KINSMAN - On Saturday afternoons during the fall, chances are that when driving by Kinsman Township Park just off state Route 5, it will be full of people and a parking nightmare.
The people are there to watch the Badger Youth Football Program play against other teams in the area, and even though the Braves have 45 players split across three teams (6 to 8 year olds, 9 to 10 year olds and 11 to 12 year olds), they can get a rather large crowd, according to president Joe Laverty.
"For a town this size, it's not a very big town, it's not a very big school, we don't have huge team numbers, but on any given Saturday, there can be 300 or over 400 people at this park watching youth football," Laverty said. "There is a lot of support out there for it."
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Badger assistant youth football coach Jeremy Cottrell, left, talks with members of the team during halftime of a game against Newton Falls. Badger, which doesn’t have a high school football program, started the youth organization six years ago and have enjoyed the results.
When the program was created six years ago, the group of individuals who started it and the ones who originally became involved couldn't foresee that support, not knowing whether the program could sustain itself.
The youth in Kinsman, Vernon and Gustavus have caught onto it and helped it grow. Since the program's start, 192 different children have signed up and participated in Badger Youth Football, with 126 playing the sport and 64 cheerleading, according co-founder and current vice president Jason Metz.
Kelly Harnett, 40, a registered nurse, was involved with the program for its first five years, as her son Noah played as a Brave. She said she saw the growth over that time in the kids.
"When we got into football with this program, it was a risk for everybody because nobody really knew if this program would succeed, if it would take off - we really knew absolutely nothing," Harnett said. "Every year we saw growth in the kids and in the program."
Much of that growth in the program came in the form of a field, which was built from scratch at the beginning.
Local businesses donated money, time and effort to fabricate goalposts and to repaint and refurbish a scoreboard that the program bought online from East Carolina University for around $1,500. They managed to build a small barn that can function as a "press box," where the scoreboard operator and announcer sit during home games.
As for equipment, the Ashtabula Midget Football League - the first league in which the Braves played - supplied the equipment, keeping costs down at first.
They raised money through fundraising efforts, such as raffles, T-shirt sales, tag days and donations before the start of the program. Adding concession sales for home games (which Metz said gives the program $700 in profit per game) has allowed the program to be solvent.
"Six years ago, it was just a field," Metz said. "Now we have goalposts, a press box, a real nice scoreboard and we plan on pushing further. We're just hoping for community support, and that's what we're getting."
To go along with the administrative side, the program has had plenty of success on the field.
Five Braves teams made it to the Super Bowl in the first four years of Badger football, spanning across two leagues. In the first year, 2008, the 8-10-year-olds lost to Pymatuning Valley in the championship game of Ashtabula Midget Football, and that same group went undefeated and got revenge to win the Super Bowl the very next year.
When Badger moved into the Tri-County Youth Football League in 2011 to play against teams in closer proximity, the 9-to-10-year-old group clinched the program's second championship, going undefeated and beating Southington in the Super Bowl.
Now, the teams play in the Northeast Ohio Youth Football League, where they play against schools like Mathews, Lakeview, Champion, Southington, McDonald, Newton Falls and Jackson-Milton.
"With the success, I couldn't be happier," Metz said. "Just seeing the kids having that opportunity to be able to play is more than words could say."
The kids are happy to get the opportunity as well, both Laverty and Metz said. The players wear their uniforms on Fridays at school - even a player at a parochial school in Greenville, Pa., received permission to wear his jersey over his uniform.
Between that and the number of kids wearing Badger Youth Football gear in school photos shows they are proud to play the game, Metz said.
"A lot of these kids, even during other sports and different seasons, I'll walk up and Jason will walk up and it's talking about football," Laverty said. "The kids that are out here just love going out there, and for as small a school as this is, I've never seen more athletes at a young age come out of here."
The players' excitement at playing football has only increased with the opportunity to meet current Pittsburgh Steeler tackle Mike Adams twice - once when he was a player at Ohio State and another this summer.
Adams talked to the group, signed autographs, took photos and played with the kids, Metz said. He was happy with Adams' visit and said the kids were in awe of Adams because he is "a mountain of a man" who plays what he loves for a living.
"Because everybody wants to be running the ball, it's good to have an offensive lineman there to teach them that we had an offensive line, to show them there's more positions than quarterback and running back," Metz said. "It takes a whole team, and he said what we preach, which is teamwork."
While six years ago the community didn't have such a program, both Laverty and Metz said they believe Badger Youth Football is now here to stay.
"I don't see the youth program going anywhere," Laverty said. "I think it's entrenched deep enough in the six years that you're always going to have kids here just hoping for that one-in-a-million chance that the school picks it up and goes with it."