Bellport youth football league scores new helmets

Lakey Marrero, 8, of Bellport checks out the

Lakey Marrero, 8, of Bellport checks out the new gear during equipment day for the Bellport Youth Football League. (Aug. 1, 2012) (Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan)

Those large containers being pried open, with the contents unknown to most, in a way was tantamount to a gift getting unwrapped. Shaun Bolton stared intently, and when the present was revealed . . .

"We didn't know, so we were surprised," the 9-year-old said, flashing a wide grin, "and it was awesome!"

This was last Wednesday evening at Martha Avenue Recreation Park. But for the kids -- parents and coaches, too -- of the Bellport youth football league, it essentially was a holiday.

Within the two containers were racks of helmets -- 100 of them, brand new and sparkling white, with only the team's red "B" and bulldog logo decals on them. The Rawlings Momentum models were purchased last month at a discounted $50 apiece from Port Jeff Sports, coach Steve Schwicke said.

There's more: 50 additional Schutt helmets are expected to arrive early this week, courtesy of the NFL. (Good thing as the Bellport league is made up of 150 children, between 7 and 11, on six teams.)

The NFL, in conjunction with several organizations, including USA Football and the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, recently established a youth football safety and helmet replacement program. The tri-state area is one of four U.S. regions chosen by the program, which focuses on leagues in "underserved communities."

According to a statement issued by the NFL, the goal is to have 13,000 hand-me-down helmets, 10 years or older, traded in for new ones this year. "This program is part of our focus on player safety at all levels of the game," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in the statement.

Bellport's league was selected last month "because of what kind of community we are," said Schwicke, who along with his wife, Jacquelyn, and president Kathleen Leone, run the league in its 14th year. "Financially sometimes, it's tough here."

To offset expenses, the league and community commit to several fundraising endeavors year-round, including raffles and merchandise sales, to add to local sponsorships. As well, Bellport recently was named runner-up for the National Council of Youth Sports' Strive Award, which recognizes organizations "that promote safety." The $1,000 prize will go toward buying new shoulder pads.

The helmet replacement program, Jacquelyn Schwicke said, has allayed some fears because "we were concerned we'd have new helmets for some kids and old ones for others. If you're talking about concussions and safety, how do you do that? This was a major score."

Jerry O'Hara, who coaches one of the teams for 11-year-olds on which his son, Sean, plays, said, "This is phenomenal because there's a lot of needy families and times are hard."

But, after the first practice, what did the kids think of the new lids? Aside from a few complaints of discomfort -- "It's not broken in yet so it kind of hurts," 8-year-old Tyler Kollar said -- the reviews were glowing.

"I love it. It's new and nobody's used it before. I just have to get used to it," fullback Jordan Springsteen, 9, said. Offensive guard John Mangan said his old helmet squeezed his forehead but, "This one is way more comfortable."

Added 9-year-old Andrew Kantor: "It's great for the team and I think it's going to give us extra motivation . . . Getting new stuff is always exciting."

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