COLUMBIA — Although the tackles resemble playground pushes and the most common injuries are bloody lips and skinned knees, Stuart Parnell is serious about third-grade football.
Parnell has been coaching youth football for more than 10 years in the noncompetitive division of the Columbia Youth Football League, which has six third-grade teams and 39* total teams. He has been in charge of teams in both Centralia and Columbia, and with all that experience, Parnell knows there is a lot more to the game than just mechanics. As the head coach of the third-grade Packers, Parnell’s duties are multifaceted; he works each day to help the 8- and 9-year-olds transition to tackle football and gain confidence in their abilities.
“The important thing is that the kids enjoy what they are doing and that they’re learning more about the sport,” Parnell said, summarizing his job.
Parnell and his assistant coaches work to find the balance between work and fun, and in doing so they must learn which activities the kids enjoy and which drills and exercises are instrumental in helping them improve.
“With football, there’s a lot to learn, and it’s a big decision to try to figure out what to teach them next,” said Matt Gaunt, an assistant coach. “There’s got to be some kind of balance between the contact and the things that are more fun for the kids.”
Gaunt said the kids enjoy working on kick returns, kickoffs and half-line scrimmages, in which about half the defensive line plays about half the offensive line. Other activities, like grass drills and sprints, are less popular with some players, and the coaches must work to hold their attention and keep them interested in the more challenging parts of practice.
“Everybody out here is trying to keep it fun for the kids and trying to teach them as much as they can about the fundamentals of football,” Gaunt said. “You know, they’re third graders, so we’re introducing them to different positions and formations and trying to teach them about blocking and tackling.”
When Parnell talks about his role on the team, though, he brushes past the athletic aspects of the game. More important to him are the lessons that the boys are learning through working as a team and growing together.
“The biggest qualities are teamwork, … discipline and work ethic,” Parnell said. “It’s things they’re going to remember the rest of their life.”
With this mentality, Parnell downplays winning as the most important goal to work toward, and he hopes that the players can enjoy the game regardless of the final score.
“We may not win every game, we may not lose every game, but I want them to have fun and want to come back next year and play,” he said.
Gaunt said he agreed: “Winning is not the most important thing, but it’s certainly a goal we put out there. We’re going to do all these things to try to make ourselves better, and one measure of how much you’ve improved is if you’re able to win or not. But we haven’t won yet, and we’ve had close games where we’ve been proud of our kids …
"If winning were the biggest thing, I don’t think we’d still be coming out and enjoying it.”
Although Parnell logs many hours standing on the sidelines, pacing back and forth next to the first-down markers, much of his work takes place beyond the borders of Cosmo Park. Besides two or three nights a week of practice, Parnell spends hours each week coordinating the many details that go into running a team.
“Hours? I’m not really sure I could put a number on it,” Parnell said. “A lot of it is contacting parents, making sure they’re aware of practice times and any changes in schedules. Also, there’s a lot of talking to the assistant coaches outside of practices about things we need to change, things we need to work on with certain kids. Even on nonpractice nights, it’s a couple hours a night.”
A key element of Parnell’s role involves communication and availability, and he is open to suggestions and input from his assistant coaches.
“He always looks for input,” Gaunt said. “Not just from the assistant coaches, but also from the parents. His willingness and open mind makes it so he will listen to our ideas and implement the best of those ideas. It makes it fun to help him.”