Mite Makes Right: Felder and his Hornets teammates are eyeing a Pop Warner national championship. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Unless you’re a part of it, you might not realize that there’s a big boom in kiddie football taking place in the District.

On any given Saturday this fall, more than 100 teams with about 2,800 kids from ages 5 to 14 are playing organized games within city limits. That’s just from one league, run by the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington in conjunction with D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.

“Youth football is bigger than basketball in D.C. now,” says Levae Ford, whose knowledge of local Pop Warner talent makes him a sort of Mel Kiper of the area’s gridiron scene. “It’s even bigger than high school football in the city now. It’s amazing.”

I spoke with Ford at Dunbar Senior High, where we and a crowd of maybe a thousand other folks had come to watch the Watkins Hornets, an athletic club based in Southeast with nine teams playing on the day’s game card. Fans and coaches taunted players from opposing teams when they walked into the stadium with shouts of “Hornets!” and air-raid sirens or a go-go mix played at volumes the PA speakers couldn’t handle with any sort of fidelity. The snack bar sold out its entire inventory—not even a bottle of water could be had—with three games still left to play.

If D.C.’s youth football subculture gets any bigger, we’ll have to remove the “sub.” The games at Dunbar went on from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and that was just one of eight such sites around the city hosting all-day football fests on Saturday. Hockey moms may govern Alaska, but football fathers walk tall at these events.

Ford didn’t come to Dunbar for music or food, and he didn’t have any of his own kids playing on this day. He came to see Watkins’ 125-pound squad, known as the midgets. (Teams in youth football are sorted into confusing categories based on weights and ages.) There’d been a big buzz about a new kid who was scheduled to make his Hornets’ debut, and Ford wanted to see if the hype was warranted.

Yet even before the player’s acquisition, Ford says, Watkins’ team was loaded—maybe as loaded as any midget squad anywhere.

“Watkins could win a national championship this year,” Ford tells me at Dunbar. “They’ve got what it takes.”

Such titles don’t just come in pipe dreams around here. Last season, Watkins’ 90-pound squad had lost the D.C. Pop Warner title game, 19–0, to Beacon House, a team based in Northeast that went on to win the national championship.

But a few weeks ago, in a matchup of 125-pound squads played before a couple of thousand folks at Coolidge Senior High’s stadium, Watkins whupped Beacon House by the same 19-0 score. A kid named Savon Felder, a quarterback and defensive back, made one big-league play after another. He lined up at receiver for just one snap in this game—and made a fully extended diving catch for a touchdown that ESPN would have put in heavy rotation had cameras been running.

“Savon is in a zone right now,” says Al Hudgens, a D.C. native who is now the city’s Pop Warner commissioner. “That Watkins team’s got a lot of talent.”

The quality of football talent in the city has been high for a while now. Vontae Davis and Arrelious Benn of Illinois and Vernon Davis of the San Francisco 49ers all played their high school ball on this same Dunbar field.

But now the stars are coming out earlier.

“I’ve been doing this for 28 years now,” says Hudgens, “and the talent level right now is so strong, strong as ever, all over the league. It’s like every team has one of ‘those’ guys, a guy who can just dominate a game. It’s something to see. Basketball is still strong with kids, but football is getting all the attention in D.C. now.”

The talent pool is what brought Al Kallay to Dunbar. He’s the freshman football coach at Gonzaga College High School. He came on a recruiting mission, hoping to convince Savon, an eighth-grader, or any of several other alpha boys on the Watkins squad that Gonzaga would be a fine place to play ball and get an education.

Wearing the school colors, Kallay brought a wish list of names from the Watkins roster.

Kallay’s sales pitch to the junior-high-schoolers begins with a slight boast about the Gonzaga program being a pipeline to the next level—“We got three guys from last year’s team playing Division I games today,” he told Savon and some Watkins teammates—before he launches into a spiel about how the kids need to focus on grades or Gonzaga won’t even look at them.

“If you get one of these kids to come to your school,” he tells me, “you can get more, because they like to stay together after playing together for years in the clubs. So I’m out here every week, trying to get them.”

The city has done its part to fuel the football boom. On Friday, local politicos and youth league officials held a ceremony to open the $3.4 million artificial turf field at Riggs LaSalle Park in Northeast. That’s the home field of Lamond Riggs Athletic Association, long one of the strongest football clubs in town. It’s the first turf football field ever built by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

The installation of artificial turf fields at most of the District’s public high schools over the last two years has already given the city’s football scene a huge boost.

Traditional grass fields could get worn out in just one full day of use. But with the new surface, Pop Warner teams can play all day every Saturday without worrying about turning the borrowed fields into dirt patches.

And the opportunity to play on the colorful new fields, coaches and administrators say, has brought more kids to the league. More players, in turn, means better practices, since the extra bodies allow teams to field entire offensive and defensive units—and better simulate game conditions—during drills.

Because of the interest, most Pop Warner clubs were holding unofficial workouts in February and organized passing camps over the summer.

“It wasn’t like this when I was coming up,” says Kallay, 29, who grew up in Hyattsville. “These kids got great places to play, and that makes everything better.”

So much better, Kallay says, that he would show up at Pop Warner events even if his job didn’t depend on it.

“The games are great, and the enthusiasm at these places is fantastic,” he says, waving a hand toward the crowded Dunbar grandstands. “It’s a great way to spend a Saturday.”