COLUMBIA — In a town where orange and black tiger tails swing from cars on Saturdays and boys begin playing tackle football in third grade, the Upward Football League professes to go against the grain.
Upward, which is a noncompetitive flag football league that incorporates elements of Christian spirituality into its mission, is a part of the Little Bonne Femme Baptist Church on Missouri 163south of town. The league guarantees that every child who shows up will get an equal amount of playing time, and players rotate from position to position. Most notably, the league does not focus on the future football careers of players.
“Upward is different. It’s not your normal little league,” said Jamie Hughes, one of the founders of the Upward program. “Our goals are to create self-esteem and character in every child.”
The league began in 2007 on a bumpy, uneven field adjacent to the church. Its third season began at the end of July, when players reported to evaluation nights. During the evaluations, coaches and volunteers observed the players’ athletic abilities and entered their statistics into a computer draft program. Dividing the kids into two age groups, kindergarten-through-third grade and fourth-through-sixth grade, the draft assigns players so that each team should have an equal skill level.
“You get the teams to be pretty even so that the games are pretty competitive,” Matt Splett, an Upward volunteer, said.
Once assigned to their teams, the kids began weekly practices, and games started on Aug. 15. Though parents appreciate the fact that the league is not a big time commitment, the fact that they have limited hours with their team and must teach the players multiple positions is often challenging for coaches.
“The biggest challenge for the coaches is that they only get one practice a week,” Hughes said. “It’s harder for them to implement plays. But the pros definitely outweigh the cons.”
Hughes downplayed the role of competition in the league, and he emphasized character development more than the cultivation of football skills when discussing its goals. Hughes said Upward’s mission is somewhat at odds with more intense youth sports, but the league, in reality, is not all that different from the more competitive organizations, like the Columbia Youth Football League.
“Any sport or game that you keep score in would be considered competitive,” said Chad Henry, the president of the Columbia Youth Football League. “It is our nature to try and win if we are playing against another person.”
Henry said he sees any noncompetitive league like Upward as working in tandem with his organization, and he said the two leagues have similar goals and policies. For example, while Upward strictly monitors playing time, the CYFL requires that each player plays six downs per half.
“In flag it is much easier to make sure that everyone gets an equal number of plays due to the fact that there isn’t the amount of contact at the line of scrimmage like there is in tackle,” Henry said. “Our league does its best to make sure that everyone gets as many plays during the game as possible.”
During Upward games, no scores or statistics are kept, but the referees and coaches still treat each contest with the sense that it is an important football match. While this de-emphasis on individual success and winning alters the face of the games, the competition at the core of any sport guarantees that the players get some sense of success or failure from the games with every toss, catch, and adrenaline rush.
“I would bet that after the game, when they are in the cars and on the way home, they know who won and who lost,” Henry said. “It just isn’t put out there during the game.”
Hughes was quick to point out the differences between his league and the CYFL, but he acknowledged that Upward has lost players to the more intense tackle league in past years. He said, since Upward does not profess to be grooming kids for high school football, such a turnover is not surprising or bad.
“Upward and our church does have a different goal in mind,” Hughes said. “We’re not out to create elite high school athletes. We’re just trying to encourage the kids, teach them about flag football, which a lot different sport than tackle.”
Justin Towe, an Upward coach and parent, agreed with Hughes but also sees the league as a way to introduce kids to the sport who otherwise might never have started playing football.
“I think that what you find is that kids don’t know what to expect when they start this, and then they have a lot of fun,” Towe said. “That does propel kids to keep going, keep playing football.”
While some might question whether a player who spends years playing flag football in the Upward league might be at a disadvantage on competitive seventh and eighth grade teams and in high school, Henry said he thinks that any exposure to the game would be beneficial to a child with innate football talent.
“I don’t believe that playing in a league that allows everyone to play the same amount of plays would have a negative effect on the future of that player in football,” he said.
Hughes agreed that after a player finishes playing in the Upward league, there would still be plenty of time for him to refine his skills for high school. However, he said he does not think that the league is the place for players to adopt a cut-throat mentality.
“Is there anything wrong with a parent sticking their third grader in tackle football because they want them to get ahead? No,” Hughes said. “If that’s what they want, that’s fine. But that’s not our kids. And there’s still time for our kids to, after Upward, get ready to play high school football. There’s a lot of time for them to become that elite, cut-throat player.”
Despite the fact that the league does not claim to be preparing the kids for competitive football, the parents and coaches of Upward see a real value in getting the kids involved in the sport. Though Hughes and other Upward volunteers emphasized the ways in which their league is different, in some ways it is just another way for children to be introduced to a sport that dominates the athletic culture of Columbia.
“Football is something that our community loves, and football is something that parents need to get their kids in,” Hughes said. “Parents need to get their kids in sporting events.”