Four former Greater Johnstown High School standout athletes founded the Speed Demons youth flag football program to fill what they saw as an obvious void.
But in addition to bringing to the region what they hope evolves into an elite-level travel program, Joe Hall, Will Harris, Rodney Hill and Greg Nash envision Speed Demons as an opportunity to “bridge the gap” in the community.
Football, they say, could unite athletes and parents from different school districts and diverse social and economic backgrounds.
“How do we bring these kids together at a young age?” asked Nash, 36, an athletic trainer known in the area for his Prisoners of Iron fitness program. “How can that young kid who doesn’t want for anything in his household, who lives in a really nice house, connect with that kid from the projects and not be intimidated? And, be able to have conversations, be friends and hang with each other?
“You attack that at a young age, especially with everything going on in our country right now, how divided we are. I feel like this is our way to close the gap between these different types of kids, different types of communities and different types of people, parents included. This is our way to bridge the gap.”
The travel program is open to young athletes throughout the region and currently has teams competing in age divisions for kids 12 and under, 10 and under and 8 and under. The five-player teams play flag football instead of competing in full contact with pads.
The local squads will debut in Philadelphia on Sunday in a tournament held by the organization Flag Football for Life.
“We started it because we saw that our area has travel wrestling, travel baseball, softball, basketball, and there is just nobody doing it here in our area in football,” said Harris, who is the Greater Johnstown wrestling coach and an assistant varsity football coach.
“We also don’t want to stick just inside Johnstown,” Harris said. “We want the best kids all competing together from Indiana, Johnstown and Altoona – that radius. We want the best kids getting out there and getting after it, learning together, practicing together and getting better together.”
The Speed Demons program practices at Turfside Indoor Sports Complex in Windber. In addition to football, there are agility classes on Friday nights.
There also is an academic standard to be met by Speed Demons participants. The four coaches said Melissa Hall, LaShae Jeffers and Jill Nash each provide support from an educational perspective.
The program truly has been a grass-roots effort.
“We put out a letter to all the kids in the area 12-U and down,” said Hall, 39, who is a wrestling coach at Greater Johnstown High School. “It’s something that’s never been done in Johnstown. Travel football was an untapped resource in this area.
“The beauty of it is, we have so many kids from so many different areas – Altoona, Windber, Richland, Central Cambria, Westmont. It’s not just a Johnstown thing. These kids are working out together. If we get it to the point we want it to be, these kids are going to see each other on Friday nights (in high school). There won’t be as huge of a divide like there is now. ‘We don’t hate you. We’re competing against you.’ ”
Flag football also will help the younger athletes learn the game with less risk of significant injuries resulting from contact.
“It’s important because there are a number of kids who don’t participate in the full-contact, tackle peewee football due to the risk of head trauma,” said Hill, a 1995 graduate of Greater Johnstown. “This is an opportunity to teach the football game in an environment where risk of head injuries is reduced significantly. There still is the possibility of that to occur, but I think it’s reduced without having the tackling involved.
“This allows the youth to focus more on the rules, concepts and schemes that can be implemented and strategies to compete.”
Hall, Harris, Hill and Nash each have children playing on various teams in the program.
They embrace the role of coach, parent and role model.
“Selfishly, I can say I want to do this because it’s going to make my child better,” Hall said. “But in reality, it’s about doing our part. You need to be the change you want to see. Some of these kids would probably never be together if it wasn’t for wanting to get better in sports.
“They’d never know, ‘Hey, this kid is the same as me. He likes ‘Black Panther’ like I like ‘Black Panther.’ He likes Patrick Mahomes like I like Patrick Mahomes.’ They’re kids. Their intentions are pure for the most part.”