BUILT like a small fireplug, the eight-year-old boy runs wind sprints with a slogging, bump-ing group of players. They move as though their football helmets, pads, and uniforms weigh a ton. The boy's muddy red jersey bunches over his padded hips, and flops in the wind. His helmet is so big it's difficult for him to see very far to the right or the left.
``Hey,'' yells a coach, ``tuck in your laundry!''
At least eight little fireplugs slow down and feel for jerseys hanging out.
This is Pop Warner football at a late-afternoon practice, where a steady mist is turning the well-used field into light mud. Groups of kids ranging from stumpy eight-year-olds to gangling 16-year-olds crash into each other. For the most part, they love it.
Dotted around the field are parents under umbrellas watching the action. For the most part, they love it if their kids do.
At hundreds of football fields in 35 states, this scene is being repeated as youngsters arranged on teams by age and weight prepare for weekend games. Add the many squads of little cheerleaders on the sidelines, and the Pop Warner leagues duplicate the football ``culture'' of high schools, colleges, and pro teams in the United States.
John Butler, executive director of the Pop Warner leagues at their headquarters in Langhorne, Pa., says that in 1992, approximately 190,000 boys and a few girls played football in Pop Warner leagues, including flag football. ``As far as I know,'' he says, ``we are the only national athletic organization that insists on satisfactory progress in school for participation.''
``You see this happening more and more,'' says Robert Schleser, director of the Center for Sports Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, ``linking educational results in sports leagues for kids. It's positive.''
In fact, the official name for the organization is Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc. - not the way the group has been known, but rather the way it wants to become known. The league began in the late 1920s in Philadelphia when the lives of young vandals were turned around by playing football. Later, the league was named for Pop Warner, a Knute Rockne-kind of coach who coached Jim Thorpe at Carlisle College in Pennsylvania, as well as teams at Stanford, Iowa State, and Cornell.
The Pop Warner league now recognizes the top 35 players and 15 cheerleaders in each grade level (starting at grade 5) for awards. Coaches nominate players who have a B average or above. The national winners are named to the Pop Warner All-American Team of Little Scholars. In collaboration with the Touchdown Clubs of America, seven $1,000 scholarships went to the top teenage scholars last May.
Meanwhile, Dick Scanlon, head coach of Waltham's Pop Warner teams for 22 years, watches his five teams prepare. ``Kids don't have the commitment like they used to,'' he says. ``This is a tough game, and there's lots of competition for their time - like soccer,'' he adds with a smile. A team can play a maximum of 10 games in league play, and more during playoffs.
Still, the lure of football, plus Scanlon's easygoing but solidly organized effort supported by parents, means around 80 percent of the players stay with the teams.
David Devoe, 13, is a 99-pound quarterback and captain of the B team. ``He's the kind of a kid who would try to run through a brick wall if we asked him to,'' a coach says.
Standing on the sidelines, splotched with mud and sweat, David says his hero is Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins. ``My parents don't worry any more about my getting hurt,'' he says. In his sixth year of Pop Warner football, David says, ``Yeah, I like it. I'm going to play high school and college football.''
Not too far away stands Robin Beck, mother of 12-year-old Jeff Beck, a halfback on the B team who scored a touchdown in last week's game. ``He's really excited about this year,'' she says as Jeff carries the ball in practice on an end run and disappears in a pile of four tacklers. ``I used to be concerned about him getting hurt,'' she says, ``but after three years of this, it isn't so bad.'' Then, laughing as she watches him rise out of a muddy pile of players, she says, ``I guess he likes cracking heads.''
SOME experts disapprove of football for small children. ``I think it is inappropriate,'' says Albert Applin, head of the US Sports Academy in Mobile, Ala. ``For youngsters who are still developing physically, the risk of injury is too high, and the pressure on them is too great.''
``Football at a young age is a two-edged sword,'' says Mr. Schleser. ``All the traditional values of teamwork, persistence, and effort are there. But if the parents and coaches forget that the purpose of the game is for the kids to have fun, and they get caught up in winning and losing, then it can have serious negative consequences for kids and their self-worth. It all depends on the approach of the parents and coaches.''
Scanlon says he adheres closely to league rules: Every player plays in at least eight plays per game; every player has a doctor's permission to play; the teams pick their own captains; and no all-star teams or ``most valuable players.'' The emphasis is on hard work to improve skills and learn to be a team player. Last year Pop Warner started a national coach-certification program to meet insurance-liability requirements and to keep the level of coaching high.
``Football can open doors for some of these kids,'' Scanlon says, telling of several former players who won athletic scholarships to play football at big and small colleges. ``If you can get a college education by playing football, why not do it?'' he says. All of Scanlon's assistant coaches played for him at one time or another.
To raise money for team expenses, including uniforms for the more than 100 players, Scanlon holds one well-publicized raffle each year. ``We gave up on door-to-door cookie sales and other efforts years ago,'' he says. Raffle tickets cost $100 each, and the grand prize is a whopping $10,000. The rest goes to the team.
``If adults feel good about contributing to recreational activities for kids this way,'' says Schleser of the Center for Sports Psychology, ``and let the kids know this, then not winning won't be seen as negative.''