Creswell Raiders Back row, left to right: Tyler Lamborn(Assistant coach), Bryce Lamborn, Shawn Hittenberger (Head coach) Front Row, left to right: Pierce Wilnau, Carter Cook, Andrei Donaryi, Jay Peters, David Boyd, Tyler Hittenberger, Logan Tripp. Photo provided/Shawn Hittenberger
It’s not football season, you say? Well, think again – because one local football team is actively tearing up the field and currently leading their league.
The Creswell Oakland Raiders flag football team, comprised mostly of fourth graders who attend Creslane Elementary School and coached by Shawn Hittenberger, competes in an NFL Flag Football league with other teams in the Eugene-Springfield area.
The regular league season consists of seven games – all played at the Bob Keefer Center for Sports and Recreation in Springfield. A playoff tournament is held at the end of the season.
Currently 4-1, the Creswell Raiders are first in their league with two games remaining before playoffs.
Undefeated until a 26-13 Mother’s Day loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Raiders kicked off the season with a 14-13, come-from-behind victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars on April 14. They downed the Steelers 33-18 on April 21, the Carolina Panthers 18-7 on April 28 and the Jacksonville Jaguars 42-30 on May 5.
”We’ve been tearing it up,” Coach Hittenberger said.
The Creswell Raiders wrap regular season play on May 19, playing the Panthers at 5:45 p.m. and the Jaguars at 7:15 p.m. at the Bob Keefer Center. Playoffs will be held June 9.
The NFL Flag Football league, sponsored locally by Maximus Sports, offers kids ages 5 to 17 the opportunity to play organized, non-contact football while wearing official NFL gear. The league provides official NFL Flag Football team jerseys and flag belts for every team member.
Powered by USA Football, the sport’s national governing body, NFL FLAG was launched in 1996 and is the country’s leading flag football program, emphasizing safety, education and support.
”It’s part of a big movement away from tackle football,” Hittenberger said. ”The kids wear mouthguards but there’s no contact, hardly, at all. It’s a real safe alternative way of learning the skill positions, the throwing, running and catching that will help them later if they do decide to play tackle football.”
The flag football movement is gaining momentum nationwide, with many medical and sports professionals – even former NFL players – advocating it over tackle football for youth, to help minimize the repeated, cumulative impacts to the head that often occur in sports like football, boxing, hockey and even soccer.
According to survey data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, as of 2017 flag football had surpassed tackle football as the most commonly played form of the game among children ages 6 to 12.
”My son Tyler played on the Buffalo Bills third/fourth grade team last year; his coach had been a star high school player, nationally ranked – and even he said no to tackle football at this age,” Hittenberger noted.
”Parents like it, too,” he added. ”A lot of times when I’m signing kids up their moms especially want to make sure: ‘Now, there’s no tackling, right?’.”
Maximus also operates adult flag football leagues for those looking to get back into the game in a low-impact way.
NFL Youth Flag Football is played five-on-five. The offensive team plays for a first down at midfield and a touchdown in the end zone. Running and passing plays are allowed, although there are no-running zones at midfield and near each goal line. The defensive team covers receivers, rushes the passer, and grabs flags to make ”tackles.”
Local youth leagues operate in the spring and fall. Coed divisions include Tiny Tots (four/five-year-olds), Little Pro (first/second grade), Junior Pro (third/fourth grade) and Big Pro (fifth/sixth grade). There are also separate boys’ and girls’ Pro (seventh/eighth grade) divisions. New teams can be formed to join a league, or individuals can sign up to be placed on an existing team. Visit http://www.maximussports.com/pages/nflyouthflag for more information.
As part of the Fuel Up to Play 60 program that aims to get kids outside playing and exercising for at least an hour every day, educators can also apply for free NFL FLAG-in-Schools Kits consisting of 10 footballs, 50 flag belts, three kicking tees, an NFL FLAG poster, participation certificates and flag football curriculum. Visit https://www.fueluptoplay60.com/funding/flag-football.
”It has been a joy coaching these boys and giving them a venue where they can learn the game of football and play in a safe manner,” Hittenberger said. ”I believe football imparts great lessons and provides kids with skills that serve them well throughout their lives.”