Bill Grau and Dan McCabe were neighbors who helped coach their kids in a youth football program in Sykesville. They enjoyed what they did, and their kids had fun, but both wondered why there wasn't a similar program where they lived.
Just over four years ago, the two formed the Western Howard County Warhawks, a youth football program that started out big - and has kept growing. The program had 250 kids for its age-group teams in 2002, the club's first year of competition, and this fall enrolled about 450 players from 6 to 14. The club has become a strong feeder for several county high school teams.
The league works hard at teaching kids the game. There's a flag football team for the youngest age group, and the rest play tackle. Teams practice two or three days a week and play once.
McCabe served as president for three years before Grau took over this year. Grau said several things led the two Glenwood residents to start a program.
"When we started the program, we knew there was a need in the area," Grau said. "We knew football was getting more popular. The Ravens had just won the Super Bowl ... and there were a few programs, but there was nothing in the western part of the county."
McCabe also said that he and Grau wanted to start a program that was more than just a bunch of kids and parents getting together to play and watch games. They wanted something different.
"We had a lot of kids out here that had an interest but didn't have a place to play," McCabe said. "He and I got together and figured we'd give them an opportunity to play where we could get a real community thing going."
Grau said they received a lot of support from many places, including from Glenelg High School's coaches, and when the program took off, it just kept going.
"Almost immediately, we had a lot of interest," Grau said. "We didn't think we'd have that much interest at first."
They formed about 10 teams the first year that played in the competitive Capital Beltway League and struggled. The Warhawks grew to 320 players in the second year and moved some teams into the newly formed Central Maryland League - and all of their teams shifted there last year and remained this season.
Grau said the program's philosophy is built around teaching and giving children a chance to play - not just winning a football game. It's one reason the Warhawks have grown into a strong feeder system for Glenelg, River Hill and Marriotts Ridge High Schools, along with Mount Hebron and Centennial, to a lesser degree.
The Warhawks work at getting at least three coaches for every team. There's a head coach plus an offensive and/or defensive coordinator along with someone who handles the lines and special teams.
"That's a minimum number of people that you need; sometimes we get four coaches," Grau said. "We really want to teach a lot."
Randy Wallenhorst agrees strongly with this philosophy. An elementary school physical education teacher in the county, Wallenhorst coaches a Warhawks team and is on its board of directors. He also feels that there is often too much emphasis placed on winning in other programs and other sports and wants the Warhawks to be different.
"I wanted to make sure it was right for the kids," Wallenhorst said. "We have good people teaching the kids, not just about football, but teaching them life skills, getting along, working as a team, commitment, discipline, the whole thing."
The club has kept growing every year. Grau said they don't advertise or put out any kind of registration form to the public. The Warhawks just send information to the children who played last year and see who comes back - or wants to join.
This year, everything came back much bigger than ever before. The league had 300 kids signed up within two weeks of the beginning of registration. The number reached 450, and Grau said leaders wanted to be sure they could give the right product to the children.
The club is entering two teams in every age-weight bracket possible this fall in the Central Maryland Youth Football and Cheer leagues, which include teams from five other Howard County youth programs and others from Baltimore and Montgomery counties. The Warhawks play their games at a number of sites but are scheduled to move to the new Western Regional Park when that opens next year.
McCabe said that in some ways the quick success of the league was surprising, given Howard County's long fascination with soccer.
"We just got more kids involved in football," McCabe said. "I really don't think we put that much of a dent in soccer."
McCabe has stepped away from the Warhawks this season. His kids are older, and working on the league takes lots of time. But he is glad that Grau has taken charge and that their little football idea turned into something big.
"It is a good, strong program with some good volunteers," McCabe said. "Bill does a spectacular job. It's like taking on a full 40-hour-a-week job. He was willing to do it, and he does a great job."