The East Alabama Gators and the South Highland Cowboys of the Northeast Alabama Youth Football League will face off today at 10 a.m. in Gadsden. The winner will move on to their seven-team league’s championship game on Nov. 10.
It’s the culmination of a season that began in September for pint-sized players as young as preschool age.
The kids love it. The Cowboys B-team is populated with kids who have been coming back to play for years. Khalial Peoples, 11, has played for six years. This year, he’s the team’s defensive end and offensive guard. Peoples, big for an 11-year-old, said he likes tackling people.
“Football is fun,” Peoples said after a recent afternoon practice.
He plans to play football and basketball in high school and he said what he’s learning now will help him get on the team.
“I get older and I get better,” Peoples said.
His coach and president of the South Highland Cowboys, Darneil Kite, said he’s been coaching kids for 11 years. One thing that makes the league different from other leagues, he said, is that the football players are placed on a team by age instead of weight. That means Peoples can still play with kids his age. That’s important, Kite said, because the program is cumulative. If a child skips ahead, he’s playing with kids of a different skill level, Kite said.
“Regardless, he’s still 11 years old,” Kite said.
The coaches do limit the positions the larger players can play, Kite said.
“There’s not too many he can play being his size,” Kite said of Peoples. “He can play offensive guard and defense.”
The Gators have 120 children in their four-team program: 95 boys on the teams and 25 girls who serve as cheerleaders, said one of the football coaches, Chris Lewullis.
The aim, said Lewullis, is to create not just good football players, but good men and women.
Organizers involve the players in raising money for uniforms and fees through car washes, bake and doughnut sales, gas card raffles and a football camp. They also require team members to make good grades and keep their homework up to date.
“If you make a bad grade, you can’t play this week,” said Tanquella Fegans, team treasurer.
That’s true of other teams as well. Rufus Jones, 10, a second-year player for the Cowboys, said his last report card was all As and Bs, but he said he makes good grades all the time.
“If you didn’t make good grades, you wouldn’t get to play and you wouldn’t get noticed by bigger teams,” Jones said.
Fegans and her husband Antwon, president of the team, have seven children in the Gators’ program.
They helped start the independent team because they wanted to see as many students as possible on a team, even if they couldn’t pay the $35 to $50 registration fee.
“We didn’t want to leave a child behind,” Antwon Fegans said.
Shayna Mackey, another founding member of the Gators, said youth football can also unite communities.
She used to cheer for the youth leagues when she was a girl, at a time when everybody in Calhoun County played at Ezell Park. She made friends from all over the county at the games.
“A lot of the people that cheered, we’re still friends,” Mackey said. “That’s how we know everyone in the community.”
Last year, her 9-year-old son Shaynadd played in the Oxford league where they live. But in that league, the players only play against other Oxford children. She wanted him to meet people from all over the community. So when the opportunity came to form the Gators, she was all for it. This year, her 7-year-old daughter cheered for the teams while her son played football. She’s pleased with the results.
“I have seen a difference in my son,” Mackey said. “He’s come out of his shell.”
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.