by Dan Holland
As a former high school football coach and father of five, Independence resident Joel Woods was inspired to start a new youth travel league in early 2020. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
After Woods reached out to Independence high and middle school football coaches for input, he forged ahead despite challenges. The fledgling league had 53 participants in its first year.
“I’m an entrepreneur, so I said, ‘Let’s do it – let’s get this figured out,’” he said. “I felt like this year the kids needed something. It would have been easy to fold the cards, but kids need something positive to be around, and football teaches a lot of life lessons.”
Creating the program, Woods contacted a number of communities to ascertain what type of youth football programs were in place.
“Independence has a great K-2 program for little guys, but for third through sixth grade they just had rec league flag football,” he said. “They didn’t have any kind of tackle football program for that age group, so I was looking around at what other communities were doing, and I saw that a lot of them had youth tackle football programs in place.”
The Chagrin Valley Conference, of which Independence Local Schools is a member, also expressed interest in starting a youth football program within communities in the conference, according to Woods.
“It just happened to coincide with what we were going to do,” he said. “They were going to do flag and rookie tackle, but a lot of the schools backed out once COVID hit, so we kind of had to pivot. We had fifth- and sixth-grade rookie tackle, which is 7-on-7 with pads, with different rules and a smaller field.”
Several communities have padded flag games for third- and fourth-graders, Woods said.
“We wanted to offer both options, but no one wanted to play regular flag last year,” he said. “All the kids [in grades three and four] ended up doing padded flag.”
This year, the league will offer flag and padded flag for third- and fourth-graders. Rookie tackle will be available for fifth- and-sixth graders.
“You really want to get kids prepared for when they’re in middle school,” Woods said. “I did some research and found this organization called USA Football, a national organization, that had all of these best practices in place, certification for coaches and new styles for modernized youth football games with rules for safer contact.”
The league, in partnership with the city of Independence Recreation Department and the high school football program, will offer winter skills camp, sweats and skills, spring flag football (new this year), victory camp, summer skills camp, Jr. Blue Devils Olympics and flag camp.
Independence head football coach Rick Adams, along with members of the varsity football team, are involved with the league and a number of the camps.
“He’s been great,” Woods said of Adams. “He’s been trying to integrate youth through high school together into one K-12 overarching program and building a culture.”
All COVID-19 precautions are closely adhered to in the league.
“[COVID] was a big part of it because we needed parents to trust us for safety from all angles,” Woods said. “We developed a really good relationship with our middle school and high school football coaches. They had all the COVID practices in place, and they just kind of filtered those practices down to us.”
Safety in general is a prime area of concern for Woods.
“There are new tackling techniques, more like rugby-style,’’ he said. “Our coaches are all certified in these techniques so that we’re all unified and doing the same things. The helmets are more advanced nowadays as well. We do everything within our power to make it as safe as possible.”
The league will utilize the old middle school football field on Stone Road for most practices and home games. Last year’s games were mostly played on the road in Avon and Rocky River, whose programs combined with Independence.
Having fun is the most important element for the kids, Woods said.
“The sport of football, because it’s so challenging and physical, it deepens friendships, and it’s going to build character,” he said. “We try to teach football in a way so that it will make you better in every sport. But the number one thing is that you’re going to have fun.”
For information on the league, visit independenceyouthfootball.com.
Feature image photo caption: The Independence Youth Football third- and fourth-grade padded flag team celebrates after its first win in program history. Team members include (back, l-r) coach Joel Woods, Matt Avila, Evan Moennich, David DiGeronimo and coach Jack Junker; (front, l-r) Griffin Junker, Dominic Marek, Asher Woods (in front), Charlie Junker, Dominic DiGeronimo and Joey DiGeronimo. Photo courtesy Joel Woods