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Bennett helps lead national youth football league

Coach Eric Bennett, hooded, leaves the field with a group of young players following a game in fall 2020 at the end of the first season of the Saranac Lake USA Football League. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

SARANAC LAKE — Eric Bennett loves football. He played the sport at his alma mater Saranac Lake High School, and he’s been the longtime head varsity coach of a Red Storm program that traditionally has enjoyed a lot of success.

But counting wins and losses isn’t how Bennett gauges his success when it comes to coaching the game. Instead, Bennett’s aim is to introduce football to kids at a young age. His main goals are safety, inclusion, core values and most of all having fun.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the high school season last fall, Bennett found some time on his hands, and he jumped on the opportunity to work with a younger group. Along with a lot of help from the community — which included volunteer coaches and parents — Bennett led an effort to start the Saranac Lake USA Football League. It’s run under the umbrella of the game’s national governing body of USA Football.

It turned out to be quite popular.

“When we were getting the league together, we didn’t know if we were going to have five kids or 20,” Bennett said. “It turned out to be well over 50.”

Eric Bennett coaches the Saranac Lake Red Storm varsity football team. (Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)

Participants came from across the Tri-Lakes and ranged from kindergartners to sixth-graders, and the instruction followed a model that teaches the sport in steps, with the entire progression designed with safety in mind.

Not only does Bennett plan on being involved again to help the local league have a second successful season in the fall — he’s taking on a role with USA Football nationally.

Last month, USA Football introduced Bennett as a member of its Coach Advisory Council, one of three groups established to “provide the organization leadership and assistance in its efforts to create, maintain and deliver valuable resources and support to youth football leagues and coaches.” There is also an Education Advisory Council and a League Leadership Advisory Council, and all three are comprised of members from across the country.

“For the good of young athletes, we are committed to reimagine how our sport is played, taught and experienced,” USA Football Executive Director and CEO Scott Hallenbeck said in a press release. “All of our council members — many of whom are youth sports parents — are united by a selfless commitment to our children and personify and inspired, athlete-focused mission.”

The model starts with teaching the most basic fundamentals of the sport, so when participants have a few years under their belts and are actually playing tackle, they should know how to make contact safely. In addition to specifics of the game, youngsters also learn about team building and discipline, lessons Bennett said “will serve you well beyond football off the field.”

“As a high school coach, one thing I’m looking for is how to best align a youth program to high school,” he said. “For example, if you’re teaching the game of baseball, you don’t go and put kids out there who are new to the game and have them hit fastballs. If football players have come up through a program like we’re working with, they’ll already know what ‘foot forward’ means, and making safe contact will be a matter of muscle memory. Football should be about getting the fundamentals down and not just going out there and banging away, with the goal being safe contact, not violent collision.”

Bennett reached out to USA Football at various levels to provide updates during Saranac Lake’s first season.

“We’re in USA Football’s Northeast area,” Bennett said. “They liked what they were seeing through our social media and our numbers and how we handled COVID. I was just reaching out with questions all the way. After the season ended, I was invited to join the board.”

Bennett said his involvement in the upcoming months will be Zoom meetings, dialogues about what is working and what changes can be made, and marketing the sport. He added that USA Football has great resources for coaches.

“They have an incredible menu of drills and ways to teach things to kids,” Bennett said. “I’m really excited to be working with them. Football is a game that any kid can enjoy. We don’t want to turn kids off to football; our goal is to turn kids on to football.”

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