By Mark Ambrogi
At first glance, the soft-padded helmets appear to resemble a throwback to the days of leather football helmets.
The Noblesville Elementary Football League will use the Gamebreaker’s soft-padded headgear in the flag football league for grades through kindergarten, first and second grade.
Prior to the upcoming season, no headgear was used in the flag football league. The protective helmet is molded out of the highest rated ethylene-vinyl acetate.
Noblesville High School coach Jason Simmons said when the NEFL executive board made the decision, safety was the No. 1 priority.
“We’re taking strides to make the game safer for them,” said Simmons, who took over as coach in 2016. “This was a big measure for us to ensure our kids are protected.”
Simmons said Noblesville’s youth football league numbers declined for a couple of years but have been about the same as of late.
“The elementary football league is the lifeblood of any program, and it’s certainly the lifeblood of our program,” Simmons said. “When you look at the great sport of football and the doors and avenues it’s opened up for me, personally, and a lot of people, it’s critical for our kids to have a great experience playing football, to be safe playing football and for them to want to come back the next year. That starts as early as we have kids enrolling. We’re growing the sport of football in our area because we have passionate people that care about the game. They understand the life lessons that are embedded in the sport of football, and we’re building on it.”
Simmons said he has considered using the protective headgear during high school practice when players aren’t in pads. Many teams use the protective headgear for 7-on-7 play.
“You are just adding an element of safety for our kids, not that we want to invite collisions by any way, shape or form,” Simmons said. “But we understand collisions are a part of the game.”
Jason Venturi, commissioner of the flag football league, wants to see each of the young kids have success in the flag league. Each player gets a chance to score.
”It’s the only sport where there are so many kids that can participate, whether they’re playing offense or defense,” Venturi said. “The parents absolutely love it when they’re out there.”
Venturi said the program’s goal is to keep as many kids playing football as possible.
“Even kids down the road that don’t start in high school, they still just want to be a part of something,” Venturi said. “It teaches you how to be tough, how to work with a team. It starts at this age. I think these helmets are a good way for parents to know that we are taking every precaution that we can to build a program that I know (Simmons) wants.”
Venturi said the main mission is to teach young players proper mechanics for hitting and tackling. All coaches are certified in USA Football training techniques to ensure safety of the kids. Venturi said football often gets a bad rap for concussions compared to other sports. Between 2010 and 2015, the concussion rate for high school athletes was higher in girls soccer than football.
Kenan Brnjak, 6, will be going into first grade in the fall and playing in his second year in the flag league.
“I like to pull down the other person’s flag a lot,” Kenan said.
Fall registration is open at nefl.net. Practice begins in July with games in August. The tackle leagues are for first through sixth grade. The Noblesville Grinders, a team made up of top fifth- and sixth-graders, play in the Indiana Elementary Football Association traveling league.
The NEFL, which celebrated its 50th season last year, had an estimated 500 kids who competed in 2016.
Football has always been a huge part of Jason Venturi’s life.
His grandfather, Joe, was a successful high school coach in Illinois. His father, Rick, was the head coach of Northwestern University and a long-time NFL assistant coach. Rick, who served as interim head coach with the Indianapolis Colts in 1991 and New Orleans Saints in 1996, serves as an Indianapolis Colts analyst on Indianapolis radio shows.
Venturi had severed as an assistant coach at his alma mater North Central High School, but is only coaching the youth leagues now.
“You’d be surprised with how they look at the start of the year, and then by the end of the year what they actually accomplish,” Venturi said.
Venturi said the coaches start early, using the terminology of Simmons as much as they can so they are prepared when they get to high school.
Venturi’s younger son, Austin, will be in kindergarten but played as a pre-kindergartener.
Venturi coached his older son, Aiden, while he was in the youth league. Aiden will be a NHS freshman football player in the fall.