“More Teaching, Less Yelling”: A New Spring Flag Football League for Palm Coast
FlaglerLive | December 9, 2011
For a former NFL linebacker who could stare you down with his 244 pounds—he played with the Oakland Raiders and the Indianapolis Colts—Sam Sword’s voice is remarkably gentle, his demeanor easy going: precisely the sort of gentleness and easy going nature he wants to bring to the new spring flag football league he’s launching in Palm Coast for 6 to 14 year olds.
“It’s a joint venture between the city of Palm Coast and Palm Harbor Academy. I was tasked to lead the process of starting this league,” Sword says. Gilliard Glover, the founder of Palm Harbor Academy, had approached him after Glover had had contact with the city.
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“The city recognizes a need for flag football and we were willing to assist them in establishing activities in that area,” Glover said. “So it’s a mutual need. Kids need activities and any way we can participate and help them we’re available to do so.”
The season will last from March 3 through April 21. It’ll cost $40 per student, with some alternatives for those who can’t afford it. Students will get a full reversible uniform (“it’s like two uniforms in one”), plus a sponsorship t-shirt, a trophy, a year-end party, and various, exciting events each weeks, such as having NFL players skyping in from time to time with inspirational messages or shooting video messages that reinforce good habits on the field and at home. The students will practice once a week at Ralph Carter Park. That day has not been set. And they’ll have matches once a week, on Saturdays, also at Ralph carter Park.
“I’m hoping that with the price, the timing, we’ll get a lot of kids,” Sword says. “We’re going to level them up and just teach them the game.” The emphasis will be on a non-competitive, non-aggressive approach: no coaches yelling at kids, no militaristic drills. It’s about learning the skills of the game, the fundamentals, and loving to play.
Larry Foote, a two-time world champion who currently plays with the Pittsburgh Steelers, was excited to hear of Sword’s plan. “He’s going to be a sponsor,” Sword said, helping the league financially, and letting the league use him in advertising if necessary. “He’s going to bless us with his presence in March or April. I feel it’s a great opportunity for the Flagler kids to be able to put their hand on a professional athlete, to ask him questions, to talk to him. That’s big for the kids.” The actual day with Foote hasn’t been set, but once it’s in place, it’ll be open to any child in the county, not just those in the flag football league.
There is another flag football league in town, of course: the Phantom League Flag Football & Cheer, which has been running since last fall at Ralph Carter Park and also has a spring league, with some 200 students enrolled each season, says T.J. Rosenthal, one of the league’s chief organizers. League organizers and parents involved in the league have attributed the rehabilitation of Ralph Carter Park as a safer place to be to their league’s nightly presence there. (Registration for that league started earlier this month, with practices beginning in February and the last game scheduled for mid-May.)
Oddly, Palm Coast officials did not speak to Rosenthal of the projected new league, or how the two league would coordinate fields and schedules. Nor did Glover or Sword. “I haven’t heard anything directly from the city of Palm Coast about the league at all. Obviously it would have been nice,” Rosenthal said. A few weeks ago, the league and other youth sports organizations raised serious and vocal objections to the Palm Coast City Council over the city administration’s plans to start charging the youth teams lighting and field preparation fees based on a forumal the teams said would be prohibitive. The flag football league charges $70 per student per season. That cost would have had to go up by perhaps $10 based on the city’s fee structure. The council forced the administration to back off the plan, and negotiate a better approach with the teams. Those negotiations have not taken place, Rosenthal said, so the leagues continue playing under old arrangements—as would, presumably, the new flag football league.
The Phantom League plays at Ralph Carter Park every afternoon, taking up most of the fields. The league is typically done at 8:30 p.m. How the new flag football league will fit in is an open question. Numerous phone calls and emails to Palm Coast Parks and Recreation’s director, Luanne Santangelo, and Lauren Bennett, a supervisor Sword said was the liaison for the new league, were not returned. Glover says he doesn’t foresee any conflicts between the two leagues, but he, too, could not say how the practices would be coordinated. “I wasn’t aware of the other league,” Glover said, though he noted that there’s enough children in the county for a multiplicity of leagues.
To Sword, it’s not about competition—whether it’s with another league or within his own league. His primary aim is to provide children with an affordable way to play flag football. “If I raise more money, I’d lower the price, but right now it’s $40, and I don’t think you’re going to find a cheaper league in the area, Sword said. “My only concern was, let’s try to make this the most affordable league around, because I didn’t want cost to be a factor for any kid that wants to play.”
Sword, who’s married to Raven Sword, the Palm Coast attorney who ran for the Flagler County School Board a little over a year ago, is a math teacher at Hastings Youth Academy, the juvenile center for high-risk youth in St. Johns County. “I’ve always had that passion of just working with kids and trying to give back. I had a lot of friends that made bad decisions, and these kids are incarcerated. So it’s just an opportunity to teach them and mentor them and try to get them on the right track and becoming productive citizens.” Sword has four nephews in prison in Alabama. He took a different route through football. He graduated the University of Michigan and was on the Wolverines’ 1997 championship team.
“I know the game,” Sword said. “We’re going to teach teamwork, we’re going to teach sportsmanship. Everybody is going to play. Winning is not going to be everything.” There’s not going to be dancing when scoring touchdowns, for instance. And there will be “more teaching, less yelling.”
And there will be, Sword hopes, recurring and memorable life lessons that the students themselves may not be immediately aware of. Providing them the opportunity to play is the inherent benefit, with immeasurable results beyond the field. “Sports saved my life,” Sword says. “If I didn’t have sports, I could have been just like my friends—incarcerated. I would have been incarcerated.”