with additional reporting by COLIN FLANDERS
As Milton youth football gears up for the fall, both programs will have a common enemy this season. Perception, an invisible but powerful force, could rival any team on their upcoming schedules.
For the Milton Broncos, the new president will have to convince parents all is well after Milton police cited their former leader for embezzlement last month. And the newly minted middle school club team must show padded flag football is just as cool as tackle.
Leaders of both programs say if the messaging resonates, it will create a much-needed boon for the youth sport. Enrollment in the Broncos’ former 5/6 and 7/8 teams had dwindled, and the school district is now trying to recoup the lost numbers.
As Milton High School varsity coach Jim Provost sees it, the new middle school Yellowjackets have to succeed so his program can.
“The big picture is you’re always building for the future,” he said. “You’re really coaching a program – you’re not just coaching one team.”
Provost has spent the summer helping find volunteer, unpaid coaches for the MMS team. The program landed in the district’s lap in July, after former Milton Broncos president Matt King pleaded for a takeover to save the Broncos from its self-inflicted woes. The school board approved a club team but without any funding.
Now, the middle school must raise more than $4,500 to pay for transportation, officials, equipment and more, a goal Provost thinks is attainable as long as kids are willing to play padded flag, not tackle.
The Vermont Principals Association has barred middle-schoolers from playing tackle football as worries over concussions increase. But Provost said the technique is the same, and kids will be prepared to play tackle in high school.
“The helmet is there to protect you; it’s not a weapon,” he said. “[Flag] will teach the kids to get their head out of it and concentrate more on wrapping and that hog-tackling method they’re teaching now.”
The news was welcome to Claude Elleingwood, who coached both flag and tackle for the Broncos and played as a kid under Coach Red Rock, a legend in Broncos history who will now coach flag for the middle school.
Elleingwood wishes the new team was still tackle, but he doesn’t think it will dissuade anyone from playing.
“Last year, we taught the kids really good tackling techniques … and it showed it on the field,” he said. “One out of every 100 was a bad hit. When I was a Bronco, every hit was a bad hit.”
Last week, Elleingwood stopped by a clinic hosted by Provost and his new coaching recruits. Looking out at the dozen or so players assembled on the high school practice field, Elleingwood said he hopes the program gets enough numbers to field a squad.
Of course, that’s Provost’s primary goal, one he hopes the switch to flag will help him attain.
The Broncos’ new president, Rodney Tinker, is also focusing on messaging, trying to rebrand the grades 1-5 team after news broke of King’s felony embezzlement citation.
He’s basically started from scratch: The program has formed a new board of directors and started up a bank account that gives multiple people access to the financials, introducing accountability the Broncos haven’t had in years.
They’ve also dropped tuition from $100 to $50 per player, thanks to a reduced insurance and league fee from the Northern Vermont Youth Football League that governs teams like the Broncos. Three coaches are already on board, and they’ll all be USA Football certified, Tinker said.
Still, he worries parents might think the Broncos are “the same old, same old.” Since the Independent broke the news of King’s arrest, Tinker said parents have called looking for assurance that King is really out.
“My reply to them is we’re moving forward,” Tinker said.
“Everything we’re doing now is all looking positive,” he added. “We can’t stay looking in the past.”
To cement this theme, Tinker ordered new jerseys and equipment for the players.
“I couldn’t see the program fall on its face,” said Tinker, who played for the Broncos’ opening year in the late 1980s and has coached for a decade. “I became more active, and I said it’s gotta be done, and it’s gotta be done right for these kids. They need this.”
Though the programs operate separately, Tinker wants to ensure the new middle school team is successful. As promised, the Broncos donated 30 shoulder pads and helmets to the effort.
Twenty-seven of these were reconditioned for $1,000, about $100 less than what interim athletic director Trevor Wagar budgeted. The program will also find savings in transportation, since it will only play one away game this season, and will fundraise with concessions and the Gold Card program that gives buyers discounts at local restaurants.
With all this lined up, the future of youth football looks promising to Provost. At his clinic last week, Broncos board member and mom Crystal Gingras showed up with her 5-year-old daughter, Shaley, who quit soccer to play football like her three older cousins.
The switch to flag made no difference to Gingras, who thinks tackle football is getting safer these days. Provost hopes other parents see it this way – in fact, he’s banking on it.
“If we’re losing kids, even if it’s for reasons we might think are ridiculous, we either embrace it or we’re going to continue to lose them,” he said. “We have to show parents that we’re doing everything we can to make the game safer.”