NEW ULM - In 1995, Ron Bunkers, who was an assistant football coach at New Ulm High School, along with the three high school football coaches in New Ulm and several other football fans in the community had an idea to help teach the sport of football to younger players.
The program was aimed at players in the fifth and sixth grade, and at the time there was a youth flag football league, but nothing being offered for tackle football.
The idea of the youth football league would teach younger players the basics of the sport and get them familiar with the rules. At the same time it allowed them to play and do perhaps the best part - tackling someone without getting in trouble for it.
The four teams in the heavyweight and lightweight divisions of the New Ulm Area Youth Football Association plays their games on Saturdays at New Ulm High School.
This past weekend, the league wrapped up the 2009 season with its Saturday games. While Bunkers is still a member of the program (he serves as the board's President), many of the members from that inaugrual 1996 season have moved on.
Pete Guggisberg is now the board's Vice President and he also did some coaching for the organization. Both Guggisberg and Bunkers are trying to get more players out and are trying to show just how fun playing football can be.
Very beginning of the program
NUAYFA Original Founders
Rick Van Roekel
Ron Bunkers: President
Mike Lieb: Secretary
Tim Hoscheit: Treasurer
Rick Van Roekel
Bunkers, who was a long-time assistant coach for New Ulm under Rick Van Roekel and later Rob Bute, was one of the key founders for the organization. In 1996, The New Ulm Area Youth Football Association was born, and the group looked into what other Minnesota towns were doing. The fundraising began in the spring of 1996 and the first season was in the fall of that same year.
They even contacted the National Pop Warner Program to get ideas and decided not to go that route (Pop Warner wanted All-Star teams and wanted teams to travel on a regional basis) and instead decided to have an intramural program in New Ulm that would just stress the basics rather than worry about winning and losing.
"Basically, when a kid is 10-years-old, I don't think that he needs to be told that he's an all-star and the other kids aren't," Bunkers said. "That's why we decided to keep it pretty much in house."
There were many comparable youth football programs in the metro area, but there were very few in the outstate.
"Back then, I don't think very many [cities] had it, maybe the Edina's, maybe those programs, but certainly not outstate," Bunkers said. "We were the first in this area, and we got a lot of phone calls in the first few years about how we run our program and how other cities can get started."
Guggisberg thinks that keeping the games in town helps stress fundamentals rather than focusing on winning and losing.
"We're just trying to develop the basics," Guggisberg said. "All of the other sports in this age group, they're already doing traveling teams and being more competitive. We didn't want that, we wanted everyone to have fun playing football."
From there, NUAYFA had two leagues divided on the boys weight, meaning the smaller kids would not have to compete against the bigger kids. And the immediate goals were put in place: The players would learn proper blocking and tackling techniques while being introduced to the sport.
"If they were sad to see it end at the end of the season, then we accomplished our goal," Bunkers said.
The first members of the NUAYFA were responsible for raising money for the program. They went around the community, going to houses and businesses trying to raise money for equipment for the new program. The members contacted about 100 businesses and individuals who helped in purchasing the equipment.
After raising about $16,000 for equipment for the 1996 season, youth football in New Ulm kicked off with 108 players participating the first year. Since then, the numbers have varied, from a high number of 134 to a low number of 84.
Current state of the program
The program has remained unchanged for the most part since its inception.
This year, the program had 95 players and included players from Springfield and Sleepy Eye.
As for the equipment, that doesn't change much and is in really good shape. Other than reconditioning helmets and fixing broken equipment, much work isn't needed in that department.
"We're in good shape right now," Bunkers said. "There are times when you have to purchase new equipment on a yearly basis, but certainly nothing major at this point."
The number of players seems to be about the same every year. This helps with creating the four teams in each weight class and making sure everyone gets equal playing time.
"The heaviest 50 percent are in the heavyweight division and the lightest are in the lightweight division," said Guggisberg, who has been involved with NUAYFA for eight years. "Also, in the heavyweight division, if you weigh 50 pounds more than the lightest kid in that division, you can't carry the ball or line up in a position where you might be able to carry the ball for safety reasons."
The season lasts six games and each team consists of about 10-12 players, depending on the number of players that can make it to the weekend game. There are times games are played with 10 or nine players per team because some players are missing.
Once they're out on the field, the players get to play a number of positions and they rotate often to make sure the same people aren't playing in the same spots all the time.
Also, there are two practices a week for the teams (Tuesday and Thursday afternoons) and there is a weekly Saturday game. And the high school programs get involved, each taking a turn to work the weekend games. There, the members of the high school teams help officiate, run the clocks and scoreboard and also work the chains for the contests.
The program also prides itself in keeping costs low. The price to play, including the equipment, is $65 per participant. And the leage doesn't have fundraisers throughout the year that require parents and players to help out, something that everyone seems to like.
"It's realitively minimum, and the parents do appreciate that," Bunkers said. "They like that they don't have to put in 10 hours of fundraising or things like that."
There are very few expenses for the league since the teams involved don't travel outside of New Ulm to play games. They have to pay for storage of their equipment and they have to pay officials for the game.
The future of the
According to Bunkers, many elementary schools have reported a decline in class size. Consequently, NUAYFA has also had a problem keeping it's numbers up and the program may need to expand to other area communities in the future.
"We invited Sleepy Eye and Springfield, and we talked to Paul Dunn [Springfield football coach] and Ron Berdan [Sleepy Eye St. Mary's football coach] and Cory Haala [Sleepy Eye football coach] to find out their interest and see if they wanted their fifth and sixth-graders to play," Bunkers said. "We wanted them to realize that they were welcome and we certainly would like to have the numbers and it certainly wasn't going to hurt their programs.
"If we get to a point now or four or five years from now, we might have to expand county-wide, I don't know," Bunkers said.
"Obviously, we'd love to see more kids from Sleepy Eye and Springfield, but we understand how far of a drive it is, and with the cost of gas and the time commitment," Guggisberg said.
For now, Bunkers doesn't see the number of teams in each weight class changing.
"I don't see that changing, because our numbers are getting to be fewer and fewer," he said. "We can't really divide into three teams because then somebody is sitting out on Saturday. We want everyone playing a game on Saturday. We've got to keep it at four teams per league."