Cougars Host Young Football Players

As the Cougars ran through the day's normal practice activities, a large host of young football players from grades three through eight gathered inside BYU's indoor practice for a day with the Cougars of BYU.

Standing along the north side of the Indoor Practice Facility sidelines were players sporting their football jerseys from Canyon View, Orem Jr., Wasatch North, Wasatch, Lone Peak, Oak Canyon and Lakeridge, among many other Pop-Warner football teams from across Utah Valley. The players stood together in their teams, watching and pointing out their favorite Cougars as they ran through technique and scrimmage drills.

"All I know is the that the youth of the area wanted to honor the owner of Park's Sportsman [Randy Park] for his influence and support of the youth of football leagues," said BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall. "We thought a nice way to do it would be to have them interact with our players, see practice, and then make the acknowledgement of him at the end here, and that's maybe the best thing we could do."

Following the Cougar practice, the young bystanders ran out onto the field where the coach of BYU addressed the group of players in a circle. After that, the players were divided up into groups by the position they played, and got a chance to be coached by members of BYU's football team.

"Leadership council members of our team had been assigned to run the drill work for each particular group that comes to them, make sure they treat them well and be a good example, and hopefully it will be a memorable experience for them," said Coach Mendenhall. "Maybe a by-product of this is to also connect the youth to our football program at a little higher level."

"You know, this is awesome," Kelly Poppinga said. "I love this as a college player. If I were small like all of these little guys running around here and had the chance to come to BYU at their age, [that] would have been awesome for me. You can see it in their faces how excited all of these little kids are, and they're out here running around and want to talk to you. You know, it was a lot of fun for us to be able to give back to the community."

Leading a large group of young football players were linebackers David Nixon, Kelly Poppinga, Matt Bauman and Dan Van Sweden, to name a few. The linebackers had their group doing tackling drills in which the young players would tackle a bag with a football set on top. After the tackle, the player had to get up, locate the fallen football and recover the fumble.

"Basically what we had today were the youth from around Utah Valley to come visit us today," said Poppinga with a smile. "Basically we just taught them some drills and they asked us some questions, some pretty funny ones."

"I play for Oak Canyon and I learned how to tackle hard, how to cause a fumble, how to recover a fumble and how to make a good pick," said young Spencer Kirby. "I'm a BYU fan and they're going to go undefeated and kill Utah like a million to one."

"I play center for the Oak Canyon Eagles and I met with the offensive linemen," said little Justin Shilling. "I like all the BYU linemen. We learned a lot of technique stuff with our hands and feet, but my favorite player is Kelly Poppinga because he's a freaking stud."

Poppinga started out playing football as a young Pop-Warner football league participant while growing up in Evanston, Wyoming.

"I did play Pop-Warner when I was a kid," said a laughing Poppinga. "In Evanston, Wyoming you start out in the third grade playing flag football through third and fourth grade, and then in the fifth grade you put on the pads. It was awesome growing up and being able to do that."

Harvey Unga, Manase Tonga, Joe Semanoff and the rest of the Cougar backs gathered their group together for some instruction on how to execute some basic running back fundamentals.

"We got a chance to teach the kids that play running back for their teams how to do some things that we as running backs do here at BYU," said Semanoff. "I'm sure some of the things we showed them were things they've seen before, but it didn't matter to them. We showed them how to take a handoff and ran through some cutting drills.

Unga had a swarm of young boys asking for his autograph following his teaching session with his group of kids. You can listen to Harvey Unga talk about Thursday's activities with the young football players.

Over with Dennis Pitta and the tight end group were many yellow-, blue- and green-jersey wearing young boys clinging to every word spoken by the Cougar tight ends.

"It was really nice," said Pitta. "What we do here at BYU is a lot of catching, so we would run routes with them and teach them things like that. We taught them how to run routes and I think that attracted a lot of kids to our group over there."

Giving instruction in the quarterbacks' group were Cougar pigskin slingers Max Hall, James Lark, Brenden Gaskins and Kurt McEuen. Receiving instruction from those that possess a popular and historically successful position at BYU made most kids wide-eyed with enthusiasm.

"They tried to teach us how to throw a football in the garbage can," said 10-year-old Canyon View quarterback Hunter Buttel. "They tell us to always aim for the receiver. I play quarterback and I like Max Hall. I have other favorite players too, like Harvey [Unga] because my dad [Benzo Buttel] knows his dad. I also like Fui [Vakapuna] too because I heard one time he broke, like, ten tackles. I'm also a BYU fan because my dad likes BYU, and I really like being here because I get to see all the BYU players."

"I thought it was really cool," said little Tucker Camp. "I learned how to throw better from Max Hall. It's really cool. I'm a big BYU fan and I'm the quarterback of my football team too. My football team is called the Lakeridge Leopards."

While Camp is a quarterback, his favorite BYU Cougar happens to be a defensive player.

"My favorite football player is Bryan Kehl because he's really good on defense," Camp said. "He's really good, but I also like lots of people like Max Hall and Harvey Unga. I had a lot of fun."

The players-turned-coaches-for-a-day not only found out how difficult it can be to teach a group of young and enthusiastic young boys, but also got a taste of how funny little boys can be.

"Well, one question that was asked me was, ‘When are we going to do a drill that is fun?'" said a chuckling Poppinga. "It kind of made me feel a little bad. No, it was a lot of fun, and it was really funny to see how sometimes kids can be brutally honest."

"I didn't get any funny questions," said a chuckling Pitta. "But Kelly [Poppinga] is right: playing linebacker isn't fun. Showing kids how to run routes and catch the ball, now that's the fun part of football."

"A question I got was how much I can bench," said Semanoff, also chuckling. "I got that one and another I got was what was the best running move I ever made here, along with what was my favorite color. It was a lot of fun. I love being a player, but it's fun being the coach as well some times."

Coach Mendenhall said that experiences such as those on Thursday have benefits beyond being fun.

"Any chance they have to interact with the community, whether it's young people, members of the Church, the Red Cross or elderly, we would [love] to have an influence and help peoples' lives," Coach Mendenhall said. "Again, to me the whole point of this isn't football. Football is the vehicle, as I've said so many times, to maybe add to the community and do some good. What I know is how our credibility is tied to how we play on Saturday, but again these things are, to me, really helpful."

On A Side Note

Speaking of community service, three of the five players suspended for recent honor code violations have returned to the team. Running back Ryan Love returned to the team on Wednesday and Gary Nagy and David Angilau returned on Thursday. The two remaining players, Brannon Brooks and G Pittman, are expected back soon.

"Again, I don't track their hours," said Coach Mendenhall. "I get them as they finish, and then they have basically an exit interview with me after the hours. Then starts the next phase of criteria they need to meet, and so again three of the five have completed the 20 hours [of community service] to this point."

Total Blue Sports Top Stories