For many sports fans, younger and older, the start of fall only means one thing: football season.
That’s true in Queens, where a crowd cheered as the Bayside Raiders Youth Football teams celebrated the opening of their season at Kissena Corridor Field — located at 150th Street and Booth Memorial Avenue in Flushing — last week, during an exciting, fun-filled Raider Weekend.
Donald LaSala, who has been running the organization for many years, was eager to talk about and familiarize TimesLedger readers with the program and the impact it has had on so many young people. Since 1984, the organization has dedicated itself to offering high quality football instruction to New York’s youngsters.
“Raider Weekend has been a tradition in our program dating back for the past 17 to 18 years. This has always been an awesome way for all of the Raider teams to get ready for the opening season kickoff, which begins the second week of September,” he said, adding that league teams scrimmage teams from other programs within the New York City Youth Football League, along with organizations that are invited from Long Island as well.
Just like the pros, budding athletes have been getting psyched while hoping for a great season of climactic moments marked by extraordinary plays. Even these young players know that winning is all about teamwork, good sportsmanship, skills-building and listening closely to coach Steven Digilio’s suggestions, while being open to constructive feedback.
The popular program has won its share of league championships over the years and both LaSala and Digilio are proud of their teams’ victories.
According to LaSala, the top four teams in each division are eligible for playoff competition and the league plays the championship games for all divisions at Poly Prep in Brooklyn. The season concludes Thanksgiving weekend with the league championship games. After the season is over, there are All-Star games held in December in each of the divisions.
“This year, the Bayside Raiders will be starting their 34th consecutive year of providing a safe and enjoyable football environment for children citywide,” LaSala said. “Each year, from April through November, approximately 200-plus kids participate in our football program.”
The Bayside Raiders Organization fields five teams in the NYCYFL. Teams and age groups begin at Peanuts (ages 6-8), Junior Pee Wee (ages 9-10), Pee Wee (ages 11-12), Bantam (ages 13-14) and Intermediate (ages 15-17).
“All of our coaches and administrators are volunteers who donate countless hours of their time to ensure the continued success of the program. We pride ourselves on teaching the fundamentals of football and the importance of good sportsmanship, honesty and hard work,” said LaSala, who has been with the Raiders for 27 years. “I have been very fortunate to work and coach with so many dedicated people. One of the most rewarding aspects in coaching is seeing many of the former players who do come back to the program to coach. They will bring their children back as well to begin playing with the Raiders. It shows the kind of impact that the Raider Program has had for so many years.”
A love of the game
Both LaSala and Digilio said they have always enjoyed the game of football and agreed that while coaching can be challenging, the rewards far outweigh all the long hours and hard work.
Indeed, coaching can have a positive impact on a young person’s life.
Diglio, a Bellerose resident who grew up in Astoria and has known LaSala and the Raiders for years, just joined the team this year for his first season.
While his real job is in credit risk management, the Green Bay Packers fan said he is passionate about coaching youth football.
“Over 40 years ago, I decided to share the love of the game. I volunteered to coach with the Long Island Tomahawks. After that first season, I was hooked when some kids and parents asked if I was going to coach the next season,” said Diglio, who has coached kids as young as 6 and some young adults in their 20s.
From cheers and chants at schoolyard and high school games to feats of remarkable athleticism at Super Bowl championships, playful competition — at any level — can be found in almost every aspect of our culture.
Diglio also weighed in about recent safety concerns and parents’ fears over head injuries.
“I believe this is so overblown,” he said. “Why are there no discussions about injuries in soccer? Heading a ball can damage a player. A football player is not supposed to use his helmet to tackle or block. “Unfortunately, accidents happen, but we still drive cars and fly in planes.”
Digilio also pointed to a Mayo Clinic study, which found that youth football is no more dangerous than other sport.
Teaching life lessons
It takes a lifetime of self-discipline and long hours of practice to rise to the level of greatness that football stars have achieved.
Youth football leagues like the Bayside Raiders teach self-discipline and kids learn a bunch of other life lessons, while enjoying the fresh air and making great friends. And a number of players who have gone on to play high school and college football have become excellent students and outstanding members of their community, having learned important lessons in cooperation, concentration, coordination, and creativity –things worth striving for in their own right.
What the Bayside Raiders program is really all about, according to LaSala, “is being able to make a positive impact on a young person’s life and seeing so many former players go onto college, begin their lives as young adults and have their own careers.”
Who knew that playing football helped kids to tackle life’s challenges head on?
To register for the league, visit www.baysid