By Barrett Neale
Players in the NFL are getting bigger -- Ravens offensive lineman Bryant McKinnie weighs 354 pounds -- yet many youth football programs set weight limits for their players.
The Baltimore Terrapins in northwest Baltimore are going against that tradition, giving young athletes an opportunity to play football regardless of their weight. Kweisi Ehoize and Dorian Gray co-founded the program, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and are accepting 7- to 14-year-old players for its inaugural season this fall.
"Traditional Pop Warner football, its weight restriction at its oldest level is 160 pounds," Ehoize said. "Any kid over 160 pounds can't play football. Most likely, the kid that's 160 pounds, he needs that activity."
Ehoize played youth football and one year of high school football. He has been coaching unlimited-weight youth football for nine years, since his son started playing the sport.
"When he was in the sixth grade, he wanted to play football," Ehoize said. "I took him to a program and they put him on a scale and the coach said: 'Yeah, he weighs too much. We can't use him.'
"It was heartbreaking for him. … I was riding around and I found a program that could take him. They were just starting out, and I just started coaching with him. … I caught the bug, and I've been coaching ever since."
About a year ago, Ehoize put together a proposal to start the Terrapins team and contacted community organizations to try to raise funds to get the program started. Julius Colon, president of the Park Heights Renaissance, gave Ehoize some tips, and the Abell Foundation and Sports Boosters contributed grants.
Ehoize originally budgeted for one team with 25 players, but said there had been so much interest that there were four teams -- 8U, 10U, 12U and 14U -- with a maximum total capacity of 90 players for the first year.
All players get new helmets to help minimize the risk of a concussion, another hot topic in youth sports. Ehoize said all Terrapins staff members were required to take a training course from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to learn how to prevent, recognize and respond to concussions. Parents also receive literature about concussion awareness at the mandatory parents' meeting.
"All of the helmets have bought-on dates," Ehoize said. "Every couple of years, you need to have your helmets reconditioned, and they're sent back to a facility. … Any helmet that's over 10 years old, regardless of its condition, if it sat in a box for 10 years, it cannot be reconditioned. It gets pulled out. That's been a good thing for youth football. Programs are strapped for cash. You get a lot of programs that never get their helmets reconditioned or keep old helmets in use."
Each Terrapins player has to pay a $200 registration fee to cover equipment, uniforms and other costs, but Ehoize said finances would not dictate whether a child could play. If a player cannot afford the fee, there are player sponsorships.
The Terrapins have had workouts since May, and official practices since late July. Ehoize said the coaches stressed fundamentals, because so many of the players had never played before. There are also some experienced players, who have had to move to unlimited-weight football as they have gotten older.
"Every player is guaranteed to play every single game, as long as he comes to practice on a regular basis," Ehoize said. "We don't have tryouts. If a kid walks on the field and he wants to play, he can play."
The Terrapins' first game is Sept. 1, and they will be playing teams in the Greater Metropolitan Youth Football League, which includes teams based in Baltimore and Prince George's County.
"It's an experience for the players," Ehoize said, "and, especially for the kids here in the city, to get them out of it, show them that there's something more out there. It's not just their neighborhood."
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Issue 176: August 2012