It’s August, the time of year where I return to my favorite volunteer activity: coaching youth football in Silver Spring. Youth sports, despite my lack of athletic prowess, were a big part of my childhood and were probably the only thing that kept me reaching the age of 20 with any semblance of physical conditioning. To a suburban child, youth sports will offer exercise and teach social integration in a safe environment.
Exercise is a valuable commodity in the suburbs. You don’t burn many calories from the passenger seat of a minivan. The extreme, of course, is Saratoga Springs, where a student was recently punished for riding his bike to school in the name of safety. Social integration is also more valuable in the suburbs. Suburban children grow up cloistered in pods that effectively segregate socio-economic classes from each other. And despite the marketing, the suburbs are not the safest place to be a kid. So a program that offers exercise, social integration, and safety ought not be undervalued, be it football, swimming, ballet, or whatever.
The Silver Spring Saints, for whom I coach, are one of the oldest youth programs still in existence in the DC area. When I played on this team as a youth, however, it was Saint Bernadette’s, a Catholic Youth Organization program. CYO football went under in 1995, and the Silver Spring Saints rose from the ashes, playing their home games at Saint Bernadette’s field. During the CYO days, Saint Bernadette’s had two teams with about 23 players per team. At its peak, the CYO had 40 or 50 such teams in Montgomery, Prince George’s, and DC, broken into geographic-based divisions. It was the premier youth football program in Maryland for decades.
When the Silver Spring Saints joined the Capital Beltway League in 1995, the one-time parish-oriented program had to struggle to field teams in six weight classes, effectively tripling the size of the program overnight and drawing in players from a much larger area. As it struggled with finding enough players, the notion of playing games close by started to disappear. Montgomery Village, Clinton, Germantown, and Bowie were now the away games instead of other small teams in Silver Spring, Wheaton, and Rockville. This season, the Saints have joined the Mid-Maryland League to escape the poor organization of the CBL. They are now required to field 12 teams. Many of them will only have about 15 or 16 players, while 24 is the ideal number at the youth level. (There are 11 on the field at a time. An NFL team has 53 players.)
Growing up in a single parent household, the organization gave me male role models, goals, and a sense of belonging that every boy should experience. But in the time between when I played and now that I coach, it has gone from a “mom and pop” program belonging to a community organization to a “big box” program. The parish still has a strong influence on the program, which kept the focus on the players instead of championships and egos (though we win our share of games).
Now, it’s hard to imagine youth football now without cars and giant parking lots at each field, where every program plays 12 games every Saturday and teams drive up to 80 miles to play each other. But it hasn’t been that way throughout the history of the Silver Spring Saints. For their very first game 58 years ago, the first 12 Saints played Saint Micheal’s of downtown Silver Spring, two miles away from Saint Bernadette’s. To get there, they took a Capitol Transit Bus.