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On a rainy Friday in late August, the Evergreen Cougars' senior-level midget football team prepares for its final pre-season scrimmage. In eight days, the team is scheduled to open its season against the feared South Jeffco Gators, winners of last year's coveted Carnation Bowl, and a feeling of uneasiness hangs over the field.
Once a squad that dominated its opponents, the Evergreen team is in disarray. Last week's inter-league scrimmage was a mess. With the opening game of the regular season just over a week away, many parents are anxious.
For first-year coach Mike Mahoney, this is hardly unexpected. Rumblings of discontent "started five minutes after the first practice was over," he recalls. "My predecessor told me, 'If you don't win games 58 to nothing and go 11-0, parents will be furious at you.'"
Indeed, with that first big game looming, pressures are intensifying on the new coach. In recent weeks, the phone calls from irate mothers and fathers demanding that something be done have arrived with increasing frequency. Today, from the vantage point of a small softball-cum-football field in the foothills as a full-pad, light-contact practice gets under way, the reigning champs look like Visigoths -- or at least as much like Visigoths as thirteen-year-olds can look. "They're definitely the monsters of the midway," Mahoney says of the Gators.
"They don't have a single lineman under 160 pounds," warns Rebecca Schloegl, a league administrator and mother of a Cougar.
Adds assistant coach Mick Gorrell: "I heard their line averages 190."
Back in the parking lot, where the players' parents mill around talking, or wait in cars for their children, the mood is somber. "It's going to be an interesting year," says one.
If Mike Shanahan had to coach the Cougars for a year, maybe he'd stop whining so much about his job. Considering what Mahoney's juggled in the past month, the Broncos' coach is sitting on easy street.
With an exception here and there, the Broncos have left adolescence behind. Wrangling a posse of spoiled twenty-year-old millionaires may seem difficult, but it's simple addition compared with the advanced calculus of working with newly minted, hormone-crazed teenagers. "With puberty," says Schloegl, "we see this huge range of kids -- size-wise, strength-wise. Shaving-wise."
Shanahan has to direct an NFL team whose running back has a glass knee and whose tight end has a big mouth. But Mahoney must patch together a football squad in which the largest player, Nate Robison, the Cougars' powerful defensive end, is 6'4" and tilts the scales at 180 pounds -- and the smallest, Colton Himmelman, is a serious growth-spurt away from five feet and might weigh eighty pounds with a pocketful of quarters.
And unlike the NFL, midget-league rules require that everyone plays who wants to play -- no matter how perilous the outcome. "Some of these kids don't belong out here," Mahoney admits. "I've had conversations with parents in which I've said, 'If I put little Johnny in, the next conversation we'll be having is: Don't worry, little Johnny is fine; his leg is only broken.'"
Puberty doesn't just mark a sudden turning point in the bodies of young boys. It also signifies big changes in their organized football. Last year, when they turned twelve, the boys of the Jefferson County Midget Football Association moved from playing on a kid-sized, sixty-yard field to a full-sized one-hundred-yarder. Not only does that mean more running, but it means bigger collisions, too. Several Cougars, victims of enhanced velocity, are already nursing injuries.
At thirteen, midget football also lifts weight restrictions. For ages eight through twelve, the league vigorously enforces rules barring the biggest kids from ball-carrying and linebacker positions. Those weigh-ins, which shuffle the giants to the front lines, are an attempt to prevent the gruesome spectacle of a 175-pound eleven-year-old with a mustache plowing through tiny defensive linemen play after play, or an adult-sized linebacker gathering a lethal head of steam before leveling a pint-sized ball carrier.
With this team, all bets are off; anyone can play any position. As a result, Mahoney must preach the importance of first-strike capability. "Football is not about going out and having a Kumbaya warm-and-fuzzy time," the coach explains. "It's a violent sport. You'd better hit, and hit hard, and hit first, 'cause there's another kid out there who's being taught how to do that, and you're gonna get hit into next week.
"We have some kids who may literally get ripped to pieces," he adds, sighing. "It's a problem."
The Evergreen thirteen-year-olds are having a "rebuilding year" like Iraq is having a rebuilding year.
This year's Cougars are actually a combination team. Until now, the Cougars had enough kids to field two squads, Division I and Division II. The difference between the teams' skills could hardly be greater: Think New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers, Serena Williams and Anna Kournikova.
From the time they started together at age eight, the players in Division I Cougars stomped their opponents like Michael Flatley on hot coals, compiling a 45-7 record. In 2001, when the team members were eleven years old, they ran roughshod over the league, amassing an astonishing 514 points to their opponents' 52. Over four years, they won two championships and finished runners-up in another.