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Just like adults, American children have been getting bigger in the past few decades, victims of the “epidemic” of obesity declared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, 16.9 percent of kids ages 2 through 19 were obese between 2007 and 2008, more than three times as many as between 1971 and 1974.

For young, would-be football players, the affliction can be a barrier to the cure. Regular exercise is recommended for general health and can help people shed extra pounds. But youth football leagues’ traditional grouping of players by weight can force heavier children onto teams dominated by much older children or keep them from taking the field at all.

To let these boys play against their peers, local coaches and national organizations are expanding weight classes or doing away with them altogether, moves lauded by some experts who say maturity, not size, is what matters most on the field.

Going unlimited

The Westlake Bulldogs joined a second football league this season to ensure no boys were excluded because of size, said President Terrence Byrd. Previously, the Waldorf organization’s teams played in the Charles County Youth Football League, but now they field teams separately in the county recreation league and in the private Greater Metropolitan Youth Football League, which features age-only groupings unconstrained by weight.

The Bulldogs have about 125 kids playing on the new age-based teams, not far behind the estimated 175 playing on the established rec league teams, Byrd said. Grouping boys by age keeps younger, heavier kids from becoming discouraged when competing against older, stronger boys.

“I think what I saw years ago, generally, what would happen in a lot of situations … was where the younger, bigger kid would come out, last maybe a week or two, decide football wasn’t for them, just because they couldn’t keep up with the older kids. That’s generally what would happen. They’d give up after a week or two,” Byrd said.

For some boys, the change marks their first chance to play in years, as worried parents wouldn’t let their children go up against adolescents.

Michelle Hinds of Waldorf didn’t think her son should be socializing with high school students simply because he was their size. So Devon Petrillo, 12, didn’t get to play until this year, when Hinds “was so excited” to find out about the Bulldogs’ unlimited weight classes.

Although Devon is 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, “I was not willing to put him with 15- and 16-year olds. The vocabulary is different, the way that they think is different, their mentality is just different, and I just didn’t think it was appropriate for him. So, as a result, he hasn’t been able to play. I had a friend who said, ‘You should put him in the unlimited weight class,’ which I didn’t even know existed,” Hinds said.

Devon didn’t suffer from being excluded before, but he enjoys playing now, he said, “because I don’t really like any other sport. I’ve done other single sports, never done a team sport. You know, it’s good to have a team sport, and you can work out emotions by hitting people.”

He said football has taught him “how to be a team player. That means I never really trusted anybody. I can really say that I trust those guys on there, most of them.”

Hinds has also seen sports help her son develop socially. “We’ve lived in this area two years, and he’s actually pretty shy and he’s had some difficulty with trying to make friends. And he’s really become part of the community and stuff, and I think the football has really, really helped him. He has become part of this group of people, of friends. They all look out for one another. I think it’s been a very positive experience for him socially, as well, whereas if he was playing with older kids, it would be a lot different,” Hinds said.

Among Devon’s teammates is Tyler McBride, 12, whose 220 pounds, combined with maternal worries, also kept him from playing. As a third-grader, he would have played against middle-schoolers; as a fourth-grader, he would have been grouped with 10th-graders. His mother, Debra McBride of Waldorf, thought that was too dangerous, and Tyler wasn’t eager to go up against teenagers, either. So, he sat out year after year, she said.

Until he found out he could play, “I never really thought about it that much,” Tyler said. Now he’s enjoying himself. “I like the sport.”

As for playing against smaller boys, the main issue is “it’s hard to catch them,” he said.

The Clinton-based Greater Metropolitan league, now in its fourth season, quickly came to encompass 12 organizations, including the Bulldogs, partly because of its “age appropriate” teams, said league founder and co-president Richard Taylor. When assembling the league, Taylor opted to follow a recommendation by USA Football, which is endowed by the National Football League, to group players by age, not weight.

Besides excluding bigger kids outright, the weight system could place unhealthy pressures on those determined to play, Taylor said. Boys were using diet pills and even enemas to lose weight, or reducing food and water intake before games.

“A lot of organizations just wanted to get away from the old weighing, the scale, sweating kids, which is a huge problem. They almost completely dehydrate the kid so the kid can make weight. Unfortunately, you have a large number of kids sweating down to play with younger kids. They’re playing like that the whole season, being dehydrated for 10 to 12 weeks and skipping meals when they need it most,” Taylor said.

Bigger is not always better

Not all parents were thrilled to have their sons go up against boys much bigger than theirs, Taylor acknowledged. But, he said, leaner boys have held their own.

“When we first started, there was some apprehension there with the kids, but at the end of the day, these are the same kids they play with at recess. … Ultimately, what we’re doing is we give these kids the opportunity to dispense with the notion that bigger is better, or bigger is stronger. That’s not the case. The small athletic kid still rules the field. He’s capable of running 100 yards in a given play. Bigger kids are limited to what they can do in a given space. What that does is it means the coach has to use kids appropriately on that field,” Taylor said.

The boys, too, are aware of their own size. Clayton Allen, 9, whose weight kept him from playing for the Huntingtown Hurricanes last year, said boys his age can look out for themselves but that he takes care when practicing against younger boys.

“If you’re playing the same age limit, you don’t have to be careful, but if you’re scrimmaging against a little team or helping them, you have to be helpful to them,” Clayton said.

The Hurricanes play in the Calvert County youth league, which also changed its policies this year, allowing Clayton to play. Instead of relying on weight, the league’s six organizations now group boys primarily by age, with heavier boys playing with boys their own age or on the next-oldest team only, said Hurricanes President Erik Allen, who is Clayton’s father.

Now Clayton plays with 10-year-olds, not the much older boys he would have faced last year had his father not kept him off the field. The shift stemmed from an agreement among league coaches that the weight-based system forced too many boys to play against others much older, Allen said.

Charles County’s recreation league took a different approach this season, keeping a weight-based system but emphasizing ages in groupings and increasing weight limits, except for 5- and 6-year-olds, who can now be any weight. The change pleased Billy Absher, president of the Waldorf Wildcats, even as the father of a slimmer boy.

“My child was small. He played football with us since he was 5. He’s now in 10th grade. He was always the smallest kid on his team. He was a tough kid. That made a big difference. Like I said, size is a factor but it’s really not that big a factor. The smaller kids are usually faster than the heavier kids, so it kind of evens out,” Absher said.

American Youth Football, which bills itself as “the largest youth football organization on earth,” also tweaked its system this year, expanding weight limits by 5 pounds. The shift affects its Southern Maryland Conference, comprising eight private local teams, including the Leonardtown Wildcats, said Wildcats President Howard Wentworth.

The change was needed because kids are getting bigger, he said, and higher weight limits mean more kids can play comfortably.

“It’s not really just a local thing here. It’s really, just in general, throughout the country, kids are getting bigger, whether it be obesity or just genetically,” Wentworth said.

Beyond the weight-limited football, the Wildcats added unlimited divisions for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders this year, he said.

Age determines skill more than weight, Wentworth said. “Obviously the kid has an advantage if he’s 20 pounds heavier, but they’re more at a disadvantage if it’s a kid who’s a 5-year-old playing with 7-year olds. That age difference, if you have one that’s, say, 10 and one that’s 7, mentally they’re completely opposite as far as their ability. That’s really what the difference is, and not all size and all,” Wentworth said.

All about age

Dr. Richard Hinton, assistant team physician for the Baltimore Ravens, agrees with local coaches that age should be the focus in youth football.

“I am not a big advocate of classing children for youth football based on weight regulations. I think there’s more harm than good there. The original intent was to decrease injury rates, and the few studies done looking at injury rates have not found significantly lower injuries in leagues playing with weight classes. … What you are trying to get to is maturity, not size,” said Hinton, who is also medical director of MedStar Sports Health and works at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore.

Older, slimmer children have an advantage in muscle, speed, strength and mentation over “fat, heavy, chubby kids who may have not made a weight limit, but [are] relatively immature,” Hinton said.

“The equation on the football field is same as in any physics lab: Force equals mass times acceleration,” Hinton said. In other words, the slimmer kids add speed faster, negating the advantage their opponents get from being heavier. “Many of these kids were being disqualified on the basis of their weight: they’re obese. They may be heavier, but they don’t have the muscle mass to increase to a high rate of speed. A much worse situation, in terms of injury, is having mature kids, a 14-year-old, skeletally mature kid who has seen testosterone, is adding muscle mass but happens to be a small kid, a mature 14-year-old who weighs 150 pounds, and you put him on the same field as 12-year-olds of the same weight but not as mature. Much worse risk of injury.”

Youth football leagues nationwide are gradually acknowledging this reality and adjusting policies, Hinton said.

“I think in general, most of the national youth football organizations are moving away from weight classes. I don’t think there’s any good [medical] literature to suggest that [grouping by weight] decreases injury risk. I think it can lead to other unhealthy issues with weight-cutting and with younger, heavier kids playing with older, more mature kids just because they happen to be the same weight,” Hinton said.