Ready to rumble: eleven-year-old Matthew Hamm gives 110 percent in a tackling drill. Jon Gardiner.
In the first day of the fourth annual Duke Youth Football Camp in early summer, forty-two eight- through twelve-year-olds in oversized T-shirts and buzz cuts gathered for three days of instruction and coaching in the spacious, air-conditioned confines of the new Yoh Football Center. There they learned the rudiments of the game and the inner workings of Duke’s “high-flying Airborne passing and rushing attack,” long a mystery to fans. The indoor A.E. Finley Speed and Agility Facility, forty yards of AstroTurf with a “Duke” end-zone and white yard dashes just like the real field, was filled with smaller-than-usual people practicing three-point stances and catches and handoffs under the watchful eyes of Duke assistant coaches.
Down!” yelled Aubrey Hill, former Florida Gators superstar and current Duke wide-receiver coach. “Doooooown!” yelled the kids. “Set!” yelled Hill. “Seeeeeeet!” yelled the kids. And so on. Yelling and football go hand in hand, and the louder things were, it seemed, the more fun. On “hut,” everyone ran to the center of the room for a huddle before lunchtime. Woody Fish, director of Football Operations and of the camp, called the play: “Everybody wash your hands—and make sure you wash your hands after you go to the bathroom, not before!”
Over lunch—hot dogs and cookies and lemonade—a table of ten-year-olds agreed that hot dogs are delicious and should be eaten every day but disagreed over whether LeBron James, the high-school basketball sensation expected to go first in the NBA draft, should have gone to college before the pros.
“ He probably could have made a lot of money in college,” said a stocky, someday defensive lineman. “Why didn’t he just go to Duke?”
“ You can’t just go to Duke. It’s really expensive,” said a skinny, aspiring corner back with blond hair. “And you have to be really, really smart.”
“ Well, he should have gone to some college. What if he breaks his leg? Then what’s he going to do?” said the stocky boy.
After lunch, everyone lined up to go out to the field for afternoon scrimmages. All the teams bore the names of professional teams. The Raiders, it was being said, were definitely going to kick the Dolphins’ butts, and the Forty-Niners didn’t have a chance against the Patriots, who had a very fast twelve-year-old who was money in the bank.
Games were rather chaotic. The adult coach was all-time quarterback, and everybody else on the team played wide receiver, running around and hollering for the ball. Trainers were standing by in case someone got a cramp or took a bad fall. At one point a small, energetic eight-year-old came out of the game with a small scratch on the knee. “I think I should rest it for a little,” he solemnly told the trainer. Seconds later, after his team got the ball back, he sprinted onto the field. “I’m okay!”
In the end, the Raiders lost on a fluke Hail Mary pass that bounced off one boy’s head and into another’s hands, and the Patriots tied the Niners. Soon after the whistle, though, everyone forgot to care about scores and ran to the huddle, whooping and screaming. Perhaps the only thing more fun than playing football is yelling about it with a bunch of new pals.