If all goes as planned, USA Football’s new Rookie Tackle program will bridge the gap from flag football to the traditional 11-player game. By using a smaller field and fewer players, Rookie Tackle presents additional “entry points” to the sport that were otherwise lacking, says USA Football CEO and Executive Director Scott Hallenbeck.
The final product has yet to be worked out—hence this fall’s introduction through an 11-league pilot program. Once settled, the general idea is young players can learn to play the game in a safer and more age-appropriate manner than making the big jump from flag to 11-tackle football.
Hallenbeck says the idea is adapted from other sports. “Baseball is the analogy I use most, going from T-ball to coach-pitch and player-pitch,” he says. “They call of it ‘baseball.’”
Flag football still suffers—Hallenbeck says unfairly—from critics who say it’s a different game from the sport played by Pop Warner through the NFL. The reality, Hallenbeck says, is youth are often not ready either mentally or physically to tackle the big game.
A New Standard
“Youth football leagues have done modified forms of the games for many years,” Hallenbeck explains. “Our role is to identify the best practices and trends to evolve that into a national standard.”
The 11 leagues participating this fall are deliberately a cross section of different parts of the county. They also compromise organizations already involved in the sport. There’s naturally a Pop Warner group from outside of Austin, Texas, but the mix includes Philadelphia public schools and a girl’s league outside of Atlanta.
Philadelphia is an example of benefits extending beyond what was originally conceived, Hallenbeck says. The city lacks youth leagues, but the flexibility provided with smaller fields and different age groups will allow fourth-through-sixth graders to play on baseball fields and other multiuse grounds that aren’t a fit for other football games.
Hallenbeck hopes to firm up rules to create a standard for when the program is available nationwide in 2018. But “we need to make sure we are inherently nimble with some structure, so we can have a model similar to baseball,” he says.