Hard hitting fun

Dec 16, 2012

Kiwanis Kids Day Football is a season of success in Springdale, Arkansas.

Eight-year-old John Mark Eaton is a sweaty mess. It’s almost 90 degrees and he’s in full pads on the sideline, in the full, blazing sun, waiting to head back out on the field. He’s hit and been hit over and over in this game. But he’s ready for more. The kids always are.

John Mark’s parents are sitting in the stands, nervously—and proudly—watching their son’s every move, every tackle, every run.

The Eatons are just one of the countless number of families who have come out to Springdale High School’s Bulldog Stadium to take part in Kiwanis Kids’ Day Football, a project of the Kiwanis Club of Sprindale, Arkansas.

“This is a big deal,” says Mark Eaton, John Mark’s father.

Eaton is right. This isn’t your average football program. It’s … bigger. From playing on a real football field under lights to having newspaper and television coverage—there’s something really special about Kiwanis Kids’ Day Football.

“The biggest thing may be the tradition,” says Springdale Kiwanian and Kids’ Day Football director Bryan Clinkscales.

“There are three generations of families who have played in this event. Everyone in this area knows what Kiwanis Kids’ Day football is—it’s a rite of passage for most families. It is Springdale history.

“It’s hard to explain unless you live here. I have people call me six or seven months in advance to ask what the dates are so they can schedule vacations around it.”

The program includes several weeks of practice and four days of games and is the only one in the area that introduces children as young as first grade to real tackle football. And it’s free.

“Kiwanis does a good job,” Eaton continues after watching a few plays on the field. “And the coaches are as tough as they need to be, and caring, too. This program gives our son self esteem and encourages teamwork.”

Ask the Eaton family or any other residents of Springdale what they know about Kiwanis, and you might hear lots of answers. Kiwanis in this town of about 67,000 touches a lot of people in a lot of different ways. But since sports are such a big part of life around here, a lot of effort is put into sports programs for kids. So naturally when people think of Kiwanis, they think sports. The two go hand-in-hand.

The Kiwanis Club of Springdale has been staging its Kiwanis Kids’ Day Football program for children in first through sixth grades for the past 56 years. The program has seen thousands of children—girls and boys—take to the field in full pads and helmets in a battle for the right to claim champion status. Children also serve as cheerleaders—and each team has a squad.

Kiwanis members form special teams to make the project go off without a fumble. And it’s not a surprise that many of the Kiwanians have played several positions in this ongoing project: This isn’t just writing out a check so shirts will have Kiwanis name on them. This is Kiwanians getting face-to-face involvement with kids.

Springdale Kiwanians Tom and Jim Ed Reed are on the sideline together as coaches, a father-son duo who know a thing or two about football. Both men played for the University of Arkansas, and both still have a passion for the game.
A night earlier, with only a few seconds left on the clock, it was obvious their third- and fourth-grade Gray Team was heading to the championship game. At that moment, a few players decided to dump their drink bottles on Coach Tom’s head and chest. He couldn’t stop laughing and smiling.

He pumped his fist in the air.

Jim Ed Reed played Kiwanis Kids’ Day Football, and his dad coached his team. Jim Ed Reed says his love of football started with this program, and his favorite part is when he sees another kid catch the same spark.

“We had a running back this year,” Jim Ed Reed says, “who had never played any athletics his whole life. Here he was, going into the fourth grade, and he had not only never played, but he had never seen any athletics. But he really wanted to try it out this year. And you know … he was probably the best athlete in the whole thing. He is just an amazing athlete. His mom was so happy he had found something he liked and that he was really good at.

“Who knows? Who’s to say he won’t go on to play in college or the NFL? When he looks back, he’ll know it all started with Kids’ Day Football in the fourth grade.

“That story right there tells why we do this. It gets kids outside and gets them exercise and they learn about the sport. They find out if it’s something they really want to do. And it’s just great fun.”

Brian Clark sits in the stands, leaning forward a bit, keeping a close eye on his son, Justin, No. 23 for the fourth- and fifth-grade Blue Team. Justin has played Kiwanis Kid’s Day Football since first grade.

“It’s a great program to give kids an entry point into organized sports,” Brian Clark says. “I like that it teaches the children about teamwork and sportsmanship, as well as the fact that it gets them out doing something physical during the summer.”

Justin likes it for different reasons than his dad. His favorite part?

“When someone is running the ball and I get to tackle them,” he says.

Tonya Carruthers, whose husband coaches their son on the first and second grade Gray Team, says it’s a blessing to have a free football program, and she notices how much the kids enjoy being together.

“(The season) is short,” she says, “but in that two weeks they really bond. (Our son) was like … ‘When does Kiwanis start? When does Kiwanis start? When does Kiwanis start?’”

Key Club Lieutenant Governor Becky Vandagriff is behind the counter inside the concession stand, stacking candy and scooping ice. She loves the chance to talk about the program and what’s up with her Key Club at Springdale High School.

“This is a good event,” she says. “I came when I was a kid. It’s been around forever.”

While she tells of her Key Club projects—reading to kids at a local elementary school and playing with kids at another—Kiwanis members look on proudly, knowing the ties that bind Kiwanis-family members are strong in Springdale.

Glen Plumlee knows all-too-well what Kiwanis has meant to this community. He’s been a Kiwanian for 25 years and ran the Kiwanis Kids’ Day Football program for 18. Now he manages the concession stand, making sure nachos are lined up and ready and drinks are poured. It’s an important job: The club makes about US$5,000 in concession sales alone as part of this program, which is the club’s biggest fundraiser.

“Kiwanis Kids’ Day Football gives boys and girls the opportunity to take part in a very special event,” Plumlee says. “This opens doors and prepares them for junior high and high school football careers.”

Plumlee not only ran the program and the concession stand, he also had a six-year stint as coach. And those memories are still strong.

“It’s so rewarding when the players are in first or second grade, and they’re really scared or nervous to play,” he says. “But once they do, they just love it. With coaching, it’s the relationships you build with the kids that you remember. And what’s really rewarding is when they graduate high school and they come back and tell you they really appreciate what you did for them. That’s the part that gets me very emotional.”

Story and photos by Kasey Jackson
Stories produced by KIWANIS Magazine

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