Youth Football Program Has Had Numerous Changes Throughout Its Storied History
This is the third in a series of four articles covering Newtown Youth Football & Cheer as the organization celebrates the 50th anniversary of the youth program. Three weeks ago, The Bee published an overview of the program; two weeks ago a feature on cheerleading ran in The Bee; check back for a piece that focuses on the parent volunteers.
Over the course of 50 years, there are going to be changes. While girls and boys have participated in cheerleading and football at the youth level in town for a past half century, and Newtown Youth Football & Cheer has been a fall fixture on the grass behind Hawley School through all of these turns of the calendar, there have been some variations to the theme.
In 2005, Newtown’s program ended its long affiliation with Pop Warner football (the organization under which it began back in 1969) and began association with American Youth Football (AYF), in part for the opportunity to have players compete with peers closer in age. The weight-based Pop Warner program meant participants that were a few years older and more mature were competing with younger lesser-experienced players.
Back when Mark Faller first stated playing football — he was one of the program’s first players, during the inaugural 1969 campaign — the youth program players had to be weighed prior to games. Faller remembers trying to make the 115-pound weight cut and said sometimes team members would end up a half pound or so over the cutoff.
“If you tipped the scale, you put your pads back on and you ran and ran and worked up a sweat,” Faller said. “It was a different time for sure.”
Newtown was part of the Candlewood Valley League under American Youth Football (AYF) until the 2010 season. In 2011, several teams, including Newtown, left the Candlewood Valley League due to the fact it was no longer affiliated with AYF which was an age-protected, weight-unlimited association for football, according to Sean Dunn, who served as president of the program from 2008 through 2014. These teams remained under the AYF umbrella and formed Colonial Youth Football and Cheer. After the 2011 season, the New England region of the United league folded, resulting in a renewal with the Candlewood Valley League. In 2014, the teams joined the Shoreline conference for more parity, Dunn said.
This past weekend, the program kicked off its 50th anniversary season and sixth season in the Shoreline Conference.
Numbers in the football program have fluctuated a bit due to a variety of factors, including population chances and an increase in soccer popularity a few decades ago.
“It’s had its ups and downs. When I first started, certainly it had a lot of kids, and when soccer started getting big in Newtown, the numbers went down for a while,” said Jack Shpunt, who coached in the program each year from 1972 through last fall.
Shpunt added that the numbers increased again when the Colonial league came to be. There have been more than 200 players in the program at its peak and were about 150 or so last fall, Shpunt said. Shpunt remembers seasons in which the program fielded multiple teams in the same division.
On the whole, the program has expanded significantly from when it all began. As was documented in the 1969 issues of The Bee, it started with just two teams — one for older children, called the Lions; and one for the youngest players, called the Mighty Mites. Throughout the years, the Cubs and Bears were added. The program took on the Nighthawk name after Newtown High School changed its mascot in the 1990s. Now there are six teams — one combined squad for grades two and three, and teams for grades four through eight — each with a cheer squad there to not only support the gridders but also participate in their own competitions.
Injuries are always a topic of discussion in sports, no matter what the athletic activity. Concerns about concussions have come to the forefront in the past couple of decades, and the days of players simply getting the diagnosis of having their bell rung and being allowed to resume playing are no longer acceptable.
The biggest difference between football then and now is “technology. It’s a lot safer,” according to Rich Guman, director of football operations for the program, a role he has held since 2016. Guman, who also coached from 2013 through 2018, played a season in the program back in the middle 1970s.
There must be at least one coach who is CPR-certified, and each coach must be USA Tackle Football-certified.
“That’s the biggest change — it’s much more safety-oriented,” Shpunt concurs.
“The biggest change is to equipment being used, especially the helmets. (Newtown Youth Football) always did a great job of purchasing the latest and best equipment available for the safety of the players,”said Pat Smith, who coached from 2005 through 2013.
Smith’s teams included his son, Colton, and won a handful of Candlewood Valley League championships and captured the state championship and New England Regional titles, along with American Youth Football national championship.
Joe DeVellis, who served as a head or assistant coach from 2000-10 and was vice president of the program for a few years, said the Newtown Youth Football has always taken a safety-first approach.
“Over the years, concentration has been on having the best equipment they can find, from state-of-the-art helmets, shoulder pads, hip pads, girdles, pants, etcetera. Each player is fitted for their own helmet and shoulder pads. All players are fitted for the proper size pants and other body pads that are needed to play. At one time, I believe the youth program had better equipment than the high school football program. Over the years our coaches at the youth level began working more and more with the high school coaches. Coaches meetings and clinics are held prior to the season and during the season to help youth coaches learn new and proper techniques of playing football today. Along with the high school coaches, the youth coaches receive CPR training as well. Presently, less contact drills and full contact scrimmaging during the week of youth football has lessened quite a bit today and more is done to better prepare players physically,” DeVellis said
“All four of my sons played and never had injuries at the youth level. Thinking back in all the years that I was involved, we had some injuries due to players falling on their shoulders the wrong way. I do not remember serious injuries due to crushing tackles or blocks,” said DeVellis, whose sons Joey, Jake, Justin, and Jaret all played a dozen years of football in town, starting with the youth program and continuing through high school.
The approach of coaching, not limited to football of course, has changed throughout the years. Shpunt said he was never a coach to yell but that, in general, the coaches raised their voices a lot more in decades gone by.
“The coaches used to yell and scream at the kids. Now you don’t see that,” said Shpunt, explaining that it was yelling to motivate, not be demeaning to players. “You see the coaches become much more worried about the welfare of the kids now than before.”
The style of play is not so different that it was decades ago, Shpunt said. The terminology is the thing that has changed most about the X’s and O’s of the game, according to Shpunt, who notices an increase in the popularity of the spread offense in recent years, but a lot of the same types of plays that were used 40-plus years ago.
“It’s a lot more technical now. They’ve got new names for everything. They’re the same plays; they’ve just got new names. It hasn’t changed much,” Shpunt said.
Cheerleading, like football, has changed significantly throughout the decades, most notably with the cheers themselves becoming more complex. More details may be found in the article “Youth Cheer Program Celebrates Five Decades Of Rooting For The Gridders And Competing,” which ran in the August 30 edition of The Bee.