Correction to This Article
In a Dec. 3 Metro article and caption, the record of the Waldorf Wildcats, heading into a championship game, was given as 11-1. It was actually 11-0.

Four Feet and Inches

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 3, 2006; 11:40 AM

Minutes after playing a championship football game yesterday, Justin Irvin asked his mom a question.

"Did we win?"

Such queries arise when you're 5 and you compete in a tackle football league called Ankle Biters.

Justin's football helmet is roughly one-fifth of his total height. His pants sag toward his feet. He believes in Santa.

He is part of what youth football organizers say is a growing phenomenon across the country: Parents are bringing children as young as 5 out to play tackle football, in part to prepare them for more serious competition a few years later.

In Charles County, eight Ankle Biter teams competed this year, starting their season in August.

A few months before, Justin's mother, Latrice, asked him whether he wanted to play football. Justin knew about baseball (Mom had bought him a glove) and golf (Great-grandpa played it), but not football. Only one thing was clear about it: His mom's fiance's son, a 9-year-old who's like a brother to him, played football.

Latrice signed her son up, all 35 pounds of him.

"I can't run fast like the older boys," Justin said after one of his first practices.

"Just keep practicing," his mother recalled telling him. "You'll get faster."

Justin's mother worried that he would get hurt, echoing concerns by others who watch or hear about 5-year-olds -- in helmets, shoulder pads and uniforms -- ramming into each other.

"Ouch," Joseph Zanga, a North Carolina physician and past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said when told of teams like the Ankle Biters. "In this pediatrician's opinion . . . it's not appropriate."

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