedicated to conditioning and teaching, followed by a 45-minute game of pickup flag football.
There are no set teams in the league. Rather, teams will be staggered each week to help ensure close games and preserve the focus on teaching.
“There won’t be any set teams,” Gibbs said. “This way, we can make sure the kids all get ample opportunity to play and we can keep parity.”
While yesterday was the league’s start, Gibbs admitted they’re still working some of the kinks out of the program. They experimented yesterday with a 40-yard field for the scrimmage — in part because of the heat — and expect to adjust things as the program continues.
The encouraging thing, Gibbs said, is that interest seems high. The group got a good response from a recent advertisement in the Gloucester Daily Times, and after a meeting with the local youth track program, Gibbs is confident that numbers are only going to keep going up.
The ultimate hope? A new generation of football players in the pipeline.
“It’s really a tactic to get kids interested,” Gibbs said. “You get them out there playing flag football as younger children, hopefully they’ll be hooked.