By Gehrig Parker
Though nobody knew, the fall of 2017 marked the beginning of the Philadelphia Eagles’ storied run to capturing the city’s first Lombardi Trophy. At the same time, middle schools within the School District of Philadelphia were starting to craft a football success story of their own through the help of Rookie Tackle, a bridge game between flag football and 11-player tackle created by USA Football.
When Jimmy Lynch took over as the executive director of athletics for the district in 2016, only five middle school football teams existed. Operating within a regional structure, teams were made of a base school and other students within the district that lived near the base school or in a pre-determined academic region.
While this afforded more than 100 young players the opportunity to play football, the regional model presented various challenges and limited students’ access and participation.
“With teams being regionalized in our Middle Grades Conference, coaches weren’t coaching kids that attended their school,” Lynch said. “It was also tough for kids to get to practice and games since they weren’t being held directly after school or on school grounds.”
Following the 2016 season, Lynch was introduced to Rookie Tackle while attending USA Football’s National Conference in Orlando, Fla.
“Down to five programs, we were looking for a solution to get back to a school-based model,” Lynch said. “A lot of our schools’ populations aren’t ideal for 11-player tackle, so Rookie Tackle made the most sense to help us increase opportunity and access for our student-athletes with the resources we had.”
Lynch and the district wasted no time making the transition to Rookie Tackle. By the start of the next season, 13 schools had a team and the district was among 10 locations nationwide selected by USA Football to pilot the new game type. For schools that had never had a team, the benefits of the game’s inherent values were felt immediately.
“Football provided our students a new outlet,” said Matt Kacergis, head football coach and teacher at Philadelphia’s Francis Hopkinson Elementary School. “A lot of them have never been part of a team before, so getting to teach them to understand how to work with others, how to solve problems and be more responsible has been a very positive thing.”
Now in the district’s third year offering Rookie Tackle, 21 teams comprised of nearly 400 young students took the field this season. For many, it’s evident that kids are becoming better players, which they credit to Rookie Tackle’s modifications, such as less players-per-side, a scaled playing field and position sampling.
“A majority of our players have never played the game before outside of pickup games or flag football in gym class,” said Jarret Smoyer, the Football Sport Chairperson for the district’s Middle Grades Conference and longtime educator. “This program [Rookie Tackle] has met our athletes where they are as athletes and better equipped them with fundamental skills and developed them in a progression that’s allowed them to be more confident and successful.”
New for this year is the establishment of a “developmental” division that’ll help get even more kids playing and experiencing football.
“Having a second team has allowed us to grow our numbers because more kids are given the chance to play and contribute,” Coach Kacergis said. “In our three years doing this, we’ve added more players for this upcoming season than ever before and even have five girls that’ll suit up this year.”
However, Rookie Tackle’s biggest dividends may be seen off the field.
“Kids are becoming a positive influence at their schools and in their communities,” Smoyer said. “They’re not only improving as football players, but they’re becoming better students and people. The improvement of the overall student has been tremendous.”
Just as the Eagles’ “Philly Special” play call in Super Bowl LII was unconventional, yet successful, Rookie Tackle has reimagined football to benefit the young people that love to play the game.
Ultimately, there has been positive turn-out from every perspective, from better player development to positive interaction in the community to building participation from the youth through the high school level.
“We have to start looking at football from a different lens and do what’s best for the kids by increasing opportunities and access,” Lynch said. “From our district’s experience both on and off the field, whether you’re a school or a park district, there should always be a place for Rookie Tackle.”
For more information on Rookie Tackle, visit usafootball.com/rookietackle.
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.