Howard program scores 3-year grant

Award to help expansion of youth football

March 18, 2007|By Nancy Jones-Bonbrest | Nancy Jones-Bonbrest,Special to The Sun

Known for its wealth of recreational offerings, Howard County recently received a three-year grant that will help further develop its expanding youth football program.

The $150,000 grant is one of five awarded to recreation and park associations throughout the country and designates the county as a national youth football hub by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) and USA Football. The award is meant to help recreation and park agencies identify the resources needed to improve youth football programs.

"At the end of three years, what I really would like to see is an increase in participation, a better product and a better atmosphere for kinds to play in," said Michael Milani, the community sports supervisor for the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks.

Although football is a fall program, the work to improve it has started. At the end of November, the county hired a full-time youth football coordinator. Also, an inventory of the football program is under way and focus groups that will map out goals are being formed.

"This [grant] validates what we do and how we do it," said Milani. "This allows us to look at what we do and look at how we can do it better."

The grant is part of an overall three-year grant for $2.47 million awarded by the National Football League to the NRPA and USA Football to help improve youth football programs through strategic planning, advocacy and training.

"Howard County has always been exemplary in their recreation and parks department," said Teresa Rodriguez, the senior manager for the National Partnerships department of the NRPA. "We chose a variety of cities, areas and demographics to pull from to give us a good picture of what youth football looks like in America."

The other jurisdictions selected include St. Paul, Minn., and Minneapolis, Fort Collins, Colo., Glendale, Ariz., and Mecklenburg County, N.C.

The grant will help develop a grass-roots advocacy effort to support public parks and recreation investments that include football facilities and a nationwide inventory of public youth football programs.

The five groups selected will also benefit from an inventory of all community recreation programs being offered.

"It's a very interesting part that just these five get. It will assess the livability and level of service to the community that each city is offering," said Rodriguez. "They will have a big picture of what it offers right now and how it might be improved."

Nationwide participation in youth football programs is down, which is part of the thinking behind the NFL funding the three-year initiative. "There's been a decrease and they wanted to find out why and help it grow again," added Rodriguez.

However, in Howard County the numbers of kids involved in the program are up. Last year there were eight youth football teams with more than 2,000 participants. This compares to 2004 when there were seven teams and about 1,450 participants. Players start out as young as age 5 playing flag football. Tackle football runs from age seven to 14.

The county said having the funds to hire a full-time youth football coordinator is key to improving the program. "It just greatly helps with providing someone who can focus their efforts just on youth football," Milani said.

The new coordinator, William Dunmore, said he would be working with community football advocates and recreation officials to improve the sport and build on the success it already has.

"The first year will be a lot of data collection," said Dunmore. "There's a lot of work going on right now but it should all pay off. The first thing people can look forward to is improving fields and facilities."

Melvin Powell, president of the Columbia Ravens, said interest in the football program continues to grow. When this group first started, he said there were just over 100 participants. Now it has more than 500.

"Four years ago, the Columbia Ravens and other programs weren't even in existence," said Powell. "It's the acceptability and availability. Any kid in Howard County has multiple choices of where they can play." He said the success of the Baltimore Ravens and the accessibility of lighted and synthetic turf fields have helped give the program a boost.

"Some of the facilities we play on -- either turf or nonturf -- are some of the best facilities around. That's a huge advantage," said Powell. "With the grant they got, it's just going to take it one step further. It's something we are very excited about."

The county has three lighted synthetic turf fields, two at Western Regional Park and one at Rockburn Park. By next fall, two more will be added, one at Cedar Lane Park and a second one at Rockburn Park.

The turf fields are significant, says Dunmore, because participants don't have to worry about rainouts, as weather becomes almost a nonissue on the fields. He agrees the lights have helped improve the program, with games being played at night when more people can come out and participate.

"The program is definitely growing," said Dunmore. "One of the first steps will be to get youth football out there so even more parents and kids know about it."

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