As Steven Childers, owner of a youth football franchise, worked diligently to get the word out on his new venture, he couldn't have imagined that he would be doing so in the midst of a pandemic.
Childers, a De Pere resident and Green Bay Packers Mentor/Protégé Program participant, fell in love with the National Youth Football Organization program as he noted the growing concerns among parents that tackle football posed a real danger for traumatic head injuries. When he and his wife decided to purchase the rights to operate in Wisconsin, he thought it would take off.
'The first year was really a struggle,' Childers said. 'I didn't realize how hard it would be to introduce something new to such a football-loving town. It is hard to infiltrate the community when there is something in place that they like doing.'
That something was a network of established tackle football programs. Yet Childers persisted. He was convinced that the NYFO program that was powered by former NFL players and coaches was a safer option for young athletes. The 7-on-7 one-touch format focuses on learning the game and developing skills that translate well to tackle football programs. (More information is available at www.playnyfo.com)
His first season in 2018 got off to a slow start, and in 2019, he had just 43 participants. When the opportunity arose to apply for the Mentor/Protégé Program, he was enthusiastic to work with a mentor who could provide ideas and direction. He was accepted into the program and paired with Dick Hopfensperger, a Green Bay SCORE mentor and experienced businessman.
Childers and Hopfensperger either met or talked several times a month and set goals with a focus on marketing the program to schools and parents. Initially, Childers had thought the best way to promote the NYFO program was to send out flyers through the schools. But, after receiving a small response, he realized he needed to try other avenues as well.
'Having younger kids myself who played in tournaments, I knew that this was a good place to reach athletes and their parents,' he said. 'I tried to set up a table at some of the events, but they wanted an arm and leg. I found that it was better to just walk through the parking lots during events and put flyers on cars.'
That proved to be effective, and, along with word of mouth from parents telling other parents, information about the program got out. It helped that several well-respected coaches had signed up their children. As interest grew, Childers, who is also a dog breeder, found himself burning the candle at both ends.
He recruited coaches and volunteers, solicited for sponsorships, updated social media accounts (with the help of his children), made plans to grow the number of leagues statewide, planned fundraisers, found fields to lease for games and practices, and handled the minutia of details that come with running a business.
The number of hours that Childers put in was of greatest concern to Hopfensperger who is afraid he might burn out.
'He is spending so much time on this and getting reimbursed very little, at least monetarily. Steve's passion is extraordinary, as is his persistence,' he said.
Childers recognizes the danger of doing too much. He said that he was watching a basketball game recently with a friend when a business call came in. When Childers left to take the call, the friend warned that he was going to kill himself if he kept working 24/7. Childers hopes this is a temporary stage in the program's development.
'This is still the beginning phase and the demands on the business side are so much more than I expected. If I chose not to coach, it would take a lot off my plate, but I look back at winning a game and having all of these kids run and jump in my arms; those are the memories I take with me.'
As a compromise, Childers plans to coach less, but still coach. Even that may be difficult to do as the league grows. At first, the pandemic hit the league hard and he lost 62 players and 14 coaches. Thankfully, the exodus didn't last.
'As time went on, in April and May, we started to have new parents call, and new players and coaches come in,' he said. 'By working with the health department and CDC, we were able to start playing. When fall programs started canceling, it was an opportunity for me to grow the program and we found the silver lining.'
That silver lining resulted in growth to 362 kids, and 25 teams. There is interest in other Wisconsin communities, and the new challenge for Childers will be handling and sustaining the growth.
'Steve set goals and exceeded them through his hard work,' Hopfensperger said. 'I am recommending the Packer Program chose Steve and his business as Protégé of the Year.'
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and Past District Director for SCORE, Wisconsin.