“We have to do something,” Brakeley recalls saying to begin the meeting, and before the sun went down that evening, over cookies and iced tea, they hatched a plan to promote the game differently for kids.
They wrote a three-word mission statement on a notepad: “Safety, Sportsmanship, Fun.” Then they rewrote their rule book: Youth games would last no more than an hour, playoffs and championships would not exist, and there would be absolutely no tackling to the ground.
From there, Friends of Middlebury Flag Football, a rare coalition of college, high school and youth football stakeholders, was born. Out of it came a potential blueprint for how to keep the sport from disappearing, one that the state’s governing athletic body has drawn from in the hopes of jump-starting participation numbers in other towns.
“We could see the big picture,” Brakeley said, and that picture was dire: Football in Vermont was becoming endangered. It had been hard enough to keep numbers up in one of the least populated states in the country, a place where high school enrollment has rapidly declined and the safety concerns that have affected the sport on a national level contributed to a devastating decline in football participation.
In 2006-2007, there were nearly 2,000 high school football players in Vermont, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. In 2018, there were 993, the lowest turnout of any state in the country. In recent years, schools in the state’s largest cities have had to consolidate to field teams.
Yet in Middlebury, with a population of just over 8,000, football is thriving. Behind a youth program that heavily prioritizes safety — players still wear normal equipment but don’t tackle to the ground — hundreds of kids are playing the sport and continuing to bolster the town’s high school numbers, enough to allow it to play in the state’s top division year in and year out. The success has been so pronounced that it helped inspire the state’s athletic body to require its member middle school teams to adopt Middlebury’s practice of padded flag football.
“They’ve been on the cutting edge. Vermont is not like any other state,” said Bob Johnson, the associate executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, which oversees 300 schools in Vermont. “They understood if they were going to keep a vibrant football program going, they had to do whatever they had to do to keep kids involved.”
That is one of the key principles of Middlebury’s youth approach. Players from Middlebury College coach first-, second- and third-graders to chase and pull flags at a local park once a week, and once those kids get to fourth grade, they begin to learn the game’s terminology. By the time they reach fifth grade, they can don pads and play by the league’s rules. Games on Saturday mornings cannot last more than an hour. Score is kept, but standings aren’t.
The league does not hold playoffs and has an 18-point mercy rule. And even though each player is outfitted with roughly $200 worth of gear, offensive players can only block opponents above the waist without taking the defensive player to the ground. For the seventh and eighth grade division, only players 140 pounds or less can carry the ball, so that no smaller defenders get overpowered. Coaches use practices to teach kids how to properly tackle, even though they can’t fully try it until they get to high school.
The approach appears to have won over families in the town. The youth program has roughly 140 kids participating this season, and while the state doesn’t keep a record of elementary and middle school participation, Johnson estimates that Middlebury, the 13th-largest town in Vermont, has some of the highest numbers in the state. That has been crucial in keeping the town’s high school team, Middlebury Union, stocked every year.
“We, being a middle-sized school in the state, we still get 20 freshmen out per year, where a lot of these programs at schools twice our size are only getting out eight to 10 freshmen. And they’re just losing the kids at an early age,” Middlebury Union Coach Dennis Smith said. “I feel the safety of it keeps kids involved with it.”
While some of the state’s largest high schools have been forced to consolidate to field teams, Middlebury has roughly 60 players on its team this year and has made nine consecutive playoff appearances with rosters that are almost fully developed in the town’s youth program, while playing alongside schools with much larger enrollments. It has been able to largely avoid the participation crisis that most other high schools in the state are facing, which is largely attributed to an overall decrease in the student population and the concussion fears that have swirled over the sport for the past decade.
“There are a lot of kids, who if they had played tackle football in sixth or seventh grade or fourth grade, they might not have been allowed to play tackle football by their parents. Or if they did, they might have said, ‘This isn’t for me,’ and not have played [in high school],” said Middlebury College Coach Bob Ritter, who sits on the town’s football board and has run a youth clinic in the town for years. “It keeps kids in the program and [feeling] like they’re playing football without at a young age having to deal with some of the things that might keep them away from it.”
There are pockets of resistance to padded flag football within the state, with some youth leagues still allowing tackling, but for the most part the “Middlebury Model” has achieved the goal laid out by the seven-man board 12 years ago. And there is hope it can help preserve the sport across Vermont.
“The numbers were starting to drop,” Brakeley said, “and we knew we had to do something to keep it from following that trend.”