A league to call their own

Youth: Bill Casagrande has thrown himself into making sure middle school boys who want to play football aren't left out.


May 14, 2002|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

One of the first principles of business is to "find a need and fill it."

Bill Casagrande found a need as a youth and now -- as an adult -- he is filling it for others.

Unable to play his beloved football until he was a 10th-grader at Parkville High because he was too big for the recreation and Pop Warner leagues, Casagrande decided seven years ago that there was a "void at the grassroots, the lower levels of football."

He founded the Mid-Atlantic Unlimited Youth Football Association to prepare rising sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders too big for the "pound leagues" for high school play.

With area middle schools lacking the sport, Maryland was taking a back seat to football-rich states like Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida in the production of Division I college players.

Casagrande's league has grown incrementally. Currently 11 teams -- seven in the Baltimore metro area, two in Prince George's, one in Easton and one in Northern Virginia -- will compete over a 10-game schedule next fall, in addition to preseason games, an all-star game and a championship round.

The results have begun to show at the college level with program graduates like Mike Faust, the 1999-2000 Sun Athlete of the Year, at Pennsylvania, Lou Lombardo at Maryland, and Starrett Esworthy at Brown.

Faust started on the junior varsity at Penn two autumns ago, but he moved up to the varsity in mid-season and earned an Ivy League championship ring. He stopped playing football last year because the academic load became too demanding to carry two sports (he is also a top-flight wrestler).

"The biggest thing about Bill's program is it allows big guys to play. A lot of kids go into high school cold, without the fundamentals, and they're a couple years behind," said Faust's father, Mike Sr.

The senior Faust said his son always had to play at the lower end of his age group (8 years old in an 8-10) league and "could never eat normally. Wednesday he'd have to start to starve so he could make weight for games."

"Everything that I've got now started with Casagrande's program," said Lombardo, currently a reserve offensive right tackle for the Terps. "I could have never played until I got to high school, but I got that year before I got to high school and it gave me a little boost. I had a little edge over the other linemen at Calvert Hall. He taught us all the basics. I had never played league football and he broke down the game for us so we understood. I'm very grateful to have been in that program."

So, Casagrande was the ideal choice to become the director when a spring program for such youth began expanding out of the New York area, where it was launched four years ago.

Underwritten by the NFL and the NFL Players Association, the free learning sessions are conducted twice weekly over a six-week period at four area sites.

Youths turned away because they were overweight for the restricted leagues convene with Casagrande and his staff of coaches from the MUYFA and local high schools to learn the intricacies of every position on the field and "life lessons" such as self-control and responsibility.

All equipment is provided by the NFL and at the end of what amounts to a sort of spring practice for middle-school aged boys, players can keep their jerseys and a football.

Typical of the players in the program is Terry Ford, a 5-foot-4, 175-pounder who aspires to become a defensive tackle or offensive guard. Not yet out of the fifth grade at St. Pius X Elementary, he was told by various leagues that he was "too big to play" because he far exceeded the 130-pound limit.

His father, Terrence, said his son "is active in all sports and I find it somewhat amusing that he was told he was too big for football. This was the perfect situation for him. It's not just kids getting together on the sandlots. They're learning.

"I think it's important that all kids have the opportunity to play in sports."

Participants share that view.

"Right now, I'd have to be playing 14-16 ball," said Daryan Coates, an eighth-grader who will attend Western Tech. "I was scared to play that. I already knew I was too big to play [in his age group], and I wanted to play football very bad. I just love football and this program gets you ready for high school."

Sean Stowell, a 230-pound 14-year-old who will go to Eastern Tech, is in his third year with Casagrande. "We're getting a better understanding of all the positions, not just ours," he said. "Now, I can play wherever they put me."

A 210-pound linebacker who played for Curley's junior varsity last fall, Craig Barnes said the program "helped me play with a lot of moves. Before, I was just trying to hit somebody. Now, I know how to tackle and protect myself."

"We had a 12-year-old on the Howard County team last year who was 6-2 and 310 pounds," said Casagrande, who operates the site at Halstead Academy off Loch Raven Boulevard.

The spring sessions are strictly scripted. Casagrande roams the field among some 130 campers, blowing his whistle when it's time to change the drill.

Dubbed the Junior Player Development program by the NFL, it began when Jerry Horowitz organized the New York area sessions four years ago after it was determined that "there was not enough going on for kids before high school," said Casagrande.

Nearly 600 youngsters are involved here at sites in Baltimore, Annapolis, Prince George's County and Washington.

"The Pop Warners do a great job for kids 6 to 14, but the weight limits left out a lot of them," said Casagrande. "And there are a lot of stories about kids having to eat nothing but salads or sitting in plastic bags in the heat to make weight. We wanted to find a place for them.

"This is strictly a teaching and developmental program to help them get better, step by step, at every position. We believe nobody with an interest should be discriminated against."

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