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Football for life: League teaches kids skills, life lessons

Fourth-grader Steven Tribula races to the edge of the sideline Tuesday, trying to get past Derrick Young, at the Boys and Girls Club field as part of the Bemidji Youth Football program's first week of games. Brian Matthews | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 2
Bucky, the Bemidji State University mascot, greets members of youth football before BSU’s first game of the season against Upper Iowa. The youth formed a gauntlet on the field to cheer on the university’s players. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer2 / 2

BEMIDJI – The yard lines are freshly painted, the footballs are aired up and the jerseys have been handed out. All of this can mean only one thing: the start of Bemidji Youth Football games on the Boys and Girls Club fields.

The 240 third- through fifth-graders that took the field for their first games this week are only the second group able to play youth football in Bemidji, as BYF began just one year ago.

BYF President Wes Hegna was a major contributor to getting the program off the ground last fall.

As a former Bemidji High School football player, Hegna said he realized the importance of teaching the fundamentals of football at a young age.

“My little brother was killed in a car accident in 1994 and we had always talked about having football because when we were little guys, we never had it,” Hegna said. “My reason was personal but I thought Bemidji needed it.”

The reality of BYF did not come quickly. A seven member board made up of local football supporters like Hegna, BHS football coach Troy Hendricks, Bemidji State University football coach Jeff Tesch and others.

To get things organized, Hegna looked at a variety of youth football programs around the state to see how things were done and help shape Bemidji’s program. One of the programs Hegna looked at was Eden Prairie’s, one of the state’s most recognized football towns because of the high school’s seven state championships since 1996.

“(Eden Prairie) is a powerhouse in our state for football so why reinvent the wheel?” Hegna said.

Hegna said Bemidji did not want to be part of Pop Warner, a national organization that provides youth football in 42 states. Hegna said he wanted to structure the league in a way to best prepare players for the style of football that Bemidji and Minnesota plays.

The rules of the game and the structure of the program would not have mattered if it were not for the generous donations from local businesses to help buy equipment.

Football at all levels has seen increased awareness on concussions, something Hegna said he wanted to address when fundraising and buying equipment for the players. He said the equipment is the youth version of what the Minnesota Vikings use.

“We gave them the best of the best,” Hegna said. “You can’t get any better equipment than what we put them in.”

In addition to the safe equipment, BYF focuses on teaching proper tackling techniques and avoiding unnecessary contact.

“We take the nose-guard and shade him right or left of center so the kid doesn’t get hit in the head every play,” Hegna said. “These kids are young and we want to teach them fundamentals.”

Trista Hurd, the mom of Skilah Hurd, the only female in the league, said she was a bit nervous about having her daughter playing football but is impressed by what the coaches do.

“When she started last year and I was a little nervous about her getting hurt because of the boys being bigger than her, but she has done fine,” Hurd said. “The coaches have done a great job.”

Skilah is one of the taller fourth-graders in the league, so players likely are more intimidated by her than she is of them. Her favorite part about football is tackling, leaving her much more fit to play the Jarred Allen role than the role of Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback for her favorite NFL team.

All of the coaches in the league are volunteers. Some do it because of their passion for the sport while others do it to support their children.

“I do it for the love of the game,” coach Tyler Kondos said. “I think it is a great way to develop our program. We are teaching the basics right from the get-go.”

Kondos teaches one of the third-grade teams so he sees a lot of players that are a little apprehensive about tackling guys that are bigger than they are, something he remembers when he was a small kid. He tries to teach those kids how to be aggressive and make tackles they never thought they could make.

“It is amazing what a third-grader can do,” Kondos said. “It doesn’t matter if the kid is 50 pounds, tackling someone that is 120 pounds. They are fearless.”

Other coaches like Joe Ogden, who coaches his son Dax, mentor players because it is in their blood. Ogden was a high school football coach for 10 years and when his kids got old enough to play, he jumped at the chance to coach them.

He said coaching football at this level is not only about teaching fundamentals, but about teaching things that translate off the field.

“Football is all about responsibility and accountability,” Ogden said. “If you don’t make the right block then the guy running the ball is not going to get a yard. It is about hard work, responsibility and accountability.”

Hegna said the first year was a success and with a year behind them it has gotten a little easier.

The season runs until the last week of October, finishing with a tournament Oct. 27 at Chet Anderson Stadium on the BSU campus.

Hegna said he has a long-term commitment to BYF and would eventually like to see it expand to include kindergarten through second-grade athletes. He does not have any biological kids in the program but that does not seem to matter.

“I actually have over 200,” Hegna said. “They are all my kids, every one of them. I find it very rewarding to see the kids learn to love the sport so much.”