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Youth Football: Starting Out

When to start

Children as young as five can play youth (e.g. Pop Warner) football.   They are assigned to different divisions depending on their weight and age to reduce the risk of injury from playing with kids much lighter or heavier than they are.  Even so, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children wait until middle school to play football.

While many children do participate in the Pop Warner league at a young age, football is also not a sport, like hockey, figure skating or gymnastics, that must be started as a young age in order for an athlete to excel later on.  In fact, many college and professional football players started playing in high school.

The Rules

Remember that the rules differ depending on the division and are NOT the same as those that apply at the high school, college and professional level.  Some of the biggest rule changes for the  "tiny-mite" division (players weighing between 35  and 75 pounds) from what those that apply at those higher levels are:

  • No kick offs: At the beginning of the game, the ball is placed on the 30-yard line.
  • No punting:  A team has two options on 4th down:  (1) run or pass the ball in an attempt to make a first down;  or (2) move the ball back to the opposing team's 30 yard line and let it resume play from there.

  • Shorter halves.  Each half is only 22 minute long (as opposed to 12 minute quarters at the high school level and 15 minute quarters at the college and pro levels)

  • Running clock.  The clock only stops for time outs (high school, college, and pro games stop after an incomplete pass or change of possession;  high school and college games stop after first downs are made to reset the chains)

  • Clock kept on the field.  The score is not kept on a scoreboard and there are no overtimes to break ties.

  • No extra points.  Touchdowns do not result in extra point attempts. 

Helmet safety

While it is important that your child wears all required safety equipment, the most important by far is the football helmet.  Most football helmets currently in use do little if anything to protect brains from the forces that cause concussions (although a new helmet by Xenith called the X1, which will be on the market starting in October 2008, holds out at least the promise of reducing the number of concussions in football) Parents should keep in mind the following:

  • An estimated half of all football helmets in use at the high school level have either been improperly reconditioned, have foam padding that has degraded over time, or fit poorly.  Only about one in five helmets is new; 

  • Helmets should be re-certified every year by an approved reconditioner, or discarded after three years of use;

  • Helmets need to fit properly,  examined for damage before each use and worn with an approved  mouth guard;
  • The chin strap, jaw pads and face masks should be adjusted to fit.
  • The helmet should be cleaned with water only and should not be painted or otherwise altered.

  • A helmet should not be used if the mask is bent more than one-eight inch, rusting, or loose.
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