Jennifer Charlton-Dennis, representing the parents of fourth- and fifth-grade students, sent a letter Western Reserve High School athletic director Ryan Falknor so he could reconsider his possible decision. Charlton-Dennis said her oldest son “graduated” from the program and her “middle son” is a current member.
“Over the course of the last few weeks, us fourth- and fifth-grade parents have been astounded by your decision to possibly eliminate the youth tackle football program at Western Reserve Elementary. We are asking you to please take a few minutes of your time to read this letter and please reconsider your decision,” wrote Charlton-Dennis, who emailed the letter to the Reflector.
Noting that parents sign a waiver each year relieving the school of any liability for any injury that may occur, “just like every sport at WR,” the Wakeman mother said “we completely fund our own program, unlike other sports (which) are supported by the athletic boosters and we do a very good job.”
“There is some fallacy that you lose players from elementary to high school; 90 percent of the youth tackle players (who) graduated from this program have advanced to middle and high school. We have also had many kids over the years, from other districts, come to play for WR youth football because our program is run so well. Those boys are now playing at their home schools for middle and high school football,” added Charlton-Dennis, whose nephew plays football for Huron Middle School.
The Western youth football is a community-based program run by volunteers. With the exception of St. Paul, the team typically plays all the Firelands Conference teams. The Western program has been in existence for about 15 years.
“Western Reserve Local Schools allows the group to use Western Reserve facilities, as we do with many community-based programs. Western Reserve Local Schools has no direct oversight in the operation of the community youth football program,” Falknor said.
“The Firelands Conference athletic directors have had conversations about the decline in participation in many sports and numbers related to (the) seventh- through 12th-grade football programs as well. We have explored many of the reasons and factors that may be related to this topic. The Firelands Conference has not come to any resolutions as to what kind of assistance, if any, we would like to recommend to our member schools in determining what we feel the best course of action may be.”
This season the Western team had 24 players.
“Last year we had 53 kids (and) 52 the year before,” said Ryan Berry, who has run the program for the last four years.
Berry, who has assisted with the program for 12 years, said Western allows the program to distribute registration forms through the school, the athletic boosters help fund insurance costs, while the fees from the gate, registration and money made at the concession stand supports the program.
“We are completely self-funded,” he added, noting the players are taught proper stances, “the proper way to hit” and basic plays. “Coach (Ty) Stevenson shared his playbook with us this year. … He seems very supportive of the tackle program.”
While Stevenson said he is “aware of conversations the league athletic directors have had to try and help raise participation numbers in football,” but he’s “not aware of any formal conversations the football coaches have had on the same topic.”
Berry said the Western football coach has been so supportive of the youth program that Stevenson and many members of his team “even showed up and rode on the float” with the young players during the recent Wakeman Fireman’s Festival.
“Almost the entire team was there,” added Berry, who said the children equate the varsity players with those from the NFL since they watch them play on Friday nights.
Charlton-Dennis said she believes the youth tackle-football program prepares the children for playing in middle and high school, in addition to teaching them techniques they wouldn’t get from playing flag football.
“These children in flag football are going to be completely blindsided by the force of a 5-foot-8-inch 150-plus pound middle-school adolescent tackling them at full force,” she wrote to Falknor.
“They learn how to properly wrap and tackle, they learn about precision, they learn about delivering under pressure. If you have ever watched a child who has never tackled or has been tackled before, you would understand. If the youth tackle program is eliminated and you rely on flag football, in my professional opinion as an educator, you will have more injuries and less players advance because they will not be experienced, properly trained or educated in tackle football.”
Former varsity football coach Mike Stoll regularly hosted a camp for youth. Berry said, given the timing of hiring Stevenson this year, he wasn’t able to do so.
“He said he might do the program next year,” Berry added.
Charlton-Dennis, a Western substitute educational assistant, said one of the most important aspects of the program is the family atmosphere, which “brings our community together for both football and cheerleading.”
“These kids are each other’s best friends, teammates and family. This program teaches them about dedication, perseverance, determination, drive and how to work together as a team. This program builds them up and shapes these young kids into amazing young men and women,” she wrote in her letter.
“This program has the biggest support team in the district. Our stands are always filled with support from the parents and community at both home and away games more than any other team that I have seen. Our cheerleaders are always loud and proud, the crowd is always cheering and the staff is always encouraging them to do their best.”
Currently, Western Reserve community members have two options available to elementary-age students for youth football-related activities — the community flag football and youth full-contact programs.
“I appreciate the dialogue our two program directors have had with our athletic department,” Falknor said. “If any of our community members would like to talk to me personally about Western Reserve athletics, I encourage them to call me in my office at 419-668-8470.”