A funny thing happened a couple weeks back.
Arriving at West Orange High School to cover a baseball game — the second game of the Winter Garden Squeeze’s playoff series against Winter Park — I was greeted by a football practice.
Actually, it was several teams practicing, along with some cheerleaders, too.
It wasn’t West Orange’s varsity or junior varsity program — this happened on July 31 and fall practice for high school programs could not begin until Aug. 4.
Also, and perhaps more obviously, some of the players were a bit on the small side to be varsity football players.
It wasn’t the West Orange Wildcats Pop Warner program, which generally practices at Walker Field or Veterans Memorial Park across the street in Winter Garden. It also wasn’t either of the two Central Florida Youth Football League programs — the Southwest Orlando Titans or Ocoee Cardinals — that draw players from the West Orange County area.
Nope, I wasn’t sure at first who I was watching, and as a Sports Editor who has only been on the job since June, I felt the need to investigate.
It turns out I stumbled upon a weeknight practice of the West Orange Bobcats, a youth football program competing in the Florida Youth Football and Cheer League, which operates under the umbrella of AAU Football.
It also turns out that the Bobcats are not new, as I initially had hoped (which would make for a good story), but were actually in their second year of a rebrand to the West Orange Bobcats (which, fortunately, also made for a good story — see 1B).
Formerly, the team had been the Windermere Bobcats and Central Florida Bobcats and had been around since 2007.
There’s a point to all this, and here it is: I found myself struck by the options for would-be youth football players and their parents. If a child is zoned for West Orange High School there are, by my count, four different youth football programs spanning three different leagues that that child could play for.
In other words, the business of youth football in West Orange County, and around Central Florida, is good right now.
So, why’s that matter?
Because when concussions, head injuries and player safety became a national hot button a few years back — as they should have — there was a lot of doubt about the future of youth football.
Would parents continue to let their kids play a game that President Barack Obama said he would have to “think long and hard” about letting a son (that he doesn’t currently have) play? What does it mean when quarterback legend Kurt Warner said in a 2012 radio interview that the idea of his sons playing football scares him?
Then came a report from ESPN in November highlighting a 9.5 percent drop in participation for Pop Warner between 2010-12.
How then, among all that negative momentum, are there four options for local youth football players?
Because organizations are stepping up to the challenge — coaches, parents and league organizers are stepping up to the challenge.
You can say what you will about how long it took us as a society to understand just how dangerous football is, but when that danger and its long-term ramifications came to the national spotlight a few years back, it wasn’t dismissed. Youth football programs are, across the board, addressing safety in their game and that has to be commended.
In working to put together our special football preview section for our Aug. 21 edition (yes, that was a plug), I have been out to every high school football team in the area’s fall camp and talked with a few youth football coaches and representatives, too. The emphasis on safety — safety from the Florida heat and dehydration and safety through proper tackling — is palpable.
Even at the high school level, coaches are spending significant amounts of time at the beginning of the season reviewing technique. Most, if not all, of these coaches are undergoing some sort of training in the offseason — programs like the “Heads Up Tackling” program put on by USA Football.
Because of this, parents are able to make informed decisions and can ask coaches and league administrators whether they’re certified by a similar program.
More than any other sports I played as a kid — and to be fair, that was limited to baseball, basketball and football — football embodies the spirit of the team concept. It’s something I’ll always recall fondly.
For parents, there are plenty of social, disciplinary and exercise benefits to letting your kid play football. Plus, let’s be honest, watching the 8-year-old teams play is some the funniest live sports you’ve ever seen (I refuse to use the word “cute”).
We love our football here locally.
And, thanks to organizations and individuals recognizing the gravity of a problem, our local youth football programs are in a position to continue along just fine for the time being — and that’s something that should be commended.
Steven Ryzewski is the Sports Editor for the West Orange Times and can be reached via email at [email protected] for story suggestions and comments. Follow Steven on Twitter at @StevenR_WOT for more local sports commentary and insights.