BENNINGTON >> For years, the Mount Anthony Youth Athletic Association's football program was always filled with as many players as they could find, making it one of the largest youth programs in the area.
But in the past few years, numbers have dwindled.
"Youth football in Bennington was dead and dying a couple of years ago, it was bad," said MAYAA vice president Ken Mailhot. "I came up with my boys through the program, but there were a number of problems."
So two years ago, MAYAA president Frank Gaudette and Mailhot and others completely revamped the MAYAA football program, splitting the kids into three divisions — flag, junior and senior — by age and joining the Northeastern Youth Football League and changing the team name to the Bennington Minutemen.
By joining the NYFL, it gives Bennington players a chance to play different communities, instead of the old way of splitting up just Bennington teams. Teams in the NYFL include Bennington, Brunswick, Hoosick Falls, Manchester, Mechanicville, Schuylerville and Stillwater in the Empire Division, while Cambridge, Granville, Greenwich, Hoosic Valley, Salem, Vermont and Watervliet in the Adirondack Division.
"We had a goal and we knew what we had to do to change it and last year, we were finally able to make that happen by getting into this league," Mailhot said. "They compete in more of an all-star format."
There are three divisions. Flag is for kids from kindergarten to second grade, while juniors is third and fourth graders. Senior league is fifth and sixth graders.
"[In the old format], we'd have third graders facing sixth graders playing all together and we'd have kids run over and then they'd not want to play anymore," Mailhot said. "Then we'd end up with 12 or 14 kids on a team."
Now in the second year, there's been an uptick in numbers in the junior and senior ranks. Each level has about 25 players.
"More kids are coming out," Mailhot said. "We're not just trying to put in a football program, but put in a youth program. We have better coaches that are getting Heads Up certified, we have a strict code of conduct."
The Heads Up program is an initiative from USA football to teach coaches about concussions and safety in youth football.
"Safety comes first, it's always our No. 1 priority," Mailhot said. "We say it in six words, 'When in doubt, sit them out.' It's a common misconception with football, it's not a violent sport, it's a technique sport. We try to teach the kids the right technique to be effective players and not to get hurt."
Concussions have been an important issue throughout every level, but Mailhot said that the fear about kids playing football is more unspoken then not.
"I've had a few conversations where it's considered, but I think we explain what we are doing, that it's good things for the kids, the parents are more receptive," Mailhot said. "Some parents are just convinced though."
Another change is the work between the high school program and the Minutemen. Mount Anthony varsity coach John Martin, going into his third season leading the Patriots, has been an integral part of the process for the Minutemen.
"He's been great for us," Mailhot said. "We had a meeting to pitch our case to [get into the league] and it was John, Frank and myself who went. He's been a big supporter since the beginning, we do our Heads Up certification with him. He even hooked us up with Hudl [game film]. He's been really involved doing what he can."
While the numbers for the older groups are good, the Minutemen are in search of the youngest kids to play in the flag league. Bennington committed two teams for the first time to the NYFL flag league, but they don't have the kids yet.
"There's eight [kids] on the field at a time, so we want to get 15 on a team," Mailhot said. "A few years ago, we had 50 or 60 kids playing flag and then last year, we had 20 or 25 and it was just two teams playing each other. It wasn't enough. The [NYFL] is a better experience, playing against other towns and they get to play together, not against each other."
Practice for all levels begins on August 1 and paperwork is due no later than August 20.
"It's exciting to be a part of bringing football back," Mailhot said. "Some of the nonsense you'd see before is gone now. At Willow Park, you'd have parents on the field, you have none of that."
The home games will be at the Mount Anthony Union Middle School. The group attempted to get one night under the lights at Spinelli Field at the high school, but were turned down.
"We have a few sponsors right now, but we want to open it up to more. We want to make people aware that MAYAA has been completely revamped into a youth program, not just a football thing. We need football right now more than ever," Mailhot said.
For more information, go to the Minutemen website at www.benningtonminutemen.com or find them on Facebook.