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Youngsters Tackle Football

Pop Warner leagues stress teamwork, skills, and scholarship in 8-to-16-year-olds

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BUILT like a small fireplug, the eight-year-old boy runs wind sprints with a slogging, bump-ing group of players. They move as though their football helmets, pads, and uniforms weigh a ton. The boy's muddy red jersey bunches over his padded hips, and flops in the wind. His helmet is so big it's difficult for him to see very far to the right or the left.

``Hey,'' yells a coach, ``tuck in your laundry!''

At least eight little fireplugs slow down and feel for jerseys hanging out.

This is Pop Warner football at a late-afternoon practice, where a steady mist is turning the well-used field into light mud. Groups of kids ranging from stumpy eight-year-olds to gangling 16-year-olds crash into each other. For the most part, they love it.

Dotted around the field are parents under umbrellas watching the action. For the most part, they love it if their kids do.

At hundreds of football fields in 35 states, this scene is being repeated as youngsters arranged on teams by age and weight prepare for weekend games. Add the many squads of little cheerleaders on the sidelines, and the Pop Warner leagues duplicate the football ``culture'' of high schools, colleges, and pro teams in the United States.

John Butler, executive director of the Pop Warner leagues at their headquarters in Langhorne, Pa., says that in 1992, approximately 190,000 boys and a few girls played football in Pop Warner leagues, including flag football. ``As far as I know,'' he says, ``we are the only national athletic organization that insists on satisfactory progress in school for participation.''

``You see this happening more and more,'' says Robert Schleser, director of the Center for Sports Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, ``linking educational results in sports leagues for kids. It's positive.''

In fact, the official name for the organization is Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc. - not the way the group has been known, but rather the way it wants to become known. The league began in the late 1920s in Philadelphia when the lives of young vandals were turned around by playing football. Later, the league was named for Pop Warner, a Knute Rockne-kind of coach who coached Jim Thorpe at Carlisle College in Pennsylvania, as well as teams at Stanford, Iowa State, and Cornell.

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