Photo courtesy of Play Ball Foundation
If Dexter Newsome never played football for the Rogers Middle School, his standing South Boston High's JV football team might be a little different.
“It will help me a lot because if I didn’t know anything I think I would probably be the water boy,” the South Boston freshman from Hyde Park said of having two years of football experience at the Rogers under his belt before entering high school football.
Four years after the Play Ball! foundation was started to fund middle school football in the city, its first crop of players with two and three years of experience is finally trickling into high school programs across the city.
Prior to Play Ball! stepping in to fund football in the city's middle schools, Boston public schools only offered basketball and track for its students to play inter-scholastically.
“It makes your job a little easier because they know the basics and they are already ahead of the other kids in terms of some of the drills that you run and just when you call plays,” said first-year West Roxbury varsity coach Derek Wright, who served as an assistant coach at Westie for the last two years.
The middle school football program began in 2009 with four teams: The Irving, Rogers, Edwards and Gavin (now Up Academy) middle schools. The program had 84 players when it started.
The league’s fourth season kicks off with six more teams then when it started and a total of 350 players.
“From year to year the kids knowing how to play [is a huge advantage],” Play Ball board member Pat Arcand said. “Even from the beginning of the season to the end of the season, because we start with a fair amount of kids who have never played organized sports.”
For years, incoming freshmen football players would show up on the first day of football practice or on the fist day of school with no previous football experience. Many play Pop Warner but those teams have no formal connection to the school district and Pop Warner also has a weight restriction, making it hard for larger students to participate.
Wright, the West Roxbury head varsity coach, said he has three or four players this year who graduated from the middle school program. He said they stand out from the players who have never played before.
“That gives them experience coming in and it puts them ahead of the other kids who are just raw coming out,” Wright said.
For the first time this year Play Ball! provided the high school coaches with the names of their former football players entering the ninth grade.
"We have anecdotal feedback that is positive because [the coaches] are thrilled to have them come and the kids come and they know how to play," Arcand said.
The program still has a ways to go, however, before it really starts beefing up varsity football teams, which used to carry 60 to 80 players in the 1980s and 1990s. These days the district is filled with an increasingly large immigrant population that didn’t grow up playing or watching football.
Boston schools athletic director Ken Still said the district's football teams hover around an average of 25 players per team.
“Our numbers are so low at the high school level we’re still fighting an uphill battle as far as the population we’re dealing with,” Still said. “I have [varsity] football teams operating at a level between 15 and 20 players; I’m trying to figure out what I can do and how I can do it. How I piece that together to get numbers.”
Still said that while the middle school program hasn’t beefed up his high school football numbers just yet, he’s still glad that it is there and in a position to grow. He said high school coaches need to go to the middle school teams and sell their programs to the players.
“Having that [middle school program grow] is going to be amazing, how we keep a check on it and how we develop it is another story,” Still said. “We've got students playing football. We've got coaches who are teaching them football. I hope that that translates, that it means that the high schools are getting more numbers and become a little bit more trained at football ahead of time. And for us, [we can] continue to play football and have fun.”
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- Justin A. Rice -- A metro Detroit native, Rice is a Michigan State University (Go Spartans!) and Northeastern University graduate. Rice lives in the South End with his dog and wife, who unfortunately attended the University of Michigan ... his wife, that is. He curates the BPS Sports Blog and is always looking to write about city athletes with great stories. Have an idea? He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJustinRice or @BPSspts.
- Ryan Butler -- A Rhode Island native and avid Boston sports fan, Butler played basketball, baseball and football throughout his time in Barrington Public Schools. Now currently in his middler year at Northeastern University, he joins Boston.com as a correspondent for the site's BPS coverage. Have a story idea? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on his Twitter @butler_globe.