by Kara Hansen
Special to The Leaven
ROELAND PARK — The Super Bowl comes early for the youngest football players in the archdiocese.
They may not be playing for the same level of glory and recognition as the National Football League, but the “No pain, no gain” motto applies just the same.
Four championship games were played Oct. 31 at Roeland Park’s Bishop Miege High School for the 5th-, 6th-, 7th- and 8th-grade Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) teams. Two championship games were played Oct. 28 for the split 5th/6thgrade teams and 7th/8th-grade teams, also at Bishop Miege.
“It was one of the most fun and entertaining CYO football games I’ve been to,” said Rich Graham, a 7th-grade football coach and football program coordinator for Curé of Ars School in Leawood.
The 7th-grade Curé of Ars team played in a thriller of a game against Olathe’s Prince of Peace, leading to a double overtime victory for Curé.
“This team really didn’t quit. They were really good at practicing — they listen well and were very ‘coachable,’” said Graham.
While a championship and its perfect 8-0 record give the Curé team much to be proud of — in fact, the team has yet to lose a game in the three years they have been playing together — Graham said playing CYO football goes far beyond the winning.
“We like to win, but the more important things are having fun and learning,” said Graham. “Football teaches the kids a lot because it’s a real team sport and they have to get along with each other and rely on each other. Even if you have a great running back on a team, that won’t matter if the line doesn’t block. The kids learn what it’s like to be part of a true team and not a group of individuals.”
Graham is not the only CYO football coach who sees the team sport as excellent preparation — not just for high school football, but for life as well.
“Football is a microcosm of life,” said Chris Wright, an 8th-grade coach and football program coordinator at Prince of Peace School. “You win some and lose some, and you set common goals together and work toward them. Each person has to do their job and trust each other in executing every play.”
This year, Prince of Peace’s 8th-grade football team executed its plays just well enough to defeat Leawood’s Nativity 8-6 for the season championship.
“Nativity played a really tough match and were well-prepared,” said Wright. “The score was 8-6 at the end of the first quarter and, after that, it was a battle to see who could keep each other pinned deep.”
Wright said much of the success experienced in Prince of Peace’s program can be attributed to the support of parents.
“Our parents have been unbelievable with fundraisers, and they’re very supportive of the teams, program, and overall vision,” said Wright.
Wright said he has seen Prince of Peace’s football program make tremendous gains in the nine years he has been coaching there.
“When I first came, one to two wins would have been considered a good season,” said Wright. “Now we have three of our four teams advance to the championship game. We’ve been able to foster the mentality of having a true football program as a whole, and that’s helped us be successful over the past few years.
“We represent the boys and coaches who have played before us, and we’re building the foundation for those who come after us.”
Graham said one of the biggest challenges to coaching young teens was keeping them motivated.
“Everyone wants to play, but the reality in football is you practice three to four times more than you play,” he said. “It can be hard to keep that focus and dedication when you’re running a play for the 100th time — both for the players and for the coaches to keep it fresh.”
Even from the daily grind of practice, Graham said, there were basic lessons kids could take with them for life.
“Practice is important and it’s how you improve,” said Graham. “They’re learning important things like commitment and doing things the right way.”
Wright said he hopes his players take far more than a love of football with them when they are done playing the sport.
“Football gives them the opportunity to succeed, have camaraderie, and build character,” he said. “If our players go on to play in high school or college, that’s just the icing on the cake.”