Eight Saturdays per year, five Bargersville football fields are alive with activity.
Some days close to 1,000 people arrive at the fields. Some are football players, others friends or family coming to watch children as young as kindergarten play football games or cheer.
For some, maybe this is their weekend to volunteer in one of the concession stands.
As many as five football games can be going on at once.
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Public address announcers work every game.
“Ethan Watt with the carry. He’s tackled by No. 17, Kayden Dewbrew,” booms the voice at one point during Army’s playoff game against North Carolina in Saturday’s playoff game in the majors (grades 5-6) division.
A short time later, it’s, “Gerson Coroa with the run. He picks up about two. Tackle by Blake Brown,” “Army interception by No. 17, Owen Wright,” and finally, “Army survives, 6-0. How about a hand for both of these teams?”
The Center Grove Bantam Football League is among the largest youth sports organization outside of school programs in Johnson County (and one of the largest in central Indiana). It requires the weekly organization of a board of nearly 30 directors, volunteers and enough money to pay the bills, which approach $300,000 some years.
Former Center Grove High School football player Eric McClurg, without a split second of pause, rattles off the football teams that meant so much to him as a child.
“Chiefs, Bears, Cardinals and Bears,” he said, referring to the uniforms he wore while a participant in the Center Grove Bantam Football League from 1990 to 1995.
Learning the sport’s nuances and making new friends at such a tender age in the structured environment of the Center Grove Bantam League are moments McClurg won’t soon forget.
And while youth football is common in virtually every community that has a high school team, McClurg, who was a junior starter at running back and safety in his high school’s first state finals appearance in 2000, is confident Center Grove’s serves as the blueprint for others.
“Just the effort that’s put in. It’s the best-run organization I’ve ever been part of,” said McClurg, who now coaches his son, Drake, and his Michigan Wolverines teammates in the Bantam League’s Rookie League (grades 1-2).
Center Grove Bantam Football has been, since its founding in the 1960s, a not-for-profit youth organization. The league has grown to where it currently operates with an annual budget ranging from $200,000 to $300,000.
An example of some of the annual expenses include field maintenance ($24,000), paying game officials ($21,000) and debt payments on the property ($20,000).
Flag football is offered for grades K-1 as an introduction to the sport for first-graders not wanting to take part in the Rookie League. The program has 10 flag teams, five rookie league teams, 10 more teams in the minors (grades 3-4) and seven in the majors (grades 5-6).
Anywhere from 12 to 20 games can be played in a single day at the complex the league has called home since 1998. This translates to a maximum of 280 players and as many as 700 spectators occupying the complex the same day.
“The reason I believe this is a successful league is because of our founding fathers. Those fathers have kept their children involved, and then their children grow to be board members,” said Kim Robards, the league’s concessions manager and one of 29 members of the board of directors.
“With that being said, you have repeated families. When you have new families come into the neighborhood, you greet them with open arms. We have a lot of fun, and we just make it a good experience for the kids.”
Everyone on the board is assigned a specific duty.
As an example, three people are in charge of sponsorships, five directors are responsible for equipment and three handle field maintenance.
How it began
The Center Grove Bantam Football League originated during an era in which the high school’s enrollment was about one-third of today’s 2,436 students.Those were the days families congregated at one 80-yard field — located near where the Center Grove Middle School Central now stands — in order to watch their kids play. The league moved to its current location, at 5185 W. County Road 144 in Bargersville, in 1998.
“I first coached a team in 1973. At that time we had four teams in the minors, which was second-, third- and fourth-graders and had one field,” Dave Robards said. “Eventually they needed all the space for their middle school, so Larry Collins (since deceased), who kind of spearheaded everything in those days, went looking for land.”
The current 20-acre bantam football complex features five football fields. They are in use every year from mid-June until the middle of November for football activities.
Activities can and often do run from dawn to dusk any day of the week with the exception of Fridays and Sundays.
The bantam league complex is closed on these days.
Scholarships are available for families who cannot afford to pay either the $150 (player has his or her own uniform) or $195 (provided helmet, shoulder pads and jersey) registration fee.
This year alone the league has 90 corporate sponsors who pay a range from $1,800 to $5,000 annually. Other monies are accrued through registration fees and the league’s annual fundraiser.
This year, league members brought in approximately $15,000 by selling spirit cups.
With a total of 532 participants, including cheerleaders, Center Grove Bantam Football has increased its membership from a few years ago. Participation falls short of the approximately 700 children who took part in the early 2000s not long after Trojans head coach Eric Moore brought the Wing-T offense to Center Grove.
“Just like anything else, we’re dependent on numbers,” Center Grove Bantam Football League president Andy Wiese said. “Numbers for football have been declining in recent years. You can have all the sponsorship, but you have to have the kids to drive that.”
The Moore Factor
Shortly after Eric Moore was named Center Grove’s varsity football coach in May 1999, he immediately began implementing his philosophies on blocking schemes, running the football in order to be successful and offseason training.“The bantam complex is the first place I went to,” said Moore, thinking back to his job interview with Center Grove High School athletics director Jon Zwitt. “It was little, but really on the verge of something big.
“You could tell football was important to them. They had a fuse there, and it’s really taken off. We were going to run a systematic offense, and to do that I had to have kids who have been in the program. Who knew what the play was when we called a buck sweep or a 121.”
Bantam league teams at all levels started to run the Wing-T. They began to play a basic 4-3 defense.
Nearly two decades later, these same rules apply.
“When I played Bantam every team ran their own offense,” McClurg said. “Today all of the teams run a formation version of the Wing-T.”
Moore wants every player in his system — no matter how young — to know the basics of what he and his assistants are teaching. They’ll gradually learn new variations of plays as they grow older and advance through the league.
By the time a player is a freshman, Moore’s offensive and defensive gameplan is well-engrained.
“Coach Moore is one of the reasons our numbers have held,” Wiese said. “He comes almost every Saturday to watch the games. He has great presence, and he loves those kids.”
The coach said no group is more appreciative of the high school program’s successes than those who make the bantam league flourish.
This, after all, is where the foundation for the Trojan’s sustained success is laid.
Here are the former Center Grove High School football players now serving as coaches at the Center Grove Bantam League:
The budgeted costs for the Center Grove Bantam Football League in 2016:
Pro Bowl concessions;$10,000
Emergency savings;$30,000 ($20,000 mortgage / $10,000 emergency savings)