Youth football on hold because of COVID-19

Barricades block the parking lot entrances to the Veterans Memorial Park and Sports Complex in La Feria where many youth sporting events usually take place in the spring. The COVID-19 pandemic has canceled spring football in La Feria. The Veterans Memorial Park and Sports Complex in La Feria sits empty on April 29. The coronavirus has caused parks to be closed and forced the cancellation of the TYFA spring football season in La Feria. By Claire Cruz, Valley Morning Star

By CLAIRE CRUZ, Staff Writer

HARLINGEN — Football may be king in Texas, but even the gridiron gangs aren’t immune to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Youth football players across the Rio Grande Valley are facing a spring without touchdowns and big hits as leagues are being affected due to the quick-spreading coronavirus. The Texas Youth Football Association canceled its spring season April 1, which left a lot of young athletes across the Valley disappointed.

The Youth Sports Nation headquartered in McAllen is waiting to see how things go once Texas starts reopening Friday. Commissioner JJ Rodriguez said if things look good in mid-May, the organization could kick off the spring football season and run it through the end of June before starting up a summer league in July.

“We’re holding out hope (that we’ll have football soon),” Rodriguez said. “The kids are the ones that are really sad about it. One of the first things out of their mouths are, ‘I’m bored, I want to play again, I want to see my friends again.’ A lot of kids use this as an outlet and love to be involved with sports, and to not have this kind of dampens their spirit a little bit but we want to let them know to keep praying and keep their hopes up because it will be back.”

Rodriguez said Youth Sports Nation had around 40 teams from across the Valley, including Harlingen, San Benito, Santa Rosa and Monte Alto, signed up and ready to start their football seasons in March. The organization offers flag football for kids as young as 5 years old and has 7-on-7 competitions for middle and high school boys.

Pedro Torres has been coaching youth football in La Feria and other places around the Valley for many years. He brought TYFA back to La Feria in the fall and had two teams make the playoffs in their respective divisions.

He and the future Lions were excited to keep that momentum and development building in the spring. Torres said La Feria was going to field two teams, a rookies squad comprised of 8-9 year olds and a juniors squad of 10-11 year olds, and with the association pushing back start dates he was staying positive that the season would happen.

But TYFA co-founder and CEO Brian Morgan released a statement at the start of the month that read: “Based on (Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott extending shelter in place directives and school closures) and the impact that this epidemic continues to have in our state as well as across the country … the 2020 TYFA spring season has been canceled. … I understand that this decision will not be welcomed by all, but it is the logical decision and the safety and health of our participants is our main concern.”

Torres said he respects the decision, but the news was tough to hear and it was harder to tell his players.

“It did affect us because a lot of our kids look forward to practice and look forward to playing games,” Torres said. “It’s tough on these kids not being able to go out, play football, see their friends, and it’s tough for me as a coach, too. You build a bond with these kids that you can’t just turn off.”

Matthew Avalos coaches TYFA in Rio Hondo, and even though the young Bobcats don’t field teams in the spring, he still helps kids that want to play football year-round. Avalos said he had about 10 boys this year that wanted to play spring ball, and he was in contact with coaches in the area to place those boys on teams that needed more players.

Most of his other athletes were scheduled to play baseball with the Rio Hondo Youth Sports League. Avalos said the league is brainstorming ways to avoid a possible dip in participation because of the halt in sporting events, such as transferring fees that have already been paid to cover fall season costs.

“It’s hard, especially for us in a small town, we’re already battling concussions and parents not wanting their kids to get hurt, so now, if parents don’t want their kids coming back, it’s hard for us,” Avalos said. “When everything calms down I’d like to do some camps or workouts, something to get the kids together if we get the chance.”

Torres also hopes to get his football players up and working when the time is right. He’s thinking about ways to schedule practices that will keep gatherings from getting too large and safety precautions his players should take to avoid the spread of germs.

Though it’s hard for players and coaches alike to be away from the game and their team members, there is a silver lining to be found. Avalos said it’ll be good to see the excitement in the kids when they can play again, and Torres called the pause an opportunity for players to enjoy the game instead of worrying about wins and losses.

“If you think about it, a lot of these kids now have the chance to play football at their house just for fun,” Torres said. “TYFA is very competitive. These kids have a lot of pressure from coaches and parents that want to win, so a lot of these kids may have needed this break and it could end up being a good thing in the long run.”