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Bud Nelson can hear it now.
“Y’all are going to kill football,” he says, relaying a quote he hadn’t heard at the time but fully expects to, and probably quite often, in the coming weeks.
As the director of the Galax Parks and Recreation Department, Nelson knows what’s coming from the naysayers, pessimists and cynics out there who foresee the collapse of civilization because the rec. department is doing something different than the way it’s always been done.
And brother, this is different.
In an attempt to ramp up enthusiasm, involvement, long-term participation and plain old fun, the rec. department is planning a switch to an 8-man format for its sandlot football program this fall.
It may work right off the bat or it may take a while to work out the kinks, but it does prove one thing – Nelson and his staff pay attention. Over the years, as the population in Galax has declined, it has become more and more difficult to get the numbers to fit the sport. Years ago there were enough sandlot players to fill four rosters. Now there are too many kids for one team per age group, not enough for two.
The result is a team with 25 or more kids on it, most of whom don’t step on the field nearly often enough.
“Our biggest complaint is ‘My kid isn’t playing enough,’ ” said Nelson. “Their kid should be playing more. It’s rec. level, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be playing.”
The new 8-man format will address that problem with rosters of 10 to 12 players each.
“There will be subs here and there but every kid is going to play a lot,” assistant recreation director Tony Quesenberry said.
Two by-products of the change should also rev up the fun factor –– a more open playing field will result in more space and thus more scoring. And the biggest selling point of all, especially in many kids' opinions, is that every lineman will get a chance to be a skill player.
“We’re going to make it where linemen are eligible to catch the ball,” said Quesenberry. “Every kid is going to touch the football. The whole thing is getting kids excited about it. Some of these kids, sometimes you get designated as a lineman and that’s all you’re going to be. Well, doing this, you might be a lineman but you’re going to have a chance to catch the football. You’re not just going to stay on the line and block.”
Being the only locality that anyone knows of playing 8-man football, the recreation department will have to hammer out its own rules of play. Offenses will probably consist of two wideouts, two backs, a quarterback and three linemen. The linemen will rotate being the eligible receiver. To prevent a140-pound kid from running over the top of a 90-pounder, linemen will probably be called down upon making a catch. But hey, it beats the heck out of what the bigger kids are used to.
Also being the only place with 8-man, Galax will have to give up playing against teams from Grayson County, Carroll County and Fries. But plans are for as many as six teams in Galax alone, so the opposition won’t exactly become stale.
Galax High School coach Mark Dixon, a former offensive lineman himself, fully endorses the change.
“The magic is having the ball in your hands,” said Dixon. “That’s what makes you go outside and play. I don’t go outside and start blocking, I go outside looking for a pass and catching it. Even in our [summer] camp, the magic isn’t taking them down there and teaching them an O-line drill when they’re 9 years old. It would bore me to death. The magic is when I put the ball in their hands and they light up and they run around, and they’ll want to keep playing. So from my perspective is the more we can keep them happy and enjoying it and learning to play with the ball in their hands, the more they’ll play later on because the game becomes fun.”
“Last year we had two 5th grade [team] and one 7th, but they had 30-some kids on a team,” Quesenberry said. “In years past you had 11 kids doing most of the playing and the other 12-15 were sitting there on the bench and might get in for two or three plays, maybe a quarter, and that’s all they play. You may be that lineman that goes in and blocks for a couple of plays, and that’s your sandlot experience. How exciting is that? We don’t want to lose them between here and high school.”
The rest of the game will still be intact, just with three guys short of a full 11. There will be tackling, there will be cheerleaders. There will still be teaching of fundamentals.
“It’s three players less,” said Nelson. “Everything else is the same. It’s new and it’s different, and we’ll have to tweak it some, I’m sure. We’ll see something that doesn’t really work, well, let’s change it. We’ll make it work.”
One thing is for certain – Galax may have the only sandlot program in the state where an assignment to the line isn’t greeted with a roll of the eyes and an utterance of, ‘Oh, great.’
Said Dixon, “I think they’ll have a blast.”