Minnesota youth league wins fans, more players

By Brett Douglas

A community in Minnesota has found that Rookie Tackle has helped increase player participation by providing a bridge between flag football and tackle. The hybrid level of football features small-sided games on smaller fields and gives coaches an opportunity to give youth players an instructional experience.

Although it’s difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, many coaches’ eyes are being opened to a smarter, reimagined way to play football.

Matt Gegenheimer, 14-year varsity head coach of Prior Lake High School, rides the crest of the 21st century football wave.

In Prior Lake, Minn., Rookie Tackle, a game type made popular by USA Football, bridges the gap between flag and 11-player tackle. A catalyst for developing skills and football smarts, Rookie Tackle is winning coaches over and increasing player participation.

“I firmly believe it has changed our community,” said Gegenheimer, who also is an ambassador for the Prior Lake Athletics for Youth (P.L.A.Y), and helped initiate the Minneapolis suburb’s adoption of Rookie Tackle on third- and fourth-grade levels. “Our community is all in and I think Rookie Tackle has been huge in growing the game of football at Prior Lake.”

Player development and safety are key components of the game type. Along with scaling the traditional football field’s size, skills are built within Rookie Tackle’s exciting play and nuance.

“I think one of the biggest things we’ve noticed in having 8-on-8, is that the coach-to-player ratio is better,” Gegenheimer said. “It leads to more kids playing and less kids standing around. We’re developing way more kids and they’re enjoying it more, too. You lose kids making them play only one position rather than teaching them the fundamentals, which in turn teaches them to play a multitude of positions.”

Safety is also at the forefront of the program and Prior Lake has noticed that from the jump. “One key piece we have seen is that we haven’t had any major concussions reported since the two years we’ve had Rookie Tackle,” Gegenheimer added.

Prior Lake football participation is up 25 percent among its Rookie Tackle third- and fourth-graders. The varsity head coach attributes the increased interest to forward-thinking and open minds.

“We fought (pushback) early on because people scoffed at the idea of not playing 11-on-11 football. We have had other communities now try and join our league once we started Rookie Tackle.”

Rookie Tackle is a modified game-type offered by USA Football and an important conduit for skill development within the Football Development Model (FDM). USA Football will launch the FDM nationally in 2020, which you can read about in this issue.