Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

We Own This Game

A Season in the Adult World of Youth Football

by Robert Andrew Powell

“In tackling. . . complex topics, and providing context for the intense competition, Powell elevates We Own This Game well above the average sports book to a significant sociological study.” –Stephen J. Lyons, The San Francisco Chronicle

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 224
  • Publication Date September 15, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4153-8
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

From an award-winning journalist, a year with Miami’s controversial Pop Warner football program

Although its participants are still in grade school, Pop Warner football is serious business in Miami, where local teams routinely advance to the national championships. Games draw thousands of fans; recruiters vie for nascent talent; drug dealers and rap stars bankroll teams; and the stakes are so high that games sometimes end in gunshots. In America’s poorest neighborhood, troubled parents dream of NFL stardom for children who long only for a week in Disney World at the Pop Warner Super Bowl.

In 2001, journalist Robert Andrew Powell spent a year following two teams through roller-coaster seasons. The Liberty City Warriors, former national champs, will suffer the team’s first-ever losing season. The Palmetto Raiders, undefeated for two straight years, will be rewarded for good play with limo rides and steak dinners. But their flamboyant coach (the ‘darth Vader of youth football”) will face defeat in a down-to-the-wire playoff game.

We Own This Game is an inside-the-huddle look into a world of innocence and corruption, where every kickoff bares political, social, and racial implications; an unforgettable drama that shows us just what it is to win and to lose in America.

Tags Football


“In tackling. . . complex topics, and providing context for the intense competition, Powell elevates We Own This Game well above the average sports book to a significant sociological study.” –Stephen J. Lyons, The San Francisco Chronicle

“[Powell] presents [his characters] honestly, and in doing so tells a story that ultimately isn’t about youth football, but about America itself. . . . [He] reveals a city at war with itself and, more subtly, the country in which it flourishes.” –Mike Baab, The Seattle Times

“Powell tackles the surprisingly tough topic of youth football–and in the process writes a hard-hitting social commentary on Miami’s black community. . . . A moving narrative of a community using the pigskin to escape poverty and crime. . . . Grade: A.” –Karen Krizman, The Rocky Mountain News

“Powell shows us in vivid portraits of the kids, parents and coaches of the Greater Miami Pop Warner league, the most successful in the country. . . . It would be much too simplistic to condemn youth sports

. Powell doesn’t introduce us to villains, but to hard-working people who devote almost all their spare time to helping their kids. Sometimes they care too much.” –Linda Robertson, The Miami Herald

“With little other prospect for young boys’ rising about the poverty line. . .the game of youth football gives a segment of the Miami community a single opportunity to demonstrate the rarest organizational assets: excellence. This single fact manages to deliver a slim message of hope in this superbly written account of a strange and twisted world.” –Talmage Boston, The Dallas Morning News

We Own This Game acquaints us with an extraordinary sports culture.” –Bill Littlefield, The Boston Globe

“Powell empathetically portrays the heavy load shouldered by those involved with Pop Warner football. . . . A visceral and direct style makes readers feel the nap of a very rough place in which to survive let alone grow up.” –Kirkus Reviews

We Own This Game brings to mind Buzz Bissinger’s landmark schoolboy football book, Friday Night Lights, but here the kids are even younger and hungrier and the coaches are even more desperate. It’s scary and exhilarating. If you want to understand why football has become the national pastime, and why young black men dominate the college and professional game today, you should read Robert Andrew Powell’s powerful book.” –Michael Bamberger, Sports Illustrated staff writer and author of the forthcoming Wonderland


A Rocky Mountain News Best Book


Chapter 1

First Practice

A silver Honda with opaque windows rolls to a stop in a parking lot at Hadley Park. The car’s trunk pops open as a small boy climbs out the passenger-side door. The boy pulls out a new pair of cleats from the trunk. Holding the footwear in his small hands, he breaks into a sprint. His legs carry him across the jogging path, past a woman power-walking around a paved path, over to the playing field where the 95-pound Liberty City Warriors warm up.

Each weight division at Hadley Park occupies its own plot of practice field. The 110s stretch over by the game-day gridiron, which is never used for practice. The 145s run wind sprints near the tennis courts. The 95s own turf along the chain-link outfield fence of a baseball field. Coach Beasley, the offensive coordinator, has tied a yellow-and-black banner to the fence: “Believe it!!! Achieve it!!! 95 lb. Warriors.

Head coach Brian Johnson stands in the middle of the field, which is composed largely of dirt as fine and dry as cocoa powder. A black Nike floppy hat protects Brian’s head from the 90-degree sun. Prescription sunglasses tint his eyes blue. Sweat trickles down his face, soaking his T-shirt and dotting one of the six pairs of Nike sneakers he owns. He’s trying to look imposing, like a leader, but as he watches the boys run a lap around the park he starts to smile. He’s been waiting for this day.

When Brian arrived at the field two hours ago, he brought props. Off-season runs to the Home Depot netted him yards of PVC pipe, elbow joints, glue, and a hacksaw, all of which he used to assemble an obstacle course of impressive complexity. Ten yards of rope netting wait to be skipped. A limbo bar hovering three feet above the grass needs to be ducked under. A dozen orange cones form a zigzag for the players to slalom through as if skiing.

During the day Brian delivers bolts, screws, and other machine parts to warehouses around Miami. Today he took the day off and loaded his work van with the obstacle course and the cones. Beasley cashed in a vacation day too. Coach Pete, who also skipped work, stands near a concrete light post, chilling in the narrow beam of shade the post provides. The brim of his black Liberty City baseball visor is pulled so low he has to crane his neck to make eye contact with the three other assistants as they roll in.

All the coaches, like all the players, are black. Coach Ed is a towering scarecrow with long, thin teeth stained by cigarettes. He’ll oversee the offensive line. Lanky Coach Chico will assist Coach Pete, who is his girlfriend’s father. Coach Tubbs has the cornerbacks. During the day Tubbs mows grass for the City of Miami Beach, his eyes blind to the tourists on Ocean Drive, his mower a monotonous whir as he daydreams about his evenings at Hadley Park.

“I just love football” Tubbs says after he slaps skin with Pete and Brian. “I was too short to play, you know, so I coach.”

The first boys arrive back from their laps, breathing heavily. Sweat drips down smooth faces all frozen and serious.

“Run all the way in. Put your hands on your head. Run it all the way in. Everywhere we go we run,” says Coach Ed. “Got to get in shape to play football. Ninety-five-pound football.”

The boys stand in the line of shade from the light post, resting their hands atop their heads as they cool down. No one wears helmets or pads this first day. Instead they wear shorts and cleats or maybe tennis shoes as oversized as pontoon boats. Most have pulled their T-shirts up to their armpits to cool their lean stomachs. They are skinny, and tiny. The description “pencil neck” is more accurate than it is insulting. Brian’s eleven-year-old daughter, Sha-nise, sprays water into the boys’ open mouths.

“Boot camp” is what Brian calls the first week of practice. Every day for five straight days the routine is the same. After stretching in a lazy semicircle the boys run wind sprints, then crabs, which entail scurrying twenty yards backward on their hands and feet. At the PVC-pipe obstacle course they run through the netting, trying not to trip. Speed is deemphasized.

“Boy, once you get good at it then you can go fast. It’s not about going fast. Take your time,” Coach Chico counsels a player entangled in rope. “Run with your head up.” The boys who trip run the drill again. There is no yelling. Some kids show superior form or surprising speed–”good hands and good hops,” as Tubbs says.

“Head up,” says Beasley to a boy watching his feet navigate the netting. “You’ve got to see that linebacker coming at you. Good job, little man.”

After an hour of conditioning, the Warriors break into groups. Assistant coach Chico schools the linebackers on the proper three-point stance: feet behind the buttocks, chest parallel to the ground, right hand touching the turf for balance.

“You’ve got to get used to the cadence,” Chico yells. He blows into a silver whistle. ‘ready!” The linebackers drop into a squat. ‘set!” They lean onto their fingers. “Hike!” Each boy explodes forward, running a few feet before stopping with awkward expressions. Do we stop here? Do we keep going? Coach Chico asks them to wrap their hands around his waist as if he were an oncoming ball carrier. He’s not asking for tackles, or for the boys to use force. Still, Chico is six-foot-one and 205 pounds. The thought of tackling him–most of the boys can hope only to wrap themselves around one of his thighs–reduces them to giggles.

“Get mean!” barks Coach Pete in his Army drill instructor voice. “Wipe that smile off your face. Get ready to hurt somebody. Get mean! Come on, get mean!”

Ten feet away, Coach Beasley introduces the offense to the different positions in his complicated Georgia Southern system. Five boys form an offensive line. Antwane, the probable quarterback, stands behind them. When asked to stare at the butt cheeks of the players in front of him, Antwane turns toward a teammate and giggles.

“He said butt cheeks!”

* * *

In 1929, store owners in Philadelphia banded to solve a common problem: “Teenagers with nothing to do were causing them great losses in acts of violence,” according to Pop Warner league history. The founder of the league, Joseph Tomlin, was an ambitious stockbrocker whose job prospects on Wall Street were crippled by the Great Depression.

Although the game took off in Pennsylvania, selling youth football to America proved a challenge. Parents feared their boys would be injured playing such a violent sport.

“Articles published by doctors, educators and others [stated] that the game should be outlawed,” according to the official history. At a symposium on sports for youth, held in 1953 and attended by delegates from the AMA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and others, Tomlin called for professional support of youth football teams. “His presentation is interrupted by boos. At the close of the conference, a vote is taken for a ban on “kid football” and is supported 43–1. Tomlin being the lone dissenting vote.”

Tomlin was not deterred. He continued brainstorming ways to promote his unwanted sport. One of his friends suggested what became the first-ever “Kiddie Bowl,” played in a snowstorm in front of 2,000 spectators. A team backed by a Philadelphia restaurant faced off against a team from New York, Sinatra’s Cyclones, sponsored by the singer. The game became an annual tradition. Within a decade, the league grew from a thousand teams nationwide to more than twice that number. Forty years later, the number of teams has tripled. Pop Warner is the largest football league in America.

For all its growth–especially in the last decade–Pop Warner remains a somewhat disorganized operation. There are no Pop Warner leagues in football-crazy Ohio, for instance. The national office takes great pains to point out Pop Warner’s emphasis on scholastics, from the recognition of academic all-Americans to the awarding of college scholarships. Yet, for the 350,000 kids in Pop Warner, only $30,000 in scholarships are awarded annually.

Even in Miami, rival leagues vie for youth football talent. But Pop Warner is the only league that offers the possibility of playing for a national championship at Disney World. For that reason, Pop Warner is far and away Miami’s dominant youth football league, home to the best players and the toughest competition.

Copyright ” 2003 by Robert Andrew Powell. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.