The Saints come marching in!

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 26, 2002

&uot;You guys have made the decision to play football,&uot; David Birdsong, head coach of the Nansemond-Suffolk Saints of the Pop Warner Junior Pee-Wee league, tells his players. &uot;Now make one to give 110 percent when you come out here.&uot; If the players’ enthusiasm toward practice is any indication, Birdsong’s request shouldn’t be a problem.

Immediately making four lines, the Saints run through the basic warm-ups. After a few sets of jumping jacks, neck rolls and leg stretching, they’re ready to do some heavy hitting.

But before they do that, the Saints always take a few moments to remember that they’re more than just a group of children who wear the same uniform and try to score as many touchdowns as possible. Because the effort that their coaches want the Saints to make is more than just running over tacklers and diving for that one extra yard.

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&uot;OK, guys, time for a little family time,&uot; says Birdsong, his team huddled around him. &uot;What good things happened to you today?&uot;

For a few moments, no one says anything. Then Tucker Hotte’s hand gingerly goes up. &uot;I went fishing and swimming,&uot; says the Nansemond-Suffolk Academy student. &uot;But I’d still rather be on a football field than there!&uot;

After everyone laughs, Birdsong sends them to stations. At each end of the field, a small group of players takes part in drills. One group jumps over a set of ropes, others dance around small cones, still others slam into a tackling dummy, and some crawl between tires.

&uot;These are little agility stations,&uot; Birdsong explains. &uot;They’re really good for getting the group in shape.&uot;

The walls of the barn next to the football field are decorated with diagrams of the Saints’ plays, carrying such monikers as &uot;3 Wide,&uot; &uot;17 Out Slant,&uot; and &uot;Right 18 Sweep.&uot;

The last one is Will Crenshaw’s favorite. &uot;That play helps me get to the outside and run downfield,&uot; says the quarterback, blocking back, and occasional linebacker. &uot;I really like running the ball and knocking people out of the way.&uot;

The plays represent another manner of instilling non-football values in the Saints. &uot;Everyone thinks that football is all physical, and that’s completely untrue,&uot; says Bird-song. &uot;I’ve seen many smaller, smarter teams beat teams that were bigger and stronger. We give our players playbooks, motivational papers, all sorts of things to study. It helps them take some responsibility.&uot; If a player doesn’t return his materials, he can expect some extra work.

&uot;They give us a lot of sheets that say things like, ‘There’s no ‘I’ in team,’ and ‘A player’s only as good as his team,’&uot; says Sam Howell. &uot;I study those and the plays about every night.&uot;

Howell hopes that his methods pay off when school starts in a few weeks. &uot;This is going to help me study in school,&uot; he says, &uot;because I know how much it helps.&uot;

During a water break, Birdsong addresses his team again. &uot;The Saints team has been around for seven years,&uot; he says. &uot;This summer, our first class graduated from high school, and some of them are going to go on and play football in college. A lot of you are going to grow up together and play a lot of sports. Football, baseball, basketball, everything. Out here is where you should start developing friendships. Here is where you learn to stick together as players, and as friends.&uot;