A semi-straight line of boys in shorts and T-shirts crouched shoulder to shoulder in uneven three-point stances as coach Curtis Blackwell called signals. “DOWN! ... SET!” he shouted. “HUT!”
The boys, ages 5 to 15, charged across the field then re-formed to run again.
“DOWN! ... SET!” Blackwell called out once more, his cadence audible over rush hour traffic.
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Football was back at the Police Athletic League of Manatee County complex.
Practice started Monday and Jordan Miller couldn’t wait.
“I couldn’t sleep for three days,” the 10-year-old said.
Seventy-five boys and a handful of coaches were all busy doing something on the PAL field bordered by 13th Avenue East and First Street.
Over there, coach Aaron Bankes threw pass after pass to pint-sized receivers.
Nearby coach Don Stancomb ran a handoff drill for running backs.
Behind them, coach Joe Ramer conducted something called a rolling core conditioning drill -- like kids rolling downhill without the hill.
“It’s fun,” said Brandon Dossey, 10.
That’s the important thing.
Ask Crystal Tyson, who followed nephew Dylan from a distance.
“It’s nice to watch the kids run around and have a good time, since we don’t have any other football to watch,” she said.
Eddie Starling, PAL’s longtime director of football operations, laughed.
“These kids could care less about it,” said the veteran Manatee County Sheriff’s deputy.
“As long as they’re the ones out here playing, they’re not even concerned with that.”
Their only concerns were keeping up with their teammates in conditioning drills.
“It’s a lot of running,” said Chris Litham, 10.
Starling estimated there were 350 kids practicing Tuesday -- 50 more on another field at PAL, the rest at satellite fields in Bradenton, Palmetto, Parrish and Lakewood Ranch.
After the jamboree Aug. 27 at PAL Stadium, 540 kids will be playing at each level from flag to varsity tackle for 10 weeks.
It isn’t all about football, either.
“We want to teach these kids about discipline, respect and confidence,” coach Stancomb said.
“Every kid here has something. We want them to go with their heads high.”
The same goes for their grades.
Starling said PAL re- ceives progress reports from each player during the season and if the grades drop, the player gets tutorial help.
“As opposed to putting them out, we work with them to get their grades back up,” he said. “Our focus is education.”
Of course, school was the last thing on these boys’ minds Tuesday afternoon.
Football was back.
That those little guys dropped more of coach Bankes’ soft passes than they caught didn’t matter.
“It’s going to take a while,” he said.
“But they’re going to learn the game and, hopefully, learn to love the game.”
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.
What: Registration for football or cheerleading at the Police Athletic League of Manatee County.
Where: 202 13th Ave. E., Bradenton.
Information: Call Deputy Eddie Starling at 747-1118, ext. 209.