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Community spirit
Gwinnett Football League thrives with hard work

Like the Georgia-Auburn football series needs another undercurrent of familiarity.

The two teams have played 110 times since first meeting in Atlanta's Piedmont Park in 1892.

But in 2005, when the Bulldogs hosted the Tigers in Athens, the legacy of teams and players meeting for the first time on the grass of a city park weaved up and down both sidelines.

Between the two teams, on the field or on the bench, stood 15 players who first met each other playing football in a park in Gwinnett County. It could have been Bunten Road Park or Shorty Howell or Dacula Park, but on those fields on Saturday mornings, players by the name of Irons, Coutu, Lester and Henderson made their first tackles, threw their first passes and scored their first touchdowns.

Those players, and countless others, played their first games in the Gwinnett Football League.

"That is pretty incredible," said Erik Richards, president of the Gwinnett Football League. "When USC plays UCLA, you don't have 15 kids standing on the sidelines who played each other in youth football."

In terms of numbers, the league is the largest in the Southeast run by one governing body, according to Richards, and it's not getting any smaller.

Between 2005 and 2006, the GFL added 12 teams and about 350 players. That five percent participation increase is typical for the GFL, which grows about 5-10 percent each year. But while football participation in Gwinnett grew at five percent from 2005-06, nationally the increase reached closer to 20 percent in tackle football for children 7 and older according to a study released by the National Sporting Goods Association.

So there wasn't an explosive influx of players in Gwinnett to mirror the national increase, but for a league that boasts more than 7,500 football players for its 2007 season there wasn't a need for a burst of interest.

Everyone was already interested.

"What makes our league popular is the community spirit of the youth program feeding into the success of the high school football programs in the county," said Richards who has been involved with the GFL for 19 years. "Any time you go to a football game on a Friday night, I would venture to say 50 percent (is) youth-league oriented or related. Little Johnny that's got the No. 42 jersey on in the stands is usually hauling along two parents that probably wouldn't be at the game without Johnny playing youth football."

Saying the league promotes community spirit is one thing, but Richards and the rest of the volunteer staff make efforts to prove they are interested in fostering that spirit by not allowing the teams' schedules to conflict with the seasons of the high schools in their area.

"We understand that these kids need to be at the high school games," Richards said. "So when Brookwood and Parkview are playing in the Dome or Buford, this year, is going up to Ohio, or teams are going down to south Georgia, we schedule their youth teams around it.

"Other groups haven't figured out how to be high school friendly."

But being so friendly isn't easy.

Two hundred sixty eight teams began practice Monday and each is preparing for an eight-game regular season and hopefully a four-game playoff that determines the county champion in each age group. With all those teams, and all those divisions, the schedules are not computed or generated, they are written out by Patsy Jones' hand.

"It's a manual process," said Jones, who has been on the GFL board for 21 years. "We sit down - there are so many variables that we can't find a computer program - so we sit down and do it by hand."

Jones estimated that if she and her small group of assistants sat down and did every schedule without a break it would take at least 40 hours. But after 21 years something brings her back.

"I do enjoy it," she said. "I started out when my kids were involved in the program. They are grown and have children now and I have grandchildren in the program."

It's the work and time of people like Jones, Richards, the rest of the GFL board, the directors of the individual parks and the more than 2,400 coaches that make the Gwinnett Football League popular.

They are the reason it grows every year and doesn't need or expect a shot of extra participation.

"It is unlike any other youth sport out there because of the time commitment parents have with bonding with their children," Richards said. "I've added it up before. We're asking parents to give up, for their children, almost 20 hours a week. Outside of travel sports that is an incredible amount of time.

"It is fun. It is just flat out fun."