At age 11 and 92 pounds, Andrew Dillard is not your usual convert to the low-carb lifestyle.
Yet for more than a month this fall, the Hyattsville sixth-grader gave up his Cinnamon Toast Crunch for scrambled egg whites, fruit roll-ups for real fruit, and soda for a whole lot of water.
With help from his parents, Ann and David Dillard, Andrew dropped 16 pounds this fall -- reducing his weight from 108 -- so he could meet the weight requirement to play for the College Park Hornets. The peewee team, with a 95-pound limit for 11-year-olds, is sponsored by the Prince George's County Boys & Girls Club, which organizes its leagues by weight as well as age.
Andrew, who is 4-foot-6, is as solid as a tree stump. And even though his mother calls him her baby boy, Andrew rejects any signs of weakness. After all, his favorite player is Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, who was known for his durability while playing for the Redskins.
As for shedding the weight, Andrew said: "It's worth it. I like playing football."
The Dillards said they made sure their son got the proper nutrition as he dropped the pounds. But a growing number of coaches and health professionals are questioning the wisdom and safety of the age/weight tables -- some of which have not been altered for years -- that govern youth football. Higher rates of childhood obesity are making it difficult for many kids to qualify for teams, and are prompting them to try what can be unhealthy and dangerous weight-loss regimens.
"We see children who are getting dehydrated because they are trying to make a weight for football, wrestling or gymnastics," said Rebecca Demorest, medical director of pediatric sports medicine at Children's Hospital. "I have no problem with cutting out sweets or McDonalds, but putting a child on a low-carb diet can cause problems. Kids need protein, fat and carbohydrates."
The increasing questions about rigorous weight guidelines has put the Prince George's Boys & Girls Club, long a dominant presence on the county's youth sports scene, on the spot. Coaches and organizers report that kids and their parents are seeking alternative leagues that have no maximum weight. The Mid-Atlantic Unlimited Youth Football League, a Baltimore-based organization that is active in Northern Virginia, uses suggested minimum weights, not maximums.
Pop Warner football, which has 240,000 players nationwide and runs youth leagues throughout the region, uses less-stringent weight tables, with a sliding scale based on growth charts issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Had Andrew been playing in Pop Warner's Peewee division, he could have qualified without having to shed a pound -- the maximum weight is 110.
"We have a lot of new kids who came to Pop Warner this year because our weight requirements are more realistic in terms of age and weight. Kids are just born bigger these days," said Carol Hampton, vice president for the PG Storm, a Pop Warner team in Clinton, who has two children playing in the league.
Leon McLean, commissioner of the Pepper Mill Boys and Girls Club in Landover, said seeing kids turned away from football every year is an annual heartbreaker. "I think the rules for weight should be adjusted because they are about 10 years out of date."
Others said the Boys & Girls Club's stringent rules can prevent kids from realizing their potential on the field.
Charles Rivers, a parent and former coach for the Glenarden Boys & Girls Club, said he never will forget the season his son, Charlie, was one pound too heavy to play on an 85-pound team that advanced to the Metropolitan Area Youth Super Bowl Tournament.
"It crushed him," Rivers said.
Today, Charlie Rivers is the star running back for the Largo High School Lions and reportedly is being eyed by recruiters from several Division I colleges.
Joe Warren, the longtime executive director of the Prince George's County Boys & Girls Club, said he is not inclined to make major changes to the age/weight scales.
"We revisited the issue a year ago, and we added five pounds to our scale, but unless we have some sufficient data, I am not recommending any changes," he said. "We realize that some kids aren't going to be able to play football -- either they are too heavy when they are young or too light when they are old."
For the Dillards, the issue was a little boy with a small frame, a big heart and a passion for football.
"Andrew has been wanting to play football for quite some time, but we have been putting him off because my husband and I were worried that he was too small," said Ann Dillard, a public school teacher at Woodridge Elementary in Hyattsville.
Then, at a back-to-school night in September, he spotted a sign for Boys & Girls Club football.
A few days later, David Dillard, a computer specialist for the Voice of America, took Andrew to the College Park Hornets' practice field. The Hornets, like other Boys & Girls Club teams, have three squads classified by weight and age. Andrew could have qualified for a 95-pound team, which has a maximum weight of 110 for 11-year-olds. But a squad that size was not available at College Park, and the Dillards wanted Andrew close to home.
Bill Corboy, coach and commissioner for the College Park teams, allowed Andrew to practice during the week with the 85-pound squad, but on game-day Saturdays, he had to stay home. David Dillard said he felt for his crestfallen son because "some technocrat says he is too heavy."
So the Dillards decided that they were going to help their son play football.
"We cut out all junk food and snacking and sodas," the boy's mother said.
"We did away with fruit roll-ups; we did away with sugary soda, Pop Tarts," she said. "Instead of getting juice drinks, I shopped for 100 percent juice with no added sugar. Candy was put away."
She said she "just basically followed the food pyramid. I knew we had to cut some carbs out. I tried to push protein, vegetables and fruit."
As for menu specifics, she said, "We had a whole lot of chicken -- chicken and vegetables, chicken and green beans, just chicken, no potatoes, chicken."
By Oct. 13, Andrew weighed 95 pounds on the family's scale. But when Andrew got on the Boys & Girls Club's official scale, he weighed 98 -- three pounds over.
"We knew the home scales were off, but we didn't know it was off that much," his father said.
Andrew would have one last chance to play because the final official weigh-in was Oct 21. Early that morning, David Dillard drove his nervous little lineman to the club's main offices to be weighed before eating breakfast and going to school.
Andrew got on the scale and the official from the Prince George's County Boys & Girls Club uttered words that the boy says he will never forget. "You weigh 92!"
"I was happy. I was finally on the team," said Andrew, who found some cream-filled cookies in his packed school lunch that day.
That night, with Andrew in the lineup, the College Park Hornets, who had lost all four games that season, won their first game in two years, beating the Lanham Raiders, 14-0.
"I played on the defensive line," Andrew said. "We kept triple-tackling their running back."
The Hornets played the undefeated District Heights Chiefs yesterday, losing, 14-0. But Corboy told Andrew and his teammates how proud he was of them. "That team you just played was 7-0."
As the coach talked to the team, David and Ann Dillard focused on their son sitting on the grass, wearing his blue No. 62 jersey. David Dillard said, "He would have played better if he didn't have a cold."
Ann Dillard said, "I am just glad that he is on the team."
Hughie Hunt, a coach of Andrew's and a former Academic All-America lineman for Georgia Southern, said he can relate to the child's struggle. "He reminds me of myself. He is giving as much effort as he can. I wish all of the guys were like that."
While Andrew's parents, coaches and teammates have made a big deal about him losing the weight, their encouragement can't compare to the praise offered by his peers on the defensive line.
"Good game, man," tackle Robert Mullins said as he slapped Andrew on the shoulder pad.
"Hey, Robert! How about you?" Andrew said with a smile.
After the game, the Dillards were not thinking about Andrew's dieting when they went to a fast-food restaurant. "I let him order a small chili and a junior cheeseburger deluxe," his mother said.