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Rules of Engagement

An angry football coach says the city is keeping kids who want to play on the sidelines.

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The issue of how the city regulates its youth leagues especially provoked Savage after a teenager was charged months ago in the shooting death of Richmond Police Officer Douglas Wendel. The day he read about the killing in the news was the same day he learned that a kid who had practiced two weeks with the team wouldn’t be allowed to play. “You know what it’s like telling a kid he can’t play football?” he asks, incredulously. “That kid ran his butt off and was going to be a lineman. He was a gentle giant.”

Savage’s ire stems from two eligibility rules he says the city applies differently from surrounding county youth football leagues. The city goes by the year-born date in determining what division — minor, junior, senior, for example — in which a boy will play for the season. This means a boy who is 14 throughout the season and turns 15 in November — after the season has ended — nevertheless is considered 15. By comparison, Chesterfield and Henrico counties use August dates to determine the age and division that players fall into.

The city also invokes a weight restriction for players. If a teenager weighs more than 150 pounds, he simply can’t play. In some counties, such as Chesterfield, kids who weigh more than their division can play on the team — they just can’t run the ball or tackle the smaller kids. It’s called the stripe rule. A broad stripe marks the helmet of any player who exceeds the weight limit. This distinction lets referees, coaches and other players know he can’t carry the ball or tackle kids that could be a fraction of his weight.

Savage has spent 10 years coaching youth football — eight in Texas, one in Henrico and one in Richmond. In late October the Randolph Dragons scored their first touchdown. They’ll likely finish the season 0-4, Savage predicts, because Hurricane Isabel upset the schedule and eclipsed some games. He says it’s a victory that the team has simply held together.

Early last summer Savage called the city’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities and requested a team that needed some work. He got Randolph. Last year, the Dragons team fell apart after two games because it couldn’t maintain the necessary 15 players — or coaches — showing up to support it.

“You go in and you don’t know what to expect,” he says. “But this is a team of well-behaved 13- and 14-year-olds in a problem area who still want to play football. They don’t want to be in gangs. I’m no White Shadow and this story has nothing to do with race; it has everything to do with bad policy,” he says. In a city that should be the least restrictive, that barely has enough players for teams, any kid who wants to be able to play shouldn’t be excluded by an administration that won’t let him win.”

It’s not administrative insensitivity — it’s safety that drives the rules, stresses Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities spokeswoman Christy Everson. Each year she says the department reviews its regulations to determine fairness. And she maintains the city is committed to growing the program and serving the greatest number of kids it possibly can. She says the city welcomes input from coaches and will gladly weigh Savage’s concerns for next year.

Before the season started in September, Savage e-mailed the parks department to ask that the rules be changed to those the counties employ. He shows a reporter a series of e-mails he exchanged with the city. In them, Deputy Parks Director Marie Coone is conciliatory and thanks Savage for volunteering, but unequivocally states that the rules and the program appear to be working well the way they are.

Savage says he was reluctant to press the issue during the season because he didn’t want to jeopardize his standing with the league. But now that the games are over, he says, “I want a timetable for action.” He pledges to take the matter up with City Council. “The problem is squarely on the fourth floor of City Hall,” he says. “The people in the parks department are professional bureaucrats so committed to continuing the status quo they’ve lost focus. And kids are being failed by people who are paid to care.”

Savage points to youth leagues in the counties where football prevails. In Chesterfield an estimated 3,500 kids play football on hundreds of teams representing 30 athletic divisions. In Henrico an estimated 2,400 kids belong to football teams associated with at least 12 athletic associations. Richmond has 1,500 boys in its football program.

“It’s funny, Rich doesn’t have enough kids and we have so many they’re overflowing,” says Trey Holt, who coaches the Woolridge Wildcats, in the Chesterfield Quarterback League. Holt’s team of 10- and 11-year-olds boasts 44 players. His son is one who benefits from the stripe rule, he says, because his weight prohibits him from running the ball. “He works really hard and loves to contribute,” he says. “It’s all about the team.”

Bill Carlson, athletic manager for Chesterfield County, says it’s up to each league to set rules and regulations. “I don’t think Chesterfield is that much different, just tweaked different” from the city, he says, pointing out that things like the city’s social structure perhaps more than its subsidies can affect participation. Moreover, he says, “A lot of the issues with rules are for safety’s sake.” According to the Chesterfield Quarterback League a senior-division player can’t turn 14 before Aug. 1 — and if he does or if he weighs more than 130 pounds, he must have a stripe on his helmet.

“Regardless of when you put that age cutoff, someone’s going to get left out,” says Andy Crane, athletic manager in Henrico. There is no stripe rule in Henrico that Crane is aware of. Thirteen-year-olds, for instance, who weigh more than 185 pounds “can’t play, period,” he says. What’s more, Crane says that because the birth-date cutoff has caused so much debate among all youth-sports programs, more localities may be moving toward the year-born or January cutoff like Richmond uses.

Still, for Savage, it’s a matter of telling a kid who would be able to play in the county that he can’t because he’s in the city. He says the kids who couldn’t play this year have come to the Dragons’ home games at Clark Springs Elementary and watched from the sidelines. He maintains the city’s youth football league could become the kind of strong program touted in the counties, and that the city’s notoriously ailing high school teams could eventually reap the rewards. “You never know when you may find the one running back you can build a team around,” he says. “The potential and the desire is there but every season we lose another age group. And that’s criminal.” S

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