The Steelers have always had a commitment to youth football in Pittsburgh and surrounding communities and it’s now being recognized nationally as they have been named as Pop Warner’s 2010 NFL Team of the Year.
The award, which will be presented at the 50th Annual Pop Warner Scholastic Banquet on May 29 in Philadelphia, is one the organization is proud of.
“It’s very exciting. We have made a commitment to being a part of youth football and supporting it as much as possible over the years,” said team President Art Rooney II. “We’re really happy we are getting the recognition. It inspires us to do more and keep supporting youth football in this area.
“It’s the foundation for football. Kids playing football work their way up through the years. Hopefully they enjoy themselves and learn something about the discipline and work ethic that is involved in being a good football player. There are a lot of good life lessons that kids can learn in youth football even if they are not going to grow up to be pro football players.”
The honor encompasses all of the work the team does with youth football, but particularly the relationship they have with the Mon River Pop Warner Youth Football Conference. Players from the conference have attended the Steelers Gatorade Junior Training Camps at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex and in Latrobe, Pa. during training camp. In addition teams have attended tapings of “Steelers Huddle” and the “McDonald’s Steelers KidZone Show.”
Representatives from the Conference have taken part in Youth Football Month, which includes attending a game at Heinz Field and coaches have attended the Youth Coaches Day at training camp and Steelers/USA Football Coaching School.
The team hosts the Steelers Youth Football Camps for boys and girls 6-14, as well as incorporating a Youth Football Skills Clinic during the annual Fan Blitz. Each year a youth football game is played during halftime of a home game and the team also produces a television show, “Youth Football in Steelers Country.”
On hand to accept the award for the Steelers will be punter Dan Sepulveda, who played youth football growing up in Texas and credits that experience with helping him not just in sports, but in life.
“My earliest lessons of discipline, work ethic that sort of thing came from youth football – working out, being able to prepare for games, getting your body ready to perform,” said Sepulveda. “That is where I trace my work ethic and discipline. That translates into life and academics as well.”
Sepulveda began playing for a youth league when he was in the fourth grade and it was a family affair. His father Carlos, a former standout at Austin's Reagan High School, coached Sepulveda and his three brothers.
“I have a picture in my locker of my dad coaching me in fifth grade,” said Sepulveda. “It’s my dad shaking my hand before the game, a get ready for the game visit before we go out and play. It was always special for me because it was my dad. It’s so encouraging and uplifting for a young boy to make his dad happy. For me, just knowing that he was there at every game was special. I got to show off what God had given to me to my dad and experience the joy that comes with that.
“That is what youth football was all about to me. It was so much fun, getting to play the game that I heard so many stories about my dad playing growing up. Having him there to experience all of that was a lot of fun.”
Texas is similar to Western Pennsylvania, where youth and high school football are a way of life. It was only natural for Sepulveda to play, something that was commonplace among his friends.
“That is what the kids talked about,” said Sepulveda. “They couldn’t wait until they had pads on and could go out there and play with pads on. I know I couldn’t wait. My older brother was two grades ahead of me. You start in fourth grade, but I was out there at his practices when I was in second grade, running sprints and couldn’t wait to be out there.”
Sepulveda lends his hand to the Steelers youth football efforts, serving as a sideline reporter for the McDonald’s High School Game of the Week as a part of Steelers TV’s Youth Football in Steelers Country. He also has attended youth camps, offering his expertise to young players.
“When I go out there and see those things I remember when I was at that place and I didn’t know the first thing about punting but I was out there kicking a ball and having fun,” said Sepulveda. “It’s neat to be reminded of where you came from and that sort of thing and go back and visit that and help kids with things I have learned through the years.”
But the best thing he can offer is advice on what playing youth football should be all about.
“Kids need to have fun,” said Sepulveda. “That is all I was out to do. A lot of times you see in sports today parents too hard on their kids, kids too focused on trying to become a professional when they are in fifth grade. It’s crazy. It just keeps getting younger and younger. I think it’s wrong. They always say if you have the talent, the NFL will find you.