by Andrew Garda
Football season is about to descend upon Montclair once again, but it’s not just about what happens at the high school level.
Montclair is a town with two youth football programs for kids to choose from, with strong connections to each other in the past.
The Montclair Cobras, has been in place since 1969, when it was started by Howard Finney.
Wil Young,who heads the Cobras, says Howard is still an important part of the organization, though he retired from the field several years ago.
“It grew enormously,” Young said. “I wish I knew the exact dates but there was a time when he had over 300 kids out here.”
Finney and the Cobras essentially had a two-tiered structure in place. There was the travel team and for those who didn’t make the travel roster, the town league which was eventually handed over to the town recreation center.
“All the registration fees were interchangeable,” Young said. “If you didn’t make travel or Cobras we’d send you down there and [they] would have players he’d send up to here.”
Enter Garland Thornton, who had taken over the Rec duties from his predecessor Joe Fisher.
“About 2009 we started to add a little more structure,” Thornton said. “We found out a lot of kids whose grades weren’t right because they were too worried about sports and not academics. So we tried to make the kind of structure which brought playing and the academics together [and] we joined Pop Warner, which mandates a 2.0 GPA before the kids step on the field. That was just something I felt like I needed to bring to Montclair. So we’re in our 10th anniversary this year.”
That was the beginning of the Bulldogs, and the split between the two groups.
For MHS head coach John Fiore, it’s mostly been a blessing.
“We’ve been very blessed to have two great men in Wil Young and Garland Thornton running our youth football programs,” Fiore said. “And they both have a lot of quality coaches that I’ve had personal relationships now for the eight years. I think both organizations’ structure and the people running them are class acts and do a phenomenal job for kids.”
Unfortunately, with concerns over concussions and injuries which have trickled down to the high school and youth sports level, numbers have slowly decreased.
“I saw the numbers start declining the past few years due to the news with CTE and stuff like that,” Thornton said. “I think the challenge is just trying to get the kids on the field first, and then dealing with the numbers there.”
Young agrees, saying the Cobras saw their numbers under 100 last season for the first time in many years. Both organizations require their coaching staff to hold multiple certifications from organizations like Heads Up and USA Football, but you can only do so much to allay parent’s concerns.
Fiore says the numbers at the high school level have been similarly down because of what is happening at the youth level..
“Last year’s Cobras team and Bulldogs combined might have given me 12 eighth graders who played tackle football in the town. Right now we only have 20 [freshman] kids with their paperwork in.”
All three men say that in addition to the concerns about the long term impacts of the sport, the shifting demographics of the town have played a part. Young points out that families moving into the town often have younger children who haven’t reach an age to play organized sports yet.
Meanwhile, Fiore says the kids coming into town simply don’t gravitate towards football.
“They’re doing soccer, fencing, crew, lacrosse. We try to get our kids to play multiple sports [and they] get a bonus for playing multiple sports – it’s easier and quicker to get your equipment and number if you play multiple sports than if you just live in the weight room all year round and just play football in the fall.”
“This is a football town, we’ve always had numbers,” Thornton said. “This is an abnormal issue, where we’re just worried about just getting the kids on the field to play.”
Ultimately, Fiore would like to see the two organizations come together.
“I think the problem with having two youth leagues in our town right now is that there aren’t enough kids to go around. And they start recruiting the kids,” he said. “It’s easier to promote one program than having two in the same town. Because no matter what they’re going to be fighting over kids.”
The issue is that the Bulldogs and Cobras play under very different sets of rules.
The Bulldogs are part of Pop Warner, which has levels which restrict participation by a combination of weight and age, along with a mandatory 10-15 play count for every player depending on roster size.
For the Cobras, who are part of American Youth Football (AYF), their is no weight limitation, and player levels are decided strictly by age.
Both organizations believe in their philosophy, which makes it hard to come to terms on merging.
“I like the non-weight limit aspect of what the Cobras do,” he said, also pointing to the long tradition of Cobra football in town. On the other hand, he likes the play requirements of Pop Warner, and thinks the brand of the Bulldogs — which is the Mounties’ mascot — is an important link.
Fiore’s biggest concern is keeping kids in town. With numbers low, more out of town kids have joined both organizations, which doesn’t serve to prepare kids for heading to MHS. Further, there has been an increase in families heading to private and parochial schools, which further hurts the Mountie program.
Young stresses that his staff discourages kids leaving the school system but as both he and Fiore say, there’s only so much you can do.
“Since Fiore arrived, the numbers of kids playing [college football] speaks for themselves,” Young says. “And the education you get here in the Montclair school system is second to none. That message needs to be reiterated out in the community as well.”
“I think we have an unbelievable product,” Fiore says of one of the winningest football programs in the state. “Over 100 kids the last seven years have had an opportunity to play college football, 50 of those kids have gotten scholarship money of some sort and 21 of those kids are playing FBS football, the highest level.”
The Mounties sent five players to Division I schools on some sort of football scholarship, in addition to multiple players heading to play Division III ball.
“So the opportunities and academics at Montclair speak for themselves. We are a brand educationally. That’s why we have so many of our students at Ivy League schools.”
Kids still go to private schools though, and while Fiore feels he can improve his relationships with both organizations and parents, it’s still more difficult with two groups.
The Cobras are currently in their second week of camp and the Bulldogs begin practicing on Aug. 1. The Mounties are wrapping up summer practices and begin camp on Aug. 7. What the numbers will look like in the end is hard to say, but all three men seem open to the chance to join under one roof.
“It’s not an impossibility,” Young says. “I have always felt if we had all our horses in one stable, we’d be unstoppable.”
That said, he says differences in philosophy and organizational structure – what do you do with all the coaches – are a hurdle though, which could prevent it.
No matter the outcome on a merger, at the end of the day, Young, Thornton and Fiore are all hoping for the same thing: what’s best for the kids.