Out of town youth football tournaments are an excellent end of season treat for many youth football teams. Pop Warner, AYF and other organizations have regional and national title programs that are the goal of many youth football coaches in those leagues.
When I played youth football, our team traveled to Las Vegas, Kansas City, Nashville and Atlanta to play in tournaments. It was a great way to see how we stacked up to competition outside Nebraska. I still can recall those memories, losing just one of those games in overtime in Las Vegas to an all-star team from California.
What are these tournaments like and as a youth football coach should my teams play in one? Coaching youth football means having a lot of influence on deciding to take these games or not.
There are more independent youth football organizations than Pop Warner and AFL combined and the independents play in various youth football tournaments throughout the USA. The tournaments vary in size and quality as does anything in life. That is one of the big advantages of the Pop Warner National Tournament, you know that the weekend will be a quality event and the rules will be enforced.
Most of these tournaments are done over the Thanksgiving Holiday and your team plays 2-3 games. Your football team is put in a bracket based on pre-set age and sometimes weight restrictions. Most tournaments have gone to unlimited weight with running back weights, with a few still having some total weight restricted divisions. The tournament host then puts teams into brackets based on record, perceived strength, historical league strength, coach preference, average age and sometimes average weight is considered as well. Most tournaments have very heavy restrictions as to verification of birth certificates and roster (no all-star teams) and most do weigh-ins the day of the games.
Back in my day, we lived in a different society and lived under different rules. We would play youth football teams from all over the country right here in Omaha at seasons end. The opposing players would stay in our homes during their stay.Our family made some life long friends through this process. I will never forget flying to Las Vegas in 1973, this being the first exciting plane ride for about 90% of our players.
Staying with families gave us a chance to bond with the other players and experience how they lived. In 1972 my team partner Joe Dukich and I got to stay with a black family in Kansas City and made some great friends. Of course in today’s world, staying with families to get this type of experience and save money on hotel costs would be out of the question.
Since then, my personal youth football teams have played in tournaments in Iowa, Kansas, Omaha and Kearney Nebraska and Florida. Where we played had a lot to do with how much money we had available, as traveling costs a lot of money. Back when I played, we sold raffles and would go out in groups on Friday and Saturday nights to local bars and bowling alleys to sell tickets. Each player had a quota to sell and the coaches got sponsors as well, again a different era, different rules. But of course there were no lodging or food expenses back then due to the players staying with host families, so we didn’t have to raise as much money.
My personal teams have not been able to play in the big Florida Thanksgiving tournaments based on several factors, one being money. The other is daylight savings time hits the first week in November or so and that means it gets dark around here at 5:30. We have never had a practice field with lights and we often see very cold temperatures and even snow at that time of year. The only time we could practice would be on weekends or in gyms. Gyms aren’t the best places to have a football practice and it’s also the time most basketball teams here start gearing up. We have not been able to secure gym time from any of the public schools in the area and even if we did, you can’t run your football plays all out in a gym.
Based on these factors, we have been limited to youth football tournaments that are earlier than Thanksgiving like the ones in Omaha, Council Bluffs Iowa, Kansas City Kansas (Johnston County) and the Snapper Bowl in Panama City Florida. The Omaha tournament is put on by a very sharp person “John” from Omaha’s Nebraska Midget Football League. It is very well run and organized and runs over a weekend. This youth football league invites teams from their league and others in the Midwest to participate. We are quite often the only local team not from their league invited to participate. We have won that tournament’s “A” Division Title a number of times. Monte O’Hara runs a very nice tournament with outstanding sportsmanship, officiating and pagentry, in Council Bluffs, Iowa with some games played at the University of Nebraska at Omaha stadium with field turf and under the lights. We have always done real well there as well and are often the only Nebraska team invited to play. The Lil Vikes tournament in Omaha is one we won several times and had great experiences 3 of the 4 years we played and were the only Omaha team outside their league invited on several occasions. The Kearney, Nebraska tournament was a great experience, with the opposing team taking our kids on a hayrack ride and even taking up a collection for us at the church services we shared. We won that one in the sleet and the pictures of our kids and theirs arm in arm after the game, all smiles covered in slush is one for the ages.
The Johnston County Kansas Youth Football Tournament is in the Kansas City area and often gets well over 100 teams from the Midwest to play. I’ve taken my youth football teams to play in that tournament for over 15 years and done real well, we won just last season. It is well run of late, the sportsmanship was good and the organizers did an excellent job. A great place to stay is the Great Wolfe Lodge Indoor Water Park and Hotel about 30 minutes from the fields. We had an incredible team swim party there after our big win this last season.
In 2003 two Screaming Eagle teams played in the Snapper Bowl in Panama City Florida, which is 6 hours closer to us than Daytona. We had an academic contest that year for our 14 teams that involved weekly school academic accountability reports filled out by their teachers. Two hard working teams won the contest and they had the time of their lives staying on the beach in Destin, Florida. A local “Angel” footed the bill of about $26,000 for two buses, lodging and food. Since we had no way to practice after Daylight savings time, the Snapper Bowl people (Harold Creel) arranged for us to play a game in the first week of November outside the context of the base tournament. The two Eagle teams that won the academic contest unfortunately were our 2 least competitive teams, so one played and lost in overtime and the other got beat by 4 scores. My personal team failed to win the academic contest and we were expecting at the time anyways, so it worked out for the best.
If you are planning an end of season trip, now is the time to get going on planning and raising funds.
Some other suggestions include being on your absolute best behavior and send a thank you note to the organizers signed by all your players. We often get invited back and even fees waived because of the overt sportsmanship our teams practice while playing in these youth football tournaments. Mr Creel from Florida was in awe of the overt sportsmanship of our players and fans, in his words we were “Too Good to be true.” We had a great time and made great friends. If you win big and ugly you won’t get the red carpet rolled out for you. Just last year I had three moms from the other team in Kansas City track me down after our game and just rave about how we were the best sportsmanship team they had seen in over 15 years of coming to the tournament. That was in a game we could have easily won by 40 plus points against a team twice our size. We always get invited back.
Several teams from our youth football league play in the top unlimited national tournament in the country in Daytona Beach, Florida. It is held over Thanksgiving weekend and features teams from all over the country. Here is the Bowl web site:
http://www.thenationals.net/football.htm. The reason I think this is a stronger bowl than Las Vegas is, we have seen teams from Omaha that have been beat by teams from our Omaha league go down and win the Las Vegas tournament. There are several very competitive Omaha teams from our League that have the resources to play in Daytona, they have lighted practice fields, plenty of money and one even has an indoor practice field. There are some benefits from being a suburban team. There are various divisions in the tournament, with the Omaha teams usually participating in the “Top Gun” Division, the best of the best. The KWAA Panthers and Omaha Thunder have won that Division four times in the last 10 years at the 13-14 age group and in 2006 the Thunder won another National Title in the 13-14 age Division.
When coaching youth football in tournaments you have to pace your team, as you will play 2-3 games in 2 days. You have to have your backups ready to play early and often and have plenty of players cross trained at other positions. You will see every imagineable offense, defense and even some good trick football plays.
The trip will be a blur of activity, managing the team, the hotel and activities and then scouting your opponents. At many youth football tournaments the games are spread out all over town, a real nightmare, try to avoid those. At Johnston County and others, all 10 fields are in one spot, so you don’t have to worry about directions or scouting, it is a youth football mecca with 20 teams playing at once.
If you have the chance to coach a youth football team that travels to out of state tournaments, do it, they can be a blast. You will be helping create life long memories for your youth football players.
See how good your team really is and enjoy the experience.