Where `the big boys play'

Football: A local league caters to kids shut out of some conventional organizations because they are taller or larger than their peers.

Howard At Play

October 05, 2003|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Matt Simon knows a little something about football.

That's why the Baltimore Ravens running backs coach didn't mind doing some research when seeking a place that would let a taller and bigger kid like his son Aaron play football when he expressed interest a few years ago.

Simon checked around and eventually found the Mid-Atlantic Unlimited Youth Football Association, founded by Baltimore's Bill Casagrande and bearing the slogan "Let the big boys play." The league specializes in giving boys who might be too big for other leagues' size or weight restrictions a chance to make it onto the football field.

The only problem for Columbia resident Simon: no local team.

So Simon went to work, helping start a county team for 11- to 14-year-olds in 2001. Now in their third year, the Howard County Bruins boast a 5-1 record in the 11-team MUYFA, which grows each year and, its backers say, changes the lives of many children in a short time.

Youth football leagues typically categorize players by age and weight, the latter as a safety measure. That may leave out boys who, for whatever reason, are big for their age.

Helping his son Aaron, who at age 11 was 5-feet-6-inches tall and weighed 160 pounds, meant something to Simon. Aaron is now 14, stands 6-1, weighs 190 pounds and plays on Mount Hebron High School's varsity team despite being a freshman.

"Some of the children were ostracized, being in programs that had weight stipulations," Simon said. "We put a very difficult yoke on them emotionally. They are made to feel different when, deep in their minds, they feel they belong."

Simon felt passionately about the cause and became the Bruins' president/general manager, helping raise about $10,000 annually for the club and doing numerous things to improve players' lives. He has brought Ravens players such as big offensive linemen Jonathan Ogden and Edwin Mulitalo in to talk on a regular basis. And he keeps a firm watch on the team.

He also brought in head coach Randy Hall, who moved here from California seven years ago and had coached in the MUYFA league in Anne Arundel County. Hall shares Simon's views.

"We're trying to show the kids the fundamentals of the game and prepare them for high school, giving them an opportunity to play organized ball," said Hall, whose son Adam is the team's defensive coordinator. "The program is there to prepare kids for the next level."

The Bruins club fields two teams: a 28-player varsity, which has older and more-experienced players in sixth- through eighth grades, and a 36-player JV, for younger players and those just learning the sport. They practice three times a week with games each weekend. The Bruins, who use Columbia's Long Reach High School as their home, play in the MUYFA's 10-game season and have had their first winning season this fall.

Although the winning is nice, it is the other positives that players and parents love.

Nick Hopkin, 13, is in his third and final year with the Bruins. The Sykesville resident went from someone who didn't see much playing time two seasons ago - although he earned the Most Improved Player honor - to being the varsity team's starting quarterback.

"I have confidence and know I can do a whole bunch of football things, and I feel really good," said Hopkin, who as a sixth-grader was refused by another youth program because he weighed 17 pounds more than its limit for beginners. "I'm definitely going to remember my coaches and the players, and I'll try to get back to the team and help them practice when I get older."

Hopkin's parents quickly became involved with the team, like so many others. Michele and Rob Hopkin are both directors. Michele is the treasurer in addition to the team mom; Rob is the secretary. Both talk about the impact the team has had on Nick's life.

With others catching up to him in size, Nick Hopkin could have played on a rec league football team the past two years, but chose instead to stay with the Bruins.

"He wanted to stay, and we're very happy he did," Michele Hopkin said. "There are so many people that just don't know there's an unlimited-weight football league."

Parents involved with the teams in the league are passionate about spreading the word so more kids can have fun and learn at the same time. Simon, Hall and others lauded the help and time Bruins parents give every season.

"The parents, they have been so supportive," Rob Hopkin said. "They have done anything we wanted. They just give, give, give. It just keeps us afloat."

Simon said he is glad for everyone's help because the league turns what could be an awkward situation for many boys into a good one.

"The middle school age is so important - it's really, really important," he said. "[This program] creates value to working with others and cooperating and working with a cause."

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