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Is this the beginning of a beautiful (New London-Waterford) friendship?

Waterford — No other example illustrates the changing path of youth sports better than travel teams, where purveyors poach the best talent and then leave town for the promise of better competition. Their high costs cater to families with means, creating athletic Darwinism.

Chris Muckle and Jerry Sullivan have watched it erode their passion of youth football in Waterford. It's been like tooth decay — steady but not necessarily obvious — until one day things stand as they do today.

"We've been members of the Southern New England Youth Football Conference for years. I'd say 60 years," Muckle was saying last week. "Unfortunately, it's on the verge of being extinct. On life support. The whole conference. Some programs are struggling greatly. A couple of teams (Norwich and New London) have left for travel and what they feel is better competition."

And so Muckle, Sullivan and the rest of the town's youth football leadership are mounting an offense in the wake of elimination: open Waterford's borders to all the New London kids who can't afford travel teams, creating opportunity where there has been none. The beginning of a beautiful friendship?

"When a town leaves the league, the town closest to them gets the kids," Sullivan said. "So Waterford would get the New London kids who can't afford to pay travel team costs. It's a normal fee to play in our conference, but it's much less. The problem now is parents and their egos. 'My kid ain't wearing blue.'"

Example: Sullivan said that signs posted throughout New London inviting football players and cheerleaders to participate in Waterford have been ripped down.

"Now the signs simply say 'youth football' and how to sign up. Nothing about Waterford," Sullivan said, "because they'd get taken down again."

Imagine this line of thinking: Deny kids a chance to play and cheer because of ego or some old wounds from the playing days. I suppose sports offer more pathetic examples of sniveling adulthood. It'll just take us all a while to think of any.

This, too: Here is an entire league that's all for a cultural blend between neighboring towns. What if — and just thinking out loud here — the Waterford kids and New London kids actually (gasp!) started learning about each other? Liking each other? Becoming friends? Oh, the humanity.

"To me, youth sports aren't about the kids anymore. It's about the coaches and their egos," Muckle said. "They're more worried about themselves than the kids. X Box and smart phones are the best babysitters in the world because that's all these kids know how to do now. They don't want to put the work in. Their parents don't push them. Youth sports are about making memories, making friends, learning how to be a teammate. We're not making legends."

They're just giving kids a place to play.

"Jerry and I and three quarters of our board have no kids in the league. That should say something," Muckle said. "We're trying to do the right thing for kids. We have no dog in the fight. Just trying to keep football going."

Muckle said the Waterford Youth Football Facebook page has all the details about how to register online. The fee is $99 per kid, with family plans available. Then Muckle said, "If there's still a money issue, we can bend."

And they truly don't care if what they teach kids from New London ultimately benefits New London, where many or most would likely attend high school.

"It's helping both the Waterford and New London programs," Muckle said. "Learn the game and go back to play in New London? That's great. No problem with that. We're still going to be happy for them. We have no dog in the fight. We just want the kids to learn football and get ready for high school. Look, I've been a Corrections Officer for 22 years. I know what happens when kids don't have structure."

Opportunities, a wise man once said, are like sunrises: If you wait too long, you'll miss them. Here are two guys who could use their energy and money on anything else they want. Their passion is with teaching kids and keeping a league going. The residual effect: A Waterford-New London thing benefits both towns and both programs.

This ought to be a no-brainer. Except the no brains part comes from anybody ripping down signs because they say "Waterford." This isn't about you. It's about the kids and the elixir to athletic Darwinism.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.


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