BANGOR, Maine — The early evening was borderline crisp for mid-August as a couple dozen helmeted youngsters worked on football drills at Cameron Stadium.
Passing, catching and running with the ball, the repetitions were meant to provide familiarity as the kids anticipated their coming season representing the Queen City in the Eastern Maine Youth Football League.
But most of all, for coaches and young players alike, the primary goal in this instance was just to have fun.
Welcome to the Bangor Junior Rams, the city’s newly branded youth football program.
From flag football for first- and second-graders to travel teams for third- and fourth-graders as well as fifth- and sixth-graders, the Junior Rams is an effort not only to rebrand but to rebuild a proud football tradition in Bangor that has taken a hit in recent years.
The city’s two high school teams, Bangor and John Bapst, have gone a combined 4-28 during the last two seasons. Local sub-varsity and middle school teams also have struggled.
That downturn can be attributed to myriad reasons, but to a group of football-minded adults in the city that includes former Division I college players and coaches and current high school coaches and administrators, the focus is on building a foundation for future success.
“We’re going to teach the kids fundamentals, but we’re also going to teach the kids that it’s fun to come here on an August night, go to a clinic and make that effort to be successful in football,” Bangor High School football coach Alan Mosca, the prime organizer of the effort, said. “You have to take that extra step to be successful, and we want to build up that excitement for the sport in our kids over the coming years.”
The program’s board of directors has been meeting since January and developed a website, bangorjuniorrams.com, as well as new playbooks and coaching manuals. All helmets used by the players have been reconditioned, leading to a series of youth clinics in advance of the start of preseason practices.
“This has been gradually building within me for about a year now, I knew I had to do this,” Mosca said. “We’ve done a lot of work, and I think we’re ready to have a great fall.”
The Junior Rams also have worked with Bangor High School athletic director Steve Vanidestine to move practices from behind the Downeast School to the city’s showcase football facility, the recently upgraded Cameron Stadium.
“Being able to practice at Cameron Stadium is huge for these kids,” Mosca said. “This is their home for football, too.”
An imperfect storm
Numerous reasons have contributed to the recent decline in Bangor football.
The success of high school soccer in the area throughout the last decade has been significant. Last fall alone, Bangor High School and Bangor Christian School won state championships in boys soccer and John Bapst reached the Class B North championship game. Local youth programs and travel teams also continue to draw big turnouts.
Those leading the Junior Rams believe there is plenty of room for both sports to survive and grow.
“It’s a big city and I think there are enough kids to support both teams. I definitely think they can co-exist,” John Tennett, a former Bangor High and University of Maine football player who is the principal at Bangor’s Abraham Lincoln School and has joined the Junior Rams effort, said. “Youth soccer is thriving right now but that may not be for everybody. Some kids love football and we want to provide the same type of atmosphere and excitement.”
General demographics are changing, too, with the state’s population aging and student enrollment decreasing.
“It has been going down,” Mosca said of youth football participation. “They’ve gone from six to four teams, but you also look at Bangor West Side Little League and that’s been going through the same thing.
“The town is changing a little, we’re getting a little older and there are fewer kids in the system.”
While there are no statistics to provide confirmation, Junior Rams officials believe that news about the prevalence and impact of football-related head injuries has prompted some parents to find other sporting options for their children.
“We haven’t heard anything specifically, but we’d probably be fooling ourselves if we didn’t think that was so,” Eric Marsh, a former UMaine player and assistant coach at UMaine and Husson University who is the Junior Rams’ coaching coordinator, said.
Add to those factors the reclassification of both the Bangor and John Bapst high school programs to face tougher competition in recent years, which in Bangor’s case also significantly increased its travel.
Bangor’s nearest opponent in Class A is Lewiston and the schedule for the last four years has featured largely Portland-area opponents for the first time in a generation.
John Bapst, meanwhile, has been reclassified by enrollment from Class D to Class C.
“You can talk about cyclical athletic prowess and cyclical school program prowess and certainly that’s everywhere,” Dan O’Connell, a former Bangor High player who is the head football coach and athletic administrator at John Bapst and has a son in the Junior Rams program, said. “But in some cases over time when things are eroding we just don’t always catch it.
“It’s not a matter of right or wrong, it’s just a matter of continuing to re-evaluate how we sell ourselves, how we sell our game and then ultimately how we teach and coach our kids to be successful.”
Adapting to the evolving football landscape began even before the Junior Rams formally took shape.
A year ago, current board member Jon Cota was instrumental in having the city’s youth teams play opponents from other communities for the first time in the Eastern Maine Youth Football League. Both the third- and fourth-grade and fifth- and sixth-grade teams experienced successful seasons.
“A lot of teams down south play travel ball for 3-4 and 5-6, and I certainly think travel play is a big thing in bringing out the excitement among the kids,” Mosca said. “We had a strong tradition with our in-house program, but playing other towns and creating that buzz of getting into a carpool and traveling to another town to play — there’s something special about doing that on an October afternoon.
“In southern Maine that’s the culture of excitement around the sport they have and we’re working to get that back here.”
Mosca’s direct involvement and the enhanced link between the Junior Rams and the high school program is another step that puts Bangor’s youth football effort more in line with many of its downstate peers.
“(Bonny Eagle of Standish head coach) Kevin Cooper’s very involved with his program, and (Thornton Academy of Saco head coach) Kevin Kezal’s very involved with Saco Junior Trojans,” Mosca said.
“I look at what teams are doing in southern Maine and we’re modeling a lot of their approach for the first time.”
What also is being modeled through the Junior Rams is an emphasis on safety.
“There’s not one coach on this field today who played the way we’re coaching now. It’s a different game,” Marsh said. “It’s not just hit ’em harder anymore. It’s more finesse, more speed, more leverage and control, more understanding your body mechanics and movements.”
One of Marsh’s primary tasks is to emphasize to Junior Rams coaches instruction that teaches modern, safety-oriented ways of blocking and tackling.
“He’s coaching the coaches up before they go out there on the field,” Mosca said. “We’re teaching all the proper things as far as the safe way to tackle, the safe way to block. We’re going to work on that every practice because blocking and tackling are two of the fundamental things you need to do to be successful in every grade.”
Sharing those coaching techniques with parents — a good gathering was on the home sideline watching this particular clinic — also is seen as pivotal to player retention.
“It’s important for us to get the word out to the parents and have the parents see what we’re doing and trust in what we’re doing,” Mosca said.
How this approach affects the bottom line at the high school level won’t be known for several years, but if Bangor Junior Rams Football entices more youngsters to try the sport, have fun with it and learn to play in a safety-conscious way, organizers believe the effort will be well on its way to success.
“The last couple of years have been rough for Bangor and for John Bapst and a lot of teams in the area that benefit from this program,” O’Connell said. “The better we are, the better we all will be.
“I love the sport and want it to be good for everyone, including my son, but there are a lot of things we’ve got to change because the game’s changed, the conferences have changed and the way we compete has changed.
“I like the way we’ve started with the group we have doing it.”