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Original Issue

Tops in Pop's

The 50th Pop Warner Super Bowl in Orlando showed how far the game has come, and where it's going

ON THE EVE of last Saturday's 50th Pop Warner national championship game in the Junior Pee Wee division, 30 boys from Gastonia, N.C., gathered in room 3211 at Disney's All-Star Sports Resort in Orlando. The hyper kids, aged eight to 11, bounced up and down on twin beds and carried on as if they were in sleepover ecstasy. But then, suddenly, the room fell as silent as a judge's chambers. The coach of the Union Road Jaguars, Alan Melton, slipped a disc into a DVD player, and the boys started watching game action of their upcoming opponents, the East Bay Wranglers of Oakland. For the next 45 minutes the youngsters were transfixed. "Look at what the player you'll be going against is doing," Melton said in a firm voice. "Use this film to our advantage. Remember, we're on a business trip."

Welcome to the world of big-time peewee football, which is what the Pop Warner Super Bowl has become. Last weekend more than 8,000 players, cheerleaders and dance-team members were on hand as the youth league celebrated the 50th playing of the Super Bowl with title games in four age groups. It was a far cry from the first Pop Warner championship, in 1947, when some 2,000 fans showed up at South Philadelphia High to watch the local Palumbo's Clickets beat the Sinatra Cyclones, a New York City team sponsored by Frank Sinatra, 6--0. (No title game was played between 1953 and '58 or from 1979 to '82.)

"We've come a long way," says Jon Butler, the executive director of Pop Warner youth football. "Fifteen years ago we had 180,000 kids playing Pop Warner. Now we have 400,000, and there's lots of room for growth. But what really amazes me is how sophisticated the kids are getting in both the techniques and the terminology they're learning at such a young age."

No team at Disney World last week ran a more complicated offense than the Jaguars. They line up in an archaic double-wing offense (somewhere, Pop Warner was smiling: He created the formation in 1912) that features two tight ends, two wingbacks and a halfback. The backs constantly spin and flip the ball to each other on handoffs and reverses. To learn their 30 offensive plays, the kids used a decidedly 21st-century tool: the video game Madden 2007.

"I programmed our offense into Madden to help me memorize our plays," says halfback Aveontay (Sumo) Armstrong, 11, who returned a punt 63 yards for a TD—one of SportsCenter's Plays of the Day last Saturday. "It was easier than homework."

After winning their region to earn a berth in the national tournament at the Disney complex, the boys from North Carolina boarded a bus in Gastonia at 5 a.m. on Dec. 2. As the bus motored through the early-morning darkness, 14 sets of headlights followed behind: Parents convoyed with the team for 10 hours to Central Florida in a scene that could have come from the movie Hoosiers. "When I fell asleep, the kids tied my shoelaces together," says Melton, the coach, who works as a superintendent for an electrical contracting firm in Gastonia. "They all were having the time of their lives."

The fun continued for the Jaguars on Saturday. After sprinting onto the field by bursting through a paper banner held by their cheerleaders, the Jags blazed to a 21--0 second-quarter lead. As Tim Brown, the former Heisman Trophy winner and 18-year NFL veteran, stood on the sideline and watched the Jaguars flawlessly operate the double-wing, he shook his head in wonder. "How do they have all those plays memorized?" asked Brown, who performed the coin toss before the game. "That's complicated stuff."

When the final whistle blew, the scoreboard read Gastonia 39, Oakland 6. All the boys took a knee at midfield, and then the teary-eyed Oakland players gave the Jaguars a loud round of applause. It was a nice moment for all the kids—and a reminder that in Pop Warner, some things should never change.

Ones for the Ages

Along with the Union Road Jaguars, three other teams were crowned Pop Warner Division I national champions in their respective age groups last Saturday in Orlando.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]