Youth league blends football, life lessons

In this youth football program, life lessons are just as important as fundamentals of tackling, blocking or catching.

Winning is nice and all, but the Keystone Bills youth football and cheerleading organization is more about developing tomorrow’s leaders, officials say.

Coach Jermaine Clemons shares pointers on blocking techniques with several of his offensive players during a recent practice at Keystone Park in Odessa. In addition to coaching, Clemons also serves as the current athletic director for the Keystone Bills Youth Organization. (Christine Holtzman)

“We’re really trying to build young men and young women,” said Bills president/athletic director Jermaine Clemons, who’s in his fourth year with the group.

“It’s bigger than just football,” said Bills U14 varsity coach Juan Long, who’s been with the organization for 13 years.

That theme is emphasized in the organization’s three pillars — respect, community development and education.

The Bills offer flag football, tackle football, and cheerleading for ages 5 through 14. The organization was established in 1976, serving northwest Hillsborough County and Odessa.

It currently has about 160 players across five youth divisions, plus dozens of cheerleaders.

The organization has enjoyed its share of success in recent years, especially at the higher levels.

Under Long’s watch, the Bills won Tampa Bay Youth Football League (TBYFL) varsity titles in 2013 and 2017.

The team of 13- and 14-year-olds is enjoying another solid season, with a 6-2 mark.

While holding onto a roster, Coach Dave Saunders observes his offense players run individual drills, as they perfect their deep routes. Saunders was an all-conference receiver at West Virginia University in the late 1990s who went on to play nine years of arena ball. He is currently the varsity wider receiver coach for Gaither High School in Tampa.

“Juan really coaches it,” Clemons said. “He coaches his players up, and he’s very detail-oriented. He runs a defense almost like a college team. They run an offense almost like a college team. It’s not, ‘Line up and run right, run left.’ There are small details.”

But Long, also an assistant at Steinbrenner High, isn’t out there simply to win ballgames.

“I really don’t care about a trophy,” he said. “I care about if (kids) want to come back because they had a great experience, a great time with us.

“Every year I tell the parents, ‘My job is to make them better brothers, better sons, better husbands for the future.’ That’s the main goal, to establish more of the characteristics of these kids, as opposed to just being a football player. I know if we’ve done the other things correctly, we’ve done our job.”

Parent volunteer Jennifer Green witnesses it first-hand with her three sons, who each play for the Bills.

Green explained Bills coaches stay on players about their schoolwork and even offer tutoring sessions before regular Tuesday and Thursday night practices at Keystone Park in Odessa. Coaches also require players to face their teammates if they miss a practice or game due to a behavior or off-the-field issue.

“They’re 100% not just here to make your child a better football player,” she said, “They’re here to build men.”

It’s something 14-year-old Tre Wilson has grown to appreciate.

On the field, Wilson about has it covered, as a versatile athlete who can play running back, receiver, quarterback and returner. The Gaither High freshman also has the bloodlines, as father Eugene Wilson II is a two-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots who also played for the Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers during an eight-year NFL career between 2003-2010.

But, it’s the mentorship from coaches that sticks out most to the younger Wilson.

Cheerleaders with the Midget Cheer Squad practice an extension pyramid, under the direction of Midget Head Coach Melissa Lindstrom. The squad is made up of girls, ages 11 and 12.

“They’ve shown me experiences about life, as I’m growing up,” he said. “Over the years, they’ve taught me not only about football, but being the best on and off (the field).”

Aside from life lessons of course, Bills coaches impart their fair share of football advice.

They’ve got the pedigree to do so.

Clemons was a running back at the University of South Florida in the late 1990s under head coach Jim Leavitt.

Long was a linebacker at Mississippi State University in the early 1990s, and had a brief stint in the NFL and played several years in the Arena Football League.

Another coach, Dave Saunders, was an all-conference receiver at West Virginia University in the late 1990s who has the third-most receiving yards in school history. He went on to play nine years of arena ball, including four season with the Tampa Bay Storm (2002-2005).

The experience resonates with players and parents alike, said Green, whose boys spent time in other youth football leagues in the Tampa Bay area.

“We’ve been drawn here by the level of coaching that is available,” she said. “The level of coaching here is a lot more intense. To have that level of experience out there, not every person can bring that out.”

The diverse and decorated football backgrounds help get kids to heed coaches’ principles, Long explained.

“You don’t need to be a former player in order to get credibility,” Long said, “but, at the same point in time, especially with today’s generation, you do at least get their attention.”

“We have that experience, so we can relate to the kids from that standpoint. They know, ‘Hey, these guys have been there and done it, they’ve seen things at the highest level, then maybe we should listen to them, because they’re trying to steer us in the right direction.’”

Published October 23, 2019

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