Eight-year-old Shannon Mitchell sat down to watch a college football classic with his dad recently.
One of the teams playing that day, the University of Georgia Bulldogs, meant a lot to Mitchell’s father. When the tight end for Georgia caught a pass not long after they began watching, the Bulldogs would mean a lot to young Shannon, too.
“He said, ‘Daddy, that guy’s got the same name as you,’” said former Alcoa High School and Georgia standout Shannon Mitchell.
Wait ‘til little Shannon finds the press clippings for Super Bowl XXIX.
The elder Mitchell is the only product of a Blount County high school to ever reach the NFL’s big game, his San Diego Chargers falling hard, 49-26, to Steve Young’s San Francisco 49rs.
“Hopefully, we’ll get somebody from this town to go there and win it,” the former Bulldog said.
That somebody could one day be little Shannon. Maybe it’ll be Fairview Raiders quarterback Luke Hutsell or his Maryville Lil’ Rebs counterpart Gregory Shiver. The chances of Blount County one day producing such a player are only enhanced by the instruction the trio and others receive in the Grasshopper youth football league for 7- and 8-year-olds.
The older Mitchell coaches the Alcoa Tornadoes in the Blount County Parks & Recreation-sponsored program. Along with his peers, which include Maryville’s David Hunt and Fairview’s Casey Ensley, Mitchell doesn’t simply go through the motions with the Tornadoes.
By season’s end, Alcoa could have four formations, encompassing as many as 30 different plays, in its playbook. Hunt’s Lil’ Rebs, who’ve won the last five Grasshopper Super Bowls, have worked in much more than that number in a given season. Ensley’s Raiders have run as many as 60 different plays by the end of the year.
“By midseason, they can run an incredible number of formations,” said Hunt, who founded the league 12 years ago. “We try to give them a really good base so when they leave our program, they’ll be ready.”
Teaching second and third graders 50 or 60 plays in season isn’t as daunting as many would think, he said.
“They can do a lot,” Hunt said. “They can do more than we give them credit.”
The league’s players don’t start out that way. Most have never played football when they come to Ensley, Mitchell, Hunt and the rest as 7-year-olds. Unless they come from families with roughhouse older brothers, most have never experienced being knocked to the ground, either.
“Some of them are scared to death,” Ensley said.
Football is as much skill and technique as it is physical, Ensley said. Often, the league’s coaches spend a great deal of time during a player’s first year on fundamentals.
“I try to do small things,” Ensley said, “getting in a stance, taking a handoff. I’ve talked to other coaches, and the simpler you can make it, to where they feel confident, the better off you’re going to be.”
Players who take a liking to the game can progress rapidly from that point, Mitchell said. After drills for changing hands with the ball, form tackling and read steps on defense are mastered, offenses are added. Rules for defense are set by the league and aid in that regard, with teams deploying a single, set formation to ease learning.
“When we set the league up, we wanted it to be a learning situation as well as a competitive one,” Hunt said.
By the jamboree each August, things are often clicking along nicely, provided league coaches have paid heed to one inescapable fact: the attention of a 7- or 8-year-old can be a fast-moving thing.
“I don’t see how my dad does it because you have to have so much patience to work with 7- and 8-year-olds,” Lil’ Rebs assistant coach Derek Hunt said. “It’s amazing.”
That’s where league coaches must take the greatest care, Mitchell said. You can get hurt playing football at any age, he said. There’s no room for goofing off during the Tornadoes’ 90 minute practices. A missed tackling drill could easily result in injury during a game.
“I don’t want any kid getting hurt,” Ensley said.
To prevent that, Mitchell said the first thing he teaches Shannon and younger son Kameron, 7, is the first thing he learned when introduced to the sport.
“The first thing I was told, and this is what I try to relate to them, is it takes discipline,” Mitchell said. “First of all, you’ve got to listen. You teach them to listen, then you can teach them fundamentals.”
Working in small groups is key, Hunt said.
“You learn a lot quicker that way,” he said.
Each of the league’s teams has several assistants on staff. It can take a while for the instruction from a coach to translate into a crisply applied block, a sharp cutback or a solid, sure tackle, but it’s worth the wait.
“The biggest reward I get is when that light comes on,” Hunt said. “You can see it. It’s, ‘Oh, that’s how it works.’”
Seven-year-olds are kept with 7-year-olds as much as possible, Ensley said.
“That’s how Maryville has won so many championships,” he said. “David has a good group of 7-year-olds every year.”
Mitchell said his initial intent was simply to go to the games and watch when Shannon began with the Tornadoes last year. Before midseason, he’d been asked to join the team as an assistant. By the time Alcoa reached last season’s Super Bowl, he’d become the team’s interim coach, the title becoming official this summer.
The sights and sounds of Super Bowl XXIX are a memory that will never fade, said Mitchell, who won a state championship with the high school’s Tornadoes in 1989.
“For me, there’s nothing like Friday nights, nothing like Alcoa (vs.) Maryville,” he said, “but the Super Bowl is something different.”
It isn’t going to be easy breaking the Lil’ Rebs stranglehold on the championship trophy, Mitchell said. Hunt’s group this season is no less a drilled squad than in past years. Mitchell, who’s daughter, Taiya, is a cheerleader for Alcoa’s Pee Wee-league Tornadoes, said he like nothing better than for Shannon and Kameron to reach the Grasshopper title game again. First things first, though.
“We know where we want to be at the end of the year,” Mitchell said. “We want to be in that top four (that makes the playoffs).”
If not, he, like the rest of the league’s coaches, must never forget to pass on the most valuable advice when it comes to youth football. It’s the one he said he hopes Shannon and Kameron remember most.
“At the end of the day,” Mitchell said, “it’s just a game.”