As America's national holiday, Super Bowl Sunday, fast approaches, the hype and anticipation attached to the event nationwide is nothing next to the fervor here in Sooner/Cowboy Country where, in the heart of the average football-loving Okie, every day is Super Bowl Sunday, as experienced by Don Smolen when he took his son Luke to try out for a 1st grade football team in Jenks a couple of years ago.
He thought he'd be taking him to learn how to play a game and to have some fun with his friends.
What actually happened, though, in his view, was something much more akin to entrusting his young son to the care of a religious cult.
A religious cult of Spartan warrior fanatics.
"It was just crazy," Smolen said.
"It was really disappointing, how fanatical this was," he added.
"It was almost like a little military boot camp," said John Sherment, who had much the same experience when he took his then 7-year-old son Braxton to try out.
Of course, the near-religious fervor and military intensity they witnessed at the pee-wee gridiron is pretty common here in football-frenzied Oklahoma, but the Sooner State's distinctive culture of zealotry is cut from the same national cloth of fanaticism typified in other instances of over-the-top devotion to the game.
National news headlines are routinely punctuated with tales of little league parents and coaches whose excitement and emotional investment in the game boil over into near psychosis.
Freaks Not Fans
In 2006 in Stockton, CA, 36-year-old Cory Petero, a youth football league coach who was also the parent of one of the players, was fired and banned from the league after he tackled, or mauled, rather, a 13-year-old player who'd tackled his own son on the field.
Also that year, in Philadelphia, 46-year-old Wayne Derkotch pulled a .357 magnum on his six-year-old son's football coach through the course of a brawl that ensued because Derkotch didn't think his son was getting enough time on the field.
No shots were fired in that incident, but a high school football coach in Canton, Texas the year before wasn't so fortunate.
Gary Joe Kinne was shot and critically wounded by the father of one of his players for the same reason, which was compounded by the fact that Kinne had given his own son the coveted position as the team's starting quarterback.
The madness is arguably a bit more acute here in Sooner Country, though, as evidenced in June last year when 32-year-old Brian Christopher Thomas committed the unforgivable crime of walking into Henry Hudson's Pub in Oklahoma City, garbed in a Texas Longhorns T-shirt.
Some hardcore OU fans (which describes much of the state's population) might think Thomas had it coming for the faux pas, but what should have been nothing more than some good-natured trash talking between himself and 53-year-old Sooner fan and church deacon Allen Michael Beckett, ended in a vicious bar fight in which Beckett, literally, nearly tore off Thomas' manhood.
"He could see both of his testicles hanging on the outside of this body," Carl Hughes, Thomas' attorney, told an Associated Press reporter in the aftermath of the incident.
Beckett was charged with aggravated assault, to which he pleaded not guilty. Some legal commentators have questioned whether it's even possible to find an impartial jury in the state for his trial, though.
Go Big or Go Home
Here in Green Country, some equally heated, albeit less violent football-related court drama last year centered on 9-year-old Brayden Mathis, who was removed from his Jenks football team because he lived in the Union school district. His parents were in the process of buying a home in the Jenks district at the time.
They had decided to move to the Jenks district because of disagreements with Brayden's football coach at Union.
A several-months-long lawsuit against the Indian Nations Football Conference by Tony Mathis, Brayden's father, ended in October when a Tulsa County district judge issued an injunction to prevent Brayden's removal from the team, on the condition that the Mathises moved in by Sept. 1.
From the university level all the way down to elementary school, football is serious business here in Oklahoma, as evidenced by the lengths parents like the Mathises are willing to go to keep their kids in the game, as well as by the intensity witnessed by parents like the Smolens and the Sherments, who unwittingly walked into the world of youth football on the erroneous assumption that it's just a game.
Smolen, a local attorney, was shocked by what he saw when he took his son to try out.
"First, they have this three day--I don't what you'd call it---a skills camp?" Smolen said.
He said hundreds of kids and "hundreds and hundreds" of parents and grandparents turned out for the event in August, as well as numerous local area high school coaches who were, from what Smolen could tell, "scouting" for potential phenoms for recruitment to their own teams a few years down the line.
"You'd think it was the NFL draft," said Sherment of Keystone Services, a local construction company.
"Coaches were literally lined-up with stopwatches while they ran the kids through drills," he said.
Based on kids' performances in the drills, the coaches then drafted them to one of the 15 teams in the Jenks youth football league, which is run by the Indian Nations Football Conference.
"They all got on a team, but it depends on what team drafts them. Each of the coaches can put a certain-colored dot on a few kids," recounted Smolen.
A color-coded dot meant that coach had dibs on the athlete.
From what Smolen saw, the drafting process turned into a pretty cut-throat contest between some coaches.
He said one coach's son was immediately "dotted" by the coach of an opposing team--not because the boy was so good, but because it gave that coach some leverage on the other, enabling him to trade him back his own son for a top-quality athlete or two.
The entire draft process, they said, was a taxing experience for kids and parents alike.
"I couldn't believe they had kids doing all this stuff," said Sherment.
He said his son, like most of the six and seven-year-olds participating, was confused about what was going on and what was expected of him, especially when he thought it was just supposed to be for fun.
"Most of these kids had never played football before in their lives--they don't know how do to a karaoke move," he said, recalling the complex exercises his son and his peers were run through during their introduction to the sport.
"It's kind of overwhelming, the expectation that your kid's going to go out and play and have a good time, but no--it's definitely a competition," said Sherment.
Once a child was placed on a team, he was expected to live, breath, eat (or not eat), think and dream about football.
As Smolen observed, kids who weighed more than 65 pounds weren't allowed to run the ball.
"So, you'd have kids stripping down to their boxers to weigh-in, and not eating that day, so they can run the ball," he said.
"They're seven!" he added.
The mental demands, Smolen said, are equally steep.
He said the kids were given 30-page playbooks to learn.
"It was just stupid. My kid's looking at me like, 'What in the world is this?'" he said.
"You've got 1st graders who are just learning how to read, and they want them to memorize these 30-page playbooks?" Smolen continued.
Sherment said he witnessed a few coaches heaping verbal abuse on some of the six and seven-year-olds in their care.
"We were fortunate," he said.
"We had a good group of coaches who didn't yell at the kids--there was discipline: 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir'; but there were some coaches that would just unload on their players: 'What's wrong with you?,' 'That was a stupid move!,'" Sherment recounted.
"The kid's seven!" he reiterated.
"From a parent's perspective, it was a bit of an overkill," said Sherment.
"It's definitely overblown, what kids have to go through. It's gotten to where kids aren't kids," he added.
"It's too much, too young. It's definitely a fanatical, sports-cult mentality," concurred Smolen.
"I think that, for the kids that are the stud athletes at nine years old, I'm sure it's a great experience, but not for the kids who get burnt out before they're mature enough to know what's going on," he continued.
Smolen said his own son is in the "burned out" category when it comes to football.
"After that season, we decided there was no way we were doing that again," he said.
Luke Smolen is in the 3rd grade at Bixby public schools, which the elder Smolen described as "less intense" in terms of its football culture than Jenks.
"Union's just as crazy as Jenks, but they play other schools," he added.
Smolen isn't alone in his characterization of Union and Jenks as "football crazy."
Each district only has one high school, but both are also among the most populous districts in the state, with 14,518 students in the Union district and 9,426 in Jenks.
That's compared to Tulsa Public Schools (the largest in Oklahoma) with its 41,273 and nine high schools, or Edmond (4th largest) with its 19,917 students and three high schools.
There is no statute governing how many students can be enrolled in a high school before it has to break up into smaller schools. Shelly Hickman, spokesperson for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, said it's entirely up to each individual district's school board how large or small, crowded or uncongested its high school is.
Some observers have speculated that football, more than education, is the driving consideration behind that decision in some districts.
Of course, it's a tall order finding a school administrator to go on-record to explain this as a rationale for school size, but basic math says, the larger the pool of students from which a high school football coach can draw students, the greater his concentration of talented athletes, and the better his chances of winning consistently.
"In large high schools, so many people try out, lots of great athletes sit on the bench," said TPS Superintendent Dr. Michael Zolkoski.
He declined to comment on whether he thought that was an underlying factor in some districts having only one high school, but said, "There's probably also some appeal in having more people rooting for one team."
He added, in contrast, "We have a lot of opportunities for sports in Tulsa Public Schools."
Oklahoma's culture of all-encompassing football intensity, though, fuels opportunities elsewhere for high school athletes aspiring to college.
As reported in last Sunday's Tulsa World, universities in other states are taking notice of the talent born, bred and tempered in Oklahoma, as four of the Oklahoma Top 25 high school seniors, as ranked by "http://www.rivals.com/">www.rivals.com, have been recruited by Texas Tech, and another eight will likely get drafted by Kansas State.
Meanwhile, some of the would-be athletes weeded out by that same pigskin-crazed culture are seeking opportunities beyond the realm of football.
While Smolen's son finished out his introductory season before deciding to stop the madness and mothball his $500-worth of football equipment, Sherment's son only made it to four games before his appendix flared up, necessitating some surgery that kept him from finishing out the season.
Now that he's recovered, though, Braxton has come to the realization that his niche just isn't in football.
"He's a stud baseball player," beamed the elder Sherment, who recently spent $40,000 of his own money to build a new baseball stadium for Braxton's little league organization.
Braxton's experience in the world of youth football wasn't all bad, though.
"He did meet a lot of his classmates there, and he learned about team camaraderie," Sherment said.
"He also had a great set of coaches. We couldn't have asked for a better set of coaches," he said.
When Braxton had his appendectomy, Sherment said his coaches visited him in the hospital, bringing a game ball signed by all of his teammates to cheer him up.
One of those coaches was Kirby Abney, who was one of two head coaches on the team.
My Son the "Manimal"
If there is a prototypical sports-fanatic parent, it's Abney, who lives and breathes not just football, but athletics in general.
By profession, he's a speed conditioning and strength trainer at the Versus Training Center in Broken Arrow, which is on the grounds of the old Velocity Sports Performance facility, which Versus owner Tony Holden bought out not too long ago.
Holden also happens to be the fight promoter for Tulsa native and super middleweight boxer Alan Green, who is also a beneficiary of Abney's training expertise.
"I like training the little kids just as much," said Abney.
Those kids include the athletes on this team, as well as his own sons, 14-year-old Garrett and 8-year-old Dalton.
He said both excel at football and wrestling, while Garrett also excels at track and field and Dalton at baseball.
"Garrett's one of the top athletes around," said Abney. "He's liable to take state in the 8th grade pole vault, and he's a straight-A student."
His youngest has been nicknamed "Manimal" by his coaches and teammates.
"He's phenomenal. He's a freak of nature," Abney added, explaining that "Manimal" is currently ranked No. 1 in the world (that's right--the world) for his division and weight within the World of Wrestling system, which spans the United States, Europe and Japan.
While the pressure to succeed at those levels might daunt a lot of kids and parents, Abney said he isn't pushing either of his sons into their activities.
"They're doing it because they love it," he said, noting that football, or any other sport, just isn't every person's calling.
Abney said his sons are free to find their own hobbies of choice if they decide sports aren't for them.
"If Dalton came in and said, 'Mom, Dad, I want to quit and play the piano,' we'd have the best piano player in the world. We'd have 20 different styles of piano in the house for him to practice on. If they want to do something, we'll go 100 percent and do it," he said.
It's that same level of commitment that Abney said he and other coaches bring to the Jenks youth football league, volunteering as much as 30 hours a week to working with the kids to enable them to succeed in their own athletic endeavors.
He acknowledged that kids can have "bad experiences" with some of the coaches, who "might get frustrated if the kid's out there picking daisies," but he encourages parents to come and talk to him after a game or practice if they see something they don't like.
He rejects some people's "religious fanatic" characterization of the youth football culture, though.
"Do us parents go overboard sometimes? Yes," he said.
"I might get worked up and yell at my son in the heat of a game, but I'll tell him I'm sorry afterward and beg his forgiveness," Abney said.
He acknowledged that the first three days of the football season--the drafting process--is a pretty elaborate production that can drain some parents and children, but said the skills evaluation is necessary to keep everything fair, so coaches can't stack their teams with all the best players.
It also serves the purpose of enabling coaches to determine which kids need the most attention, and how to tailor their instruction accordingly.
"We have some kids out there who already know how to throw and tackle, but some still can't walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. We want to know what we're getting, so we can start teaching them," said Abney.
He said the process of teachings kids the basics of the sport can be frustrating for coaches as well as kids.
"It can be hard on the coaches--you love all the kids, but some are out there who just want to go and pick daisies," he said.
"It takes a lot, though to take all these first-year players and teach them how to play, tackle and be aggressive, and how to have fun, all at the same time," Abney continued.
He also denied that the high school coaches show up to the draft so they can scout out future stars.
He said Alan Trimble, head coach for the Jenks Trojans high school football program, is always there as an unpaid volunteer, not to further his own success, but simply because he loves the game.
"The reason he's so successful is that all these first, second and third-graders love him. He puts as much time into volunteering with the youth as he does in his high school program," said Abney.
He also took exception to the characterization of Bixby as "less intense" in its football zealotry than Jenks or Union, noting that they won the INFC title two consecutive years recently.
"Bixby's football program--they have fun, but they're intense and competitive, too," Abney explained.
But, he said, that intensity and competition that comes with football-done-right isn't everyone's cup of Gatorade.
"It's just not for everyone. Bottom line," he said.
"I applaud John Sherment. He made an educated decision, and saw that football just wasn't Braxton's niche. Baseball is, and now he's an awesome baseball player," Abney explained.
"I love his son, and I worked him out, but football was just not his niche," he added.
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