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PAL youth football team sees shrinking numbers

John Miller is searching for a backup quarterback. The man also needs backups at linebacker. And he’s close to putting out a want ad for second-team defensive backs.

Right now, Miller has only 11 players registered for his varsity-level Jaguars youth football team, which competes in the Manatee County Police Athletic League.

And the jamboree is only five days away.

Whoever his quarterback will be, the kid will no doubt have to play defense as well. Same goes for the wide receivers.

Nobody knows at this point who will be the team’s kicker.

If a player gets hurt, there’s no one to replace him. If a player gets sick, there’s no one to replace him. If a player’s family goes on vacation, guess what?

“It’s going to be very tough to be competitive,” Miller said, “because they are going to be very exhausted.”

There are many reasons why the Jaguars have a shortage of players.

The unemployment rate in Manatee County has hit 11 percent. Parents are struggling just to keep food on the table, and paying for the kids to play football is not a high priority.

Miller said PAL has kept its fees around $125, and there are scholarships available for parents in need of financial assistance.

But it’s about more than playing football.

It’s about keeping the youth of Manatee County occupied, keeping them focused on constructive goals, keeping them off the streets and out of trouble.

In a lot of cases, these kids are raising themselves, and football can help give their lives a bit of structure and provide positive role models.

“Football helps to keep kids off of the street,” Miller said. “You have to keep a kid involved in something to help them stay out of trouble. And PAL has kept its prices reasonable, compared to other programs in Manatee County.”

On the flip side, PAL has done itself a disservice.

The program has a rule where football players 13 or 14 years old can’t play in the league if they are entering high school.

Why shouldn’t kids who desire to play youth football as ninth-graders be able to do so?

The Big Boys level at PAL is equivalent to freshman football on the high school level.

Freshman football at Manatee County high schools is suffering from lack of participation. Those kids who aren’t physically or mentally prepared to play junior varsity football in high school are forced to sit out a season or play for another youth football program in the county. Miller said he knows of at least four players restricted from playing this season because of the rule.

“I saw this happen at the varsity level about two years ago when I was a coach on JV,” Miller said. “They couldn’t field a team, and I thought it was kind of sad.”

If you have any interest in your child playing football for the Jaguars this season, call John Miller at (941) 545-4878.

Miller’s still optimistic a good season awaits.

Ryan T. Boyd, sports writer, can be reached at (941) 745-7017.