Iowa innovation grows football through the Football Development Model

By Steve Alic

The Football Development Model (FDM) has established roots in Iowa, where a community league is piloting USA Football’s recommended strategy for player progression of athleticism and fundamental skills through a range of football game types. The prototype has been nothing short of a huge success.

The Iowa Developmental Youth Football League (IDYFL) is changing how the game is played, taught and experienced for third-through-sixth graders. Based 20 miles outside the state capital of Des Moines, the four-community league is piloting USA Football’s Football Development Model (FDM). The FDM delivers a progression of athleticism and fundamental football skills through a range of football game types.

In 2017, Dallas Center-Grimes (Iowa) High School head coach Scott Heitland learned of modified football game types at USA Football’s annual National Conference in Orlando, Fla. The idea of matching fun, engaging game play and skill instruction with a child’s physical and cognitive abilities inspired him to bring the concept home.

“What sparked it for me was watching my own son – he was 7-years-old and playing youth baseball – and he was playing modified games,” Heitland said. “Smaller diamonds, shorter base paths, coach pitch and t-ball. Football wasn’t doing the same. There was no pathway or progression.”

The IDYFL unites the Iowa communities of Norwalk, Johnston, Dallas Center-Grimes and Adel-De Soto-Minburn, collectively known as “ADM.” Driven by Heitland’s inspired encouragement, the communities’ four youth football clubs agreed to create the new league. Its eight-person board consists of four youth league presidents (one from each community) and the four varsity high school coaches of the four areas, including Heitland, who now serves USA Football’s FDM Council.

“When we shared news of our new model and the direction we were moving to, we called a community meeting, led by our four communities’ youth league presidents and head varsity high school coaches,” said Tyler Tripp, the president of the board for the Norwalk Youth Football League. “We shared what we wanted to accomplish and every parent in that room could see that our motivation was sincere – we wanted what was best for their kids. Some had initial concerns, but all were very supportive. All of us took a leap of faith.

“It’s a partnership across the board for everyone.”

IDYFL 3rd graders play flag; 4th graders play padded flag (wearing full equipment, but not tackling); 5th graders play 8-on-8 Rookie Tackle; and 6th graders play 11-on-11 tackle.

With approximately 550 players today, the league’s four community programs are experiencing a 65 percent increase in participation from when 11-player tackle was last played in all four divisions two years ago (340 players).

Mark Hargrafen of Dallas Center-Grimes is the dad of a 3rd grader and coaches his son’s team. A member of the Wartburg (Iowa) College Athletic Hall of Fame, Hargrafen played guard for the Knights’ football program in the 1990s. He sees the FDM as a smarter and safer path for his son.

“I thought that the model was progressive, just like the football I see practiced and played at the highest levels,” he said. “Contact is minimized. It’s not your father’s football and it doesn’t need to be. When I played college football, we were a glorified powerlifting team – it’s not that way anymore. It’s about agility, athleticism, physical literacy.”

League leadership already has received inquiries from neighboring towns interested to join and expand the IDYFL. Scott Mikkelsen, president of the Dallas Center-Grimes youth football program, credits a “can-do” attitude for the league’s blossoming success.

“You need a group of youth board presidents that are flexible and high school coaches who will lend their time to it,” Mikkelsen said of the new league. “We could not have done this without the involvement of the high school coaches – you cannot overstate how important that is. This would have taken years (to accomplish) without them.”

As a high school coach involved with his city’s youth program, Heitland has an overarching philosophy that inspires the IDYFL’s vision.

“I don’t dictate to our youth coaches, but I do tell them, ‘Don’t go through a practice without teaching blocking and tackling fundamentals that you learned at USA Football trainings,’” he said. “I don’t care what offense they run – I want kids to have a good experience, learn the fundamentals and come back to play next year.”

USA Football will launch the FDM nationally in 2020, which you can learn more about at