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Expanding the youth football reach

It started small, with the hopes of doing a youth football camp in the Pittsburgh area to help kids learn proper skills and the values of teamwork.

Today, the Steelers Youth Football program has grown into something nobody involved could have imagined. Not only are they reaching kids in all of the Pittsburgh region, but also kids nationwide, as well as assisting area coaches in an effort to make the game safer for all.

Over the summer the team hosted three Youth Football Camps, with instruction from past high school Coach of the Week winners as well as a mixture of current and former Steelers players, including Tyson Alualu, Christian Kuntz, Pressley Harvin, Henry Mondeaux, Kevin Rader, Charlie Batch, Terence Garvin, Chris Hoke, Arthur Moats, Shaun Suisham, Vince Williams and Craig Wolfley.

"It's crazy. Our first camp was in 2009 and we started with one," said Mike Marchinsky, the Steelers youth football and player relations manager. "The goal at that point was to have camps in communities North, South, East and West of the city to pull those kids from those towns. Fast forward to 2022 and we have kids from about 26 states represented. It's kind of overwhelming when you think about the goal was just to be in those neighborhoods and now it's Steelers Nation.

"For our youth camps we have 600 kids and a waitlist of over 200 kids. It's awesome. It gives the proper perspective of why they come to the camp and it's a great experience. That is a credit to our high school coaches that make sure that the kids come through and have a great time and our current and former players that spend time with the kids. It's not a photo op, it's not an autograph session, it's teaching and learning and the guys spending time with the kids while also making sure it's a fun experience playing football. I think that's why it lends itself to being such a great experience."

Batch has been a regular at the youth football camps since their inception, understanding he was once that kid who wanted to learn from the best, so he wants to lend his hand any way he can.

"When you have that type of camp, the kids are eager to learn," said Batch. "You want to teach them everything that we know, but at the same time giving them something tangible to be able to take back to their teams that can help them number one, personally with their individual goals and obviously team goals. We're just trying to make sure that they leave out better than they came in. And have fun at the same time."

Batch took that fun to the next level this summer when he stepped in at quarterback for a flag football game at one of the camps, quarterbacking both teams in a game that ended with a 77-70 score.

"It was one of those games that the kids were flying," said Batch. "They were ready to play. I think that had to be the highest scoring game in the history of Steelers youth camps.

"The key was it was fun, and they were learning. It's so important the Steelers do this because the kids get a chance to be around us and get a chance to build relationships. We are able to tell the story. We're telling them we were just like they were, eager to learn. Anytime you're able to not only do the camp, but the way that the Steelers rotate them and try to go to different regions now you can touch everybody and not just be centrally located in downtown Pittsburgh. The beauty of it is the fact that you have so many people that come in from out of town and want to be a part of it. I love that element of it."

The team also held daily youth football programs during training camp at Saint Vincent College, with two youth football teams taking part in a daily skills clinic, then forming a tunnel to welcome the players to the field as they head to practice and taking in the practice session.

"Nobody is better equipped than the Steelers to have these programs, and where better than the hallowed fields of Saint Vincent College where the team has been coming for over 50 years," said Wolfley. "The Steelers have always been a community-based group that sought to better the community they're in. And that is exactly what the youth programs are doing.

"It's so important to lay the first foundational processes for these young kids to be able to go out and enjoy a fantastic, superb game. And they're making it safe all the time. To be able to do that, you need people that know what they're doing. They know how to communicate what they're doing, and then be able to have enough joy in their heart to lay that out with the young kids and just engage in what is fun. It's has to be fun as well as being able to play the game."

Wolfley said he enjoys the teaching aspect of it as much as the kids enjoy running around and playing.

"I love it. It's a chance for me get my coaching yayas out," said Wolfley. "To be able to interject a little life into the kids. To be able to show them a little bit about what the pro football life is about. And then to be able to just enjoy that back and forth with the kids that lets them know we are real.

"We see kids come back year after year for these events and they're growing every year in their skills and their love of the game. I always try to share the joy I have for football with them and just try to be real with them and encourage them most of all."

This is a time of growth for kids who take part in the camps, and they are very impressionable, so making the right impression is paramount. If the message isn't delivered right, it's not heard.

"I think about when I was their age what I wanted to learn," said Batch. "You don't want to go talk over their head but simplify the game and get them to understand the basics. When I'm dealing with the quarterbacks, and young quarterbacks at that, you explain that while they might run a different offense when they play, what I'm going to teach you is a three-step and a five-step drop. Those are things no matter what level you're playing at, you're going to have to do. You can see kids light up when you say that. We're also making sure for the parents who are watching that they can take the lessons that were learned from those drills and continue to work on them even in the backyard. Those are the things I get excited about."

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The Steelers host a 2022 Youth Football Camp at Saint Vincent College

The Steelers made a commitment to growing opportunities for girl's flag football over the past year and that began with two Girls Flag Football Jamborees, with 100 girls in grades 7-12 taking part in the fun-filled instructional sessions.

"We are excited to provide this opportunity for high schools in Western Pennsylvania," said Steelers President Art Rooney II when the team first announced the event. "Flag Football is an exciting game, and already very popular in community programs, so it is great to provide high school girls with an opportunity to keep playing and represent their high school."

Former Steelers safety Jordan Dangerfield was on hand to provide instructions for the girls and loved the energy he saw on both occasions.

"It's about the fun they are having, but it's also amazing how competitive they are," said Dangerfield. "They are out there trying to learn and get better. It means a lot to help them out, teach them the game, introduce them to certain techniques and things we do as professionals. To see the smiles on their faces means everything. It's amazing to see what they are able to accomplish."

The team also launched a program to encourage high schools to sanction girls flag football, which is the case in some states, but not Pennsylvania. The Steelers provided flag belts, footballs, and other support to help launch the program which came from funds through Steelers Youth Football, including the donation of Pro Bowl grants from T.J. Watt and David DeCastro. Nike provided the uniforms, while Pittsburgh Flag Football League also provided support. The program was a huge hit and culminated when the Steelers hosted the Championship Tournament for the Girls Flag Football League.

"I've been involved in some really cool opportunities since I started here, but to pull that off, and if that turns into a sanctioned high school sport, that will be the greatest accomplishment of my career and possibly life," said Marchinsky. "We wanted to do it before Covid and then Covid put a pause on it for two years. And even coming out of Covid schools were still a little concerned about the timing because they still had to try to pull off all their normal sports. To add one, it was a little tough for them. So that's why we had six schools last year. After the interest and everything of last year, we're up to 16 for next year. And Philadelphia keeps adding teams, so if we get to that magic number of 100 schools, we're looking forward to a state championship either at Acrisure Stadium or out in Philadelphia and rotate back and forth. It's hard not to get emotional because of all the work you put in, the experience that the girls had, and the pride that they take in being that first group through was unbelievable."

The championship tournament featured all six participating schools, including Ambridge, Ellis School, Moon, North Allegheny, Shaler and West Allegheny High Schools, and it was Shaler Area High School who came out as the champion, defeating Moon, 1-0, in double overtime on the same field the Steelers play on.

"It's surreal. You really can't describe this kind of stuff in words," said Robby Heinrich, the coach for Shaler Area High School. "For the girls to come down…the chance to play where the Steelers play, it was amazing. It's a blast. You really can't describe it. To see these girls come down and be a part of history. To start something that is going to take off in the next couple of years and generations after them. They are creating a ripple effect right now. They are setting a foundation for girls they won't even meet. But in 10-15 years down the road, it's going to come back and be amazing.

"I tell the girls all the time it's more about the memories than the win. The championship is more of a capstone than anything. It's more or less about how close we grew together as a family, all the memories we had, the memories we made on the field. That is what is going to last forever. That trophy will carry dust, but the memories will last for those kids forever."

The Steelers also helped to sponsor a trip to the Pro Bowl for a group of girls from Pittsburgh Flag Football, who participated in the Flag Football National Championship as a part of Pro Bowl activities and represented the organization.

"They sent us emails telling us it was the greatest experience," said Marchinsky. "They said it was their favorite experience in sports. There was some really cool feedback. We are right on the beginning of making this a reality for the girls.

"With all of this, everyone is super excited. The looks on their faces when a girl who hasn't played a bunch and caught a touchdown pass was priceless. If we could have bottled that and sold it as that's why we do what we do, that is why we do what we do. That reaction.

"Girls Flag Football has been a big initiative from the NFL and other clubs. Girls have been playing flag in different communities and organizations, it just wasn't at the high school level. We wanted to create the jamborees to create awareness and have the girls go back to their schools and say flag football is a blast, I want to play it in my high school."

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The Steelers host a girls high school flag football tournament at Heinz Field

A main aspect of everything the Steelers do with youth football is safety, and that is why the team partners with NFL Foundation to help provide funding and underwrite the cost of area high school and middle school football programs to take advantage of coaching education tools, clinics, online support and more through USA Football and True Impact Football.

"A few years ago, all youth sports numbers were down, but significantly down were football numbers," said Marchinsky. "It forced us to take a look at it as a whole with USA Football and the NFL office. We asked what can we do better to ensure that the game sticks around. The number one thing was coaching safety and coaching education. We started with coaching education with the Heads-Up certification program with USA Football. And then this year with True Impact Football. Coaching education is vital. Teachers continue to go back to school and get continuing education credits, coaches need to do the same thing. I have four kids, all of which are involved in sports, three play football, so I want to make sure that our coaches are teaching my kids the proper way to do things, making sure they're good with sudden cardiac arrest and things like that, that may not be a football thing. As long as we have the proper education programs, we are doing the right thing."

Other programs the team features are the Steelers Showcase Game of the Week, highlighting high school football in Western Pennsylvania. The team also has Steelers 11-ON, an event powered by Nike where 12 teams from the WPIAL and City League compete in skill development contests.

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