Solomon Taylor said football helped him overcome personal struggles while growing up in Potomac, so when he saw the sport's youth participation falling — which he attributed to costs and safety concerns — he decided to take action by saving the sport that helped save him.
Taylor, 31, launched Save Youth Football (SYF) in June 2013, and the Bethesda-based nonprofit held its first major event — a Charity Football Combine — Saturday at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. More than 250 people were in attendance, including 120 youth football players who participated free of charge, Taylor said.
“There's a lot of kids out there that don't have that opportunity to play the game, and we're losing kids to other sports, so that's why it's 'Save Youth Football,'” said Taylor, a Winston Churchill alumnus.
According to the SYF website, Taylor was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder at a young age but was able to graduate high school with football's help, and has stayed involved with the sport since then, coaching at the youth level and running a youth sports video production company.
“This is the ultimate team sport,” said Taylor, owner of Prominent Productions. “It teaches life lessons so it's important that kids get an opportunity to play this.”
But Taylor said he has seen youth football participation fall in recent years, locally and nationally. According to ESPN, Pop Warner, a prominent youth football program, had its participation drop 9.5 percent from 2010 to 2012.
The decline comes as concerns about player safety and head injuries are on the rise. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgeon and concussion expert at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, recommended children under 14 not play tackle football because of the unknown long-term impact of concussions and repetitive head trauma.
Taylor said the drop has more to do with rising costs ($300-plus per player) than player safety.
Mark Steinwandel, of Darnestown, whose eighth-grade son played in the Rockville Football League, said that parents are concerned about player safety, but that youth tackle football can help curb risk of injuries at higher age-levels.
“This is unscientific but when the kids are little and they're all about the same size, nobody is running 1,000 miles per hour,” Steinwandel said. “If they can learn the techniques and what to do and how to protect themselves, to me, that's really helpful.”
The Charity Football Combine featured several activities for athletes, including a 40-yard dash, a field-goal kicking station and an agility shuttle. Players were given scorecards to record their times and measurements.
“This is something they watch on TV: the NFL combine,” Taylor said. “… All these kids want to run a 40-yard dash and they want to do it with a laser timer and they get excited about it … They get to see what their hard work in the offseason has done.”
The event included an equipment drive for children from underserved communities. It also featured Retired NFL All-Pro Shawn Springs, an alumnus of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring (Class of 1993), and former Washington Redskins player Marcus Washington.
“Football, like any sport, adds a lot of value to anyone's life. You learn a little bit about team work, you learn discipline, you learn about hard work. And I think there's some important life lessons,” Springs said. “… Anything I can do to keep the sport relevant ... if there's kids that want to play and can't afford to play, that shouldn't be the case.”
Isaiah Nolasco, 11, of Rockville, said that his favorite part of the event was “that I get to practice and try to get better at things, and help other people.”
Lamont Hagans, 12, of New Carrollton participated in several drills, including the field-goal station and the 40-yard dash.
“[I'm here] so I can train more and be active … It's pretty cool,” he said.