The Rumson-Fair Haven Bulldogs in action against Manalapan. (Photo courtesy of Pim Van Hemmen Visuals. Click to enlarge)
By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
When gradeschool-aged football players from Middletown, Red Bank and elsewhere suit up for the gridiron later this year, it may be hard to tell any difference on the field. The uniforms will look the same, the team names will remain and the players are, for the most part, the same that have been on the field their entire recreational careers.
But there will be one major change from decades past.
The Rumson-Fair Haven Bulldogs will be the only local team left in the 50-year-old Jersey Shore Pop Warner League, facing teams from places such as Asbury Park and Brick Township. The others will play for a league that’s supplanted Pop Warner as the leader in recreation football one that bills itself as “the largest youth football and youth cheer organization on Earth.”
Citing “issues” with Pop Warner, 30 Jersey Shore teams, including the Red Bank Buccaneers, the Middletown Eagles and the River Plaza Chargers, defected last month to American Youth Football and Cheer, a league sponsored by athletic clothing company Under Armor.
“The rules of Pop Warner weren’t working for us anymore,” said Craig Karahuta, who is still listed on the Jersey Shore league’s website as the organization’s president.
As a result, this football season will fracture local tradition, as Rumson-Fair Haven, which voted to stay with Pop Warner, will play the remaining seven Pop Warner teams, while the other 30-plus teams from the Jersey Shore league match up against each other in the American Youth league.
Why Rumson-Fair Haven decided to stay with Pop Warner is unclear; phone calls and emails to team president Jay Clark were not returned.
As for the defectors, practice schedules that start two weeks earlier in the summer and a retooled playoff system that includes more teams appealed to them, and they cast their votes to switch to American Youth, a national league that started in 1996 but made a big push for growth this year by bringing on about 80 percent of Pop Warner’s Jersey Shore teams.
Whether the move has caused, or will, cause any confusion at the local level is hard to gauge. The season doesn’t start until the end of summer, and Karahuta said while most people seem happy with the switch, there has been a degree of tension among parents and coaches aligned with the leagues.
“There’s been a lot of mudslinging, a lot of people defaming others,” he said, “but at the end of the day the numbers don’t lie.”
Red Bank Head Coach Scott Navitsky said he doesn’t understand why the remaining several teams affiliated with Pop Warner didn’t follow suit and go to American Youth. After hearing what the league had to offer more focus on safety and a fairer playoff system, he said the decision to break away from Pop Warner was simple.
“(American Youth) didn’t push us that way, but they felt it was a good opportunity for us,” Navitsky said.”They brought it to a vote, so they all decided to go.”
Navitsky said he hasn’t heard many complaints among parents, but acknowledged that breaking off decades with Pop Warner has been divisive.
“Everybody’s making such a huge deal of it. It’s the same for the kids, and I think that’s what really matters,” he said.
Karahuta, who was with Pop Warner for years, said for a long time there wasn’t any other option, that “it was just Pop Warner, Pop Warner, Pop Warner,” and now that there is another option for youth football, Pop Warner’s lock is breaking.
“It’s just like if you’ve been driving a Chevy for 20 years and a new Ford comes out and you want to buy that. It’s America. It’s free enterprise,” Karahuta said. “The teams found they could find something better.”