Seconds quickly tick off the clock as the offense rushes to get the next play off. The quarterback, standing a shade under five feet tall pitches to the running back who slips past the defense and races to the end zone for a touchdown. The players celebrate, but only for a short while, as they have to quickly turn around and take their place on defense. Such is life during youth football games at the Edward Jones Dome.
In 2008, the St. Louis Rams began a program that allowed local youth football teams the opportunity to sell tickets to Rams’ home games for the chance to play on the field of the Edward Jones Dome during halftime of the games. The program started modestly enough. Nathan Schandl, Rams Senior Group Sales Executive, contacted various youth leagues to gauge interest and attempted to bring teams into the fold.
“We saw it as a win-win situation,” Schandl said. “Local youth football coaches and parents wanted to give their kids a chance to play during our games, so we came up with a mutually beneficial partnership where the teams help us sell tickets and we provide them with a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
One of the earliest supporters was Tim Teicher, president of the Chesterfield Football Association. Players taking part in the game sell tickets, with a set amount going to the Rams for the purchase of the game tickets, and any profit returning to the youth team for team parties, equipment or other functions. Teicher said he communicates to all his participating coaches that this is an opportunity as well as an obligation.
“We tell our coaches it’s important that they follow through with the commitment (of selling tickets) because we want the Rams to see us as a dependable partner,” Teicher said.
Teams have embraced the opportunity of selling tickets. While the tickets are technically for the Rams game, families are just as excited to watch their kids and friends take the field. Jefferson County Youth Association assistant league president and head coach Andy Lenzen’s team of fourth graders performed during halftime of the Rams’ preseason match against the Baltimore Ravens. The group sold a package deal that included a ticket to the preseason game in addition to a ticket for the December 2 game against the division rival San Francisco 49ers.
“It was an easy sell, especially with all the family members wanting to go,” Lenzen said. “We had to turn people away. The limit was 200 tickets but we could have sold more. It was that positive of a response.”
In the NFL, teams are used to operating in the two minute drill. But teams taking part in the halftime game at the Edward Jones Dome bring a whole new meaning to the term “hurry-up offense.”
For coaches in the Chesterfield Football Association, that means having a script ready to make sure each player gets the opportunity to take the field and make a play. Other coaches, such as Lenzen, try to make a big impression in the small window of time.
“We kind of tried to put on a show out there,” Lenzen said. “We came out of the gate throwing the football and going for big, spectacular plays to make it exciting for the crowd and the kids. And I think it worked out great.”
And as an added bonus, his players stepped up to meet the challenge.
“That scrimmage was probably the most productive football I’ve had all season out of all my boys.”
Stepping onto the field also gives the kids a chance to feel connected to their role models. They can toss touchdowns and break tackles or record a stop in the backfield or make a goal line stand. And of course, there is always the chance they might come face-to-face with the men who take the field on Sundays.
“We happened to be in the tunnel when the (Green Bay) Packers were coming off the field, and that was really cool,” Jim Scholfield, head coach of the Oakville Jr. Tigers and league president said. “The kids were thisclose to real NFL players. And when we were done playing, (Rams defensive end)
Scholfield’s group of eighth graders played their game following the Rams’ game against the Green Bay Packers on October 21. The “postgame games” were started this year, and have their advantages and disadvantages over the halftime games. On the one hand, coaches like Scholfield like playing after the game because it allows their kids more playing time – a full hour as opposed to less than 15 minutes. On the flip side, the kids miss the experience of performing in front of a packed house of 60,000-plus.
“The halftime games go really quick,” Scholfield said. “With the way we did it this year, we were almost able to play the equivalent of a full game. We were on the field as soon as it cleared after the game, and there were probably a few hundred fans that stuck around to watch.”
During the game, the youth football players were not just making plays. They were making memories.
“When they’re 30 years old, they’re going to think back,” Lenzen said. “And this is probably going to be one of their greatest football memories.”
Lenzen’s players are not the only ones who will look back on the experience fondly. He claimed the opportunity to take the field at the Edward Jones Dome as the best football experience he has ever had. Lenzen said his kids were more focused during their close-up and that he has received more positive feedback from this opportunity than anything else during his coaching career. The chance to take to the sidelines was also special for Lenzen on a personal level.
“I had never done anything like that when I played youth football. So for me as a coach, it was a dream come true to be down on that field.”
Coaches and players alike have sung the praises of the opportunity at hand. While stats and standings remain unaffected by the game, it serves a greater impact by offering a moment in the spotlight for the participants. Teicher has been involved with the program throughout its five-year existence. And each year, he comes away impressed with the results.
“This is an experience that always ends up under promising and over delivering,” Teicher said. “The teams go through a few different emotional phases leading up to the event, and once it arrives, they are blown away. Every single time.”
The build-up to taking the field at halftime or postgame generates excitement for players and their families. The game itself is a culmination of the excitement, hard work and practice by all involved. But while the game might pass, its effect on future waves of kids does not.
Many leagues and coaches use the youth football experience in recruitment pitches for kids and their families and as incentive to get the kids signed up to play. To help coaches in their efforts, the Rams produce video highlights of each game. It offers leagues and coaches a powerful tool that backs up their pitches. For some leagues, having the Rams’ support has been a major contribution to building their numbers.
“It’s something we use from Day 1 when we advertise our program for people to sign up,” league president and head coach of the Mascoutah Little Indians Tony Williams said. “We say ‘Here’s what we do and here’s what we’ve done.’ And when we have registration events, we play those videos (the Rams) provided to us from the game, and show the kids on the field. So it’s been a great thing for us in generating interest in our program and also generating interest in the Rams.”
The game is also used as incentive for younger age groups. In Scholfield’s league, the seventh and eighth graders get to take the field at the Edward Jones Dome. He said it gives the kids something to strive for during their middle school football years.
“The idea is to build it up,” Scholfield said. “Sixth grade, you didn’t get to play; seventh grade, you played during the preseason; and then in eighth grade you play in the regular season game.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Williams.
“When the younger kids who are coming in and they hear about (playing at the Edward Jones Dome) and they see the other kids participating, they look forward to the next year because then they get a chance to do it,” Williams said. “And I think that’s the most exciting part of all of it. It’s the younger kids who say ‘I can’t wait until next year because we’ll get a chance to play on the field.’”
Message from the League
As the league’s success has grown, so has its participation. After initially starting the program with two teams, the group has expanded to 20 and includes a waiting list. Schandl has been the driving force behind it, making sure teams are accounted for and that all the details are worked out and organized for those participating.
“Our efforts were more outbound during the first few years,” Schandl said. “But now our success has started spreading by word of mouth and I have coaches lined up who want their teams to play.”
Schandl’s work is appreciated by the coaches with whom he works.
“Nathan does a great job with the program, especially with how he embraces the coaches individually,” Teicher said.
For more information on the Rams’ halftime, pre-game and postgame youth football experiences, contact Nathan Schandl at (314) 425-0512 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.