SPARTA, NJ – The boys on the Sparta Spartan Youth Football fifth and seventh grade teams my not be old enough to appreciate the opportunity they have been given by the National Football League. On Wednesday, the boys, their families and coaches went to the Sparta High School to learn they were two of only 70 teams nationally that had been chosen to play in the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s National Youth Football Championship tournament.
The announcement was made by representatives from the NFL Hall of Fame, former NFL player Roman Oben and a special call in guest Coach Herman Boone.
Rich McGuinness, Director of the National Youth Football Championship and founder of the program hosted the evening. McGuinness began the evening with a video message about football and the values promoted by the game, including diversity and character.
“This is the only sport where every player is needed on every play,” McGuinness said.
He grew up playing “midget football” in Boonton and later coached several different youth sports.
“I’m about 0-38 against Sparta in every sport,” McGuinness said. “I admire this strong community that supports its youth and wants them to do their best.”
McGuinness said he wanted to develop a football version of baseball’s Little League World Series. McGuinness spoke of the new playing facilities in Canton, Ohio and how he wanted to “build an event that was for all of the best teams in America.”
McGuinness had Boone call in to the talk with the boys, holding a microphone to his cell phone. Boone’s story had been made famous by the movie Remember the Titans. The coach called to talk to the boys about the team comradery and congratulation them on their successful seasons having merged two programs.
This year the former Bears league merged with the Sparta Spartans program, in several ways reminiscent of the Titans’ story, McGuinness said.
“I heard the story of the how the two programs merged,” Boone said, in several ways reminiscent of the Titan’s story of two high schools that merged in Alexandria, Virginia. “Both coaches said ‘we’re going to figure it out.’ We’re here tonight because you did it. It’s not necessarily about football, it’s about people accepting each other by their character, not by anything else.
“The world is waiting for your talent. It is important that you maintain your character throughout your life. I’d like to congratulation the parents too.”
Boone concluded, “I’ve heard of the hard work you do. Success only comes after hard work. I’m extremely proud of you and look forward to seeing you in the future. “Your participation in football motivates you to be and do your best. I look forward to seeing you in Canton.”
The coach extended the boys an invitation to call him anytime. A couple of boys took advantage of the offer, asking for Boone’s phone number after the event concluded.
In addition to the call in by Coach Boone, the boys had a special guest, Roman Oben. The retired New York Giants player also spoke to the boys and their families about the value of teamwork, positive attitude and hard work, not just for now but throughout life.
“After retiring I didn’t want to stop giving to football,” Oben said. He is now the NFL’s Director of Youth and High School Football.
Oben told the boys the role football played in the formation of his character, especially in high school.
“I know the conversation about football has become negative. I want to thank you parents for supporting your boys and for being involved in youth football,” Oben said.
He asked the boys: “ What can you control in football- your attitude. You can lead your teammates. You can control your concentration and your effort…You can’t control the outcome unless you put in the work. You have a great responsibility.”
McGuiness talked to the boys about how they were chosen. In addition to the teams’ “phenomenal records,” the teams were scouted at the Milk Bowl and early in their season for consideration. The scouts said they were watching for the interactions between the players and their coaches and among the players themselves; were they respectful, willing to listen and support each other.
“Team character was most important,” McGuinness said.
The scouts watched to see the skills on the field.
“We love to see your passing game develop, McGuinness said. “You are multidimensional and going to be able to rise the level of play at the national level. Your line play is always solid and coaching is excellent. You have great quarterbacks that play and back-ups that can throw.
“During the tournament you will be challenged. All you can do is just play your game and stay disciplined.”
“We’ve seen your commitment to the run and watched your passing game develop,” McGuiness said. “You guys line it up and knock it out. You roll and rack up the yards.”
McGuinness said he loved their hard hitting, referencing the “goal line stand against Cranford,” to the delight of the boys in the audience.
McGuinness read a letter from Sparta High School coach Frank Marciano, unable to attend because of a coaches’ league meeting.
“As a coach of a high school program, you are only as good as your incoming classes. I have the honor and privilege to be able to coach at Sparta High School. As this night proves, we have so many talented youth players and coaches. I have watched this group develop into an outstanding team with a bright future ahead.
“Best of luck in the weeks ahead. I will be there to root the Spartans on. Represent your town the yay Spartans always do.”
The coaches were invited on stage to accept the invitation to join the playoffs. The players were invited onto the stage to accept a patch to be worn on their jersey as they played.
Coach Jerry DiBlasio said, “The guys did a great job coming together and had a great year. We appreciate the National Football League Hall of Fame for inviting us. I hope we continue to win.”
Their adventure will begin on December 1 to 3 playing on the Pope John High School turf for the Mid-Atlantic regional title. Winners will move on from each region will compete in championship games from December 15 to 17 at the Johnson Controls Pro Football Hall of Fame Village.