Little pain, plenty of gain

Leagues: Flag football grows in popularity, heralded as a safer, less physical version of the game that nevertheless allows kids to develop the fundamentals.

Howard At Play

November 04, 2001|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Few plays in sports rival the visual explosiveness - for players and spectators - of a football running back bursting through his line, swerving a skosh left to elude one tackler, a scootch right to beat another, and outracing more defenders in a 50-yard diagonal dash for a touchdown.

It's exciting, whether the runner is Jamal Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens or Brendan Castleman, an 8-year-old from Scaggsville who had two such runs in a recent flag football game in a league in Savage.

Scoring like that, the Hammond Elementary School pupil says, has him looking forward to playing next fall because "it really makes me feel happy."

"Flag football?" you may be thinking.

What's the magic in hearing - instead of a crunch - a riiiiip as defenders stop an offensive play by yanking off one of three ribbons each player wears?

The magic is this: Players in any form of the sport still have to pass, run, catch and throw. And thus, flag football is finding a renewed niche in youth sports. The idea is to build zeal and skills, adding muscle and mayhem later, maybe just before kids start high school.

Know who's assigning that kind of value to flag football? It's the National Football League.

Since 1996, the NFL logo has been emblazoned on increasing numbers of jerseys worn by kids' flag teams across the country.

The Savage Boys and Girls Club, which joined the bandwagon last fall, is wrapping up its second season with 16 teams divided into two pre-high-school-age groups. Another league competed at the Howard County YMCA this fall.

In Savage, most teams wear reversible Ravens jerseys - purple on one side, white on the other. Other teams opted for comparable uniforms in the Redskins' burgundy and gold.

Former Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden, an assistant at Penn State, helped the Savage league get started last fall.

"He told our coaches that `flag' is a better way of letting kids learn the game [than starting with tackle]," said Mike Trudel, this year's flag football commissioner and coach of a couple of teams for the Savage organization.

If it seems strange that the ultra-physical NFL is behind flag football, it's clear that doing so is in the league's long-term interest of developing young talent.

Flag football as played at Savage is a five-to-a-team, 60-minute game that prohibits tackling and blocking - and even prevents defenders from rushing into the offensive backfield until a play gets under way. You won't find helmets or shoulder pads. And you won't see kicking for extra points or punts. But you will find action, tactics and enthusiasm.

Offensive possession starts on a team's 5-yard line, from which the team gets three plays to reach a zone at midfield. If the offense reaches midfield, it earns a first down, meaning three more chances to score - or yield the ball to the opponent at its 5-yard line. Touchdowns are worth 6 points; 1 extra point is awarded for scoring on one play from the 2-yard line, 2 for scoring from the 12-yard line.

Unlike tackle football at the youth level, where grind-it-out running plays are the de facto rule, NFL flag rules require that teams mix running and passing plays.

The result? Some nice passes into the flanks and an occasional toss up the middle of the field. A lot of runs start toward the outer edges of the field and then return to the center, much like one of the plays Brendan ran for a touchdown. Savage teams love what football enthusiasts call gimmick plays, such as the decades-old "Statue of Liberty" fake pass that becomes a running play.

The game, says Trudel, who played at Northwood High School in Montgomery County and then in the Navy, "appeals to parents who are worried about injuries, but it still gives kids a chance to learn the sport."

Interest is added locally because the package provided to the clubs by the NFL contains relatively few plays; local coaches and players design many of their own.

The Savage club began its flag league, Trudel said, because interest in fall baseball was withering and leaders wanted an alternative.

He said the program has about 150 players this fall, up slightly from last fall. A few girls are competing - one of them is Brendan's sister Victoria, a Hammond Middle School seventh-grader who also has scored a couple of touchdowns this fall.

Trudel's goal is 300 players, which, he points out, would pull the flag football league about even with Savage's soccer program.

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