Pee Wees carry the ol' piglet-skin

As rough-and-tumble football goes, Pee Wee league play often skews toward the latter.

But there’s something in the crash of pads – tentative at first, more resounding with a little goading from a coach or two – that suggests these kids will, over the course of the fall season, grow into a tough, seasoned outfit.

“You’re dancing with him!” a coach chides, as a young player tries to tackle high on an oncoming rusher. “It’s not Friday night, it’s football!”

Barks another:

“Growl at him! Run him over and knock him on his butt!”

Gradually, the confidence comes and the players pound each other with more determination and resolve; grunts are emitted, legs and arms fly, knees and hips pick up the telltale badge of green.

After a week of conditioning drills, Monday’s turnout on the Strawberry Hill Park field marked the first chance for this year’s Bainbridge Pee Wee gridders to don pads and helmets.

The scene was festive. Parents and dogs milled about in the parking area, while the aspiring Pee Wee cheerleading squad worked on its jumps and kicks nearby. Late sign-ups got a first pep talk; the snack shack – which players were forbidden to visit, except for water – was open for spectators.

On the field, the youngsters were organized into a half-dozen squads, where they worked on such rudiments of the game as blocking, tackling and the three-point stance. Conditioning and agility work continued, with one hapless squad carrying bags back and forth across the gridiron on their heads.

For many, it’s their first experience with organized football. And depending on their athleticism and maturity, kids respond to the demands of the game in different ways – in some cases, with fear.

Longtime coach and now program director Wayne Houston cited one player who entered the Bainbridge program without any experience, and during games “sat under the stands and cried,” refusing to go in to play.

But over the course of the season, the youngster came to understand the sport and his role in it.

“Now he’s one of the dominant running backs out there,” Houston said.

This year’s Pee Wee program has attracted about 100 youths ages 7-14. That pool will be broken down into four or more teams – organized by age and weight, so those whose bodies are slightly ahead of or behind the growth curve will go up against other players their own size.

But there are lessons beyond the strategies and skills of the game itself.

“Winning’s not everything,” Houston said. “You learn lessons whether you win or lose. There’s always something to learn.”

In this manner, youth football continues to hold its own against the challenge of soccer, which on Bainbridge can be counted on to draw about 10 participants for every one on the gridiron.

Among the parents watching from the sidelines Monday was Stacy Peterson, whose 9-year-old son Drew has previously played soccer and baseball.

Peterson admits that she let her son grow a bit before he tried his hand at the rougher football, but credits organizers for keeping the players “really well padded.”

“They’re stressing safety and good sportsmanship,” Peterson said. “That’s the main combination for any sport.”

Pee Wee practices run five nights a week through August, a regimen that will be cut back once class starts.

“School is still first and foremost,” Houston said. “We tell ‘em that if they’re behind in their homework, we don’t want to see ‘em at practice.”

Starting in early September, teams will play every Saturday against a half-dozen or so squads from around Kitsap and North Mason County. Thanks to the addition of field lights a few years ago, each team will also have the thrill of at least one evening game.

“They keep asking the coaches, ‘When do the games start?’” she said. “They want to go.”

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