LEE'S SUMMIT, Mo. -- Football's overall head count is in decline nationally, as parents elect to steer clear of injury to their kids. However, that's not the case in one Lee's Summit youth football league.
While enrollment in other leagues is down, the number of players in the Lee’s Summit Football Association has grown from being around 800 in 2013 to more than 850 for this season.
League Commissioner Tom Benassi says his coaches have introduced flag football for players younger than third grade in an effort to expose players to the game at a younger age and teach good habits from the get-go.
Benassi is a former college player who also coaches one of the 59 teams in his league. He says flag football allows kids to learn at their own pace.
"When they're ready to make the transition into the more physical tackle. Some kids are ready to make the transition at age nine or 10," Benassi said. "Others aren't ready until they're 12 or 13."
For team parents like Stephanie Roberts, waiting to teach tackling makes a difference.
"That's what you want to develop into," Roberts said. "Being able to have the flag and learn the fundamentals of the game as you grow makes it a lot easier for them to slide into tackle football."
Benassi says the Lee’s Summit Football Association also assigns players to teams based on their future high schools. For instance, future Lee’s Summit North students are assigned to play together. It's the same for students who will attend Lee’s Summit High School and Lee’s Summit West High School.
Past seeds planted on the youth gridirons are blossoming. Lee’s Summit West Coach Royce Bohem says he can often tell when a player has been involved in the local youth league.
"It's all about getting a ball in their hands, and getting them familiar with the game of football," Boehm said.
Benassi and Boehm agree that sense of three communities in one league has developed an early sense of pride in each family's future high school program, which means more than plays in a playbook could ever mean.
Games for the Lee’s Summit Football Association won't begin until early September. Coaches say they're using the days before school begins for extra practice time.
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