For Steve Hatfield, it’s a familiar scene.
A lanky quarterback takes the snap and a wobbly pass sails across the blue sky, hitting his intended receiver running across the field.
“That’s the way,” a coach shouts. “That’s the way.”
About 130 kids ages 7 to 14 are hard at work, practicing their plays for their upcoming football season that begins Sept. 10 at Tumwater Stadium. For the past three weeks, the fields at Chinook Middle School turn into a giant practice session three times a week.
Nearly 30 years ago, Hatfield, who grew up in Lacey, played in the same Thurston County Youth Football League. He’s now the franchise head coach of the Rams organization, which has five teams that range from second graders to eighth graders and is a feeder program for North Thurston High School, the Rams.
TCYFL, which kicks off its 38th season, has over 1,100 players signed up with 12 different franchises, one for each of the local high schools in the county.
The league draws from Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater, Yelm, Rainier and Tenino. Teams are divided into five age groups – 7-8, 9-10, 10-11 12 and 13-14. The last two age groups fill a need for the Olympia, Tumwater and North Thurston school districts, which has dropped its football programs for middle school.
“It’s fun,” Hatfield said. “I have fun. The kids have fun. It’s a great league.”
The league’s objective is twofold. First, from that first practice when a second or third grader is squeezing into a football helmet for the first, coaches stress the fundamentals. Sometimes that simply means learning how to put on a jersey and where a tackle and guard line up. In addition to the fundamentals, the league also tries to shape a child’s character.
“We’re not a football farm just trying to win championships,” Hatfield said. “We’re trying to build young men. Our Ram motto is integrity, accountability and hard work.”
Practices are three times a week, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. When the eight-game season starts and games are played on Saturdays, the younger players practice only twice a week.
The league has an operating budget of over $100,000. A 12-member board, which includes league president Scott Erickson, and the 90-plus coaches in the league are all volunteers, helping to keep costs down. Players pay $160 to play, helping to cover the costs of equipment, field rental and referees.
As the franchise coach, Hatfield roams from team to team during practice, talking with the kids.
Besides learning how to block and tackle, 12-year-old James Beatty also gets a little insight about pushing himself when he’s tired, or about not quitting when an opponent scores and goes into the lead against his Rams seventh grade team.
“In football, I learn about sportsmanship,” Beatty said. “I also learned about giving it your all.”
Beatty, who started playing football in third grade, is a lineman who gets to carry the football occasionally in practice. But he prefers being a lineman over a running back. What’s his favorite thing about football?
“Getting to hit people,” said Beatty, whose favorite team is the Oregon Ducks.
Beatty’s father, Bill Beatty, is an assistant coach of the Rams’ seventh grade team. Like Hatfield, Beatty played youth football in the league, then played a couple of years for coach Bob Dunn at Olympia High in the 1970s before an injury forced him to quit.
Now, Beatty is excited about his son’s chance to play football.
“We want to win games, no doubt,” Bill Beatty said. “But we want to build some values through football. Things like integrity, honesty and hard work. That’s the type of thing we try to teach.”
Chris Horton is the head coach of the Rams seventh grade team. His son also plays for the team. On this day, all the players are wearing their purple game jerseys. Their helmets are white with purple ram horns on it, just like the North Thurston High School team’s helmets.
In addition to teaching plays and blocking techniques, Horton tries to pass along something his players can take with them after football.
“We’re not a football factory,” Horton said. “Our philosophy here is to coach them about the fundamentals of life and coach them about the fundamentals of football. We teach them the basics of life. That’s determination, focus and discipline. Those things really exemplify themselves in football.”