When 8-year-old Gunnar came to his father and said he didn't want to play tackle football anymore, Otis Thomas listened. He also remembered a commercial for a youth flag football program sponsored by the NFL that he had seen during the Super Bowl a couple of years ago.
Thomas talked with Kevin Rogers and they agreed to apply to the NFL to set up a league in Batavia.
It was a very easy process, they said. The NFL provides a step-by-step guide and the staff is helpful and friendly, they said.
So, Batavia will have an NFL-sponsored flag football program for children ages 5 to 14 this fall; "no contact, 6 on 6."
Thomas said it's not his goal to take anything away from the Batavia Bulldawgs, the local tackle football program, but he believes there are a lot of parents in the community who want to give their children a fun activity and see them learn the sport but don't want to strap a heavy helmet on their heads.
"I don’t want to pull away from anything the Bulldawgs organization has done around Batavia," Thomas said. "I coached for two years. It was good for me. It was good for my son but it’s also good to see other opportunities for other kids that aren’t ready to play contact football."
Both Thomas and Rogers are aware, of course, about the growing concern parents have about football, concussions, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.
"I just wanted my son to play all the sports that I never had a chance to," said Rogers, who didn't come from a football family and didn't play the sport as a child. "Now, as a parent, you sort of see where my parents were coming from growing up, where it’s a little bit more violent of a sport than we’re used to, especially for young kids, ages 5 to 14. Their bodies are still developing. We wanted to start something to give the kids options who want to learn the sport."
The field dimensions are smaller, 30 yards by 70 yards, which will allow the new league to play as many as five games at one time on the varsity football field at Notre Dame High School off of Union Avenue.
The games consist of two 15-minute halves between teams of six players each. They will be played on Sunday mornings so parents can get home in time to watch the Bills. There will be one practice a week -- one hour on Wednesday nights. Each child who signs up, for $65, will get a replica NFL jersey and a pair of flags with their team's logo on it.
There are no helmets.
"I don’t really agree with putting a 5- or a six-year-old or a 7- or 8-year-old in a helmet," said Thomas, who played in Batavia Youth Football as a kid, played in high school, and played semi-pro ball.
"We teach them, 'don’t use your head' but you put that helmet on, it’s a weight. You can see it. Go to any little Pop Warner game and you see a kid running by himself for a touchdown he’s leaning to the left but his body is really wanting to go to the right."
Rogers said he and Thomas have talked to 30 or 40 parents and gotten a lot of positive feedback on the idea, so they're expecting plenty of children to sign up.
They think even though there is no contact, young players will learn key fundamentals of the game that will help them if they decide to play high school football, including the vocabulary of the game, the rules and how plays are run.
The safety aspect of flag football is why Thomas thinks the sport will catch on in the community, though he said it is an individual decision for each parent on whether to sign their kids up for contact football or flag football.
"I love the game but I love the safety and I value my kid's life a little bit more," Thomas said.
The co-ed league is open to boys and girls age 5 to 13 from throughout the area, with divisions for ages 5, 6 and 7, 8 and 9, 10 and 11, and 12 and 14.
Please contact Otis Thomas at (585) 993-0244 or Kevin Rogers at (716) 860-4551 with any questions.
(Thomas and Rogers said they are not aware of any other NFL flag football leagues in WNY. They think the next closest one is in Ohio. They hope other parents will start leagues in neighboring counties.)
There will be registration sessions at:
- Dick's Sporting Goods on Veterans Memorial Drive -- this Saturday, July 21, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Tuesday, July 24, 4 to 7 p.m.;
- Batavia City Centre -- tomorrow, Thursday, July 19, and Thursday, July 26, 4 to 7:30 p.m. both days;
- T.F. Brown's restaurant -- this Saturday, July 21 and the folllowing Saturday, July 28, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. both days.