By Dick Dornan
myBurbank Sports Editor
NOTE: this story has been revised and updated since it ran in September of 2012.
Hark the days of our childhood when many of us played flag football. Those were the good times. Sure we would find some time to play tackle football without pads and other times a simple game of “two-hand touch.” But there was always something special about playing flag football.
At any position on the field, we could be who we wanted to be. Maybe I could be Joe Montana at quarterback or even “Mean” Joe Greene at defensive end? It was a game of simplicity and grace and it brought out a smile in each of us.
High School football might take center stage on a Thursday or Friday evening at Memorial Field and Pop Warner on a Saturday at Burbank High, but it doesn’t get any better than wrapping that flag belt around your waist, inserting your mouthpiece and wearing your jersey with pride.
Flag football is alive and well here in Burbank. It’s thriving and it’s here to stay. One visit to Verdugo Park or Foy Park on any weekday evening and the memories come rushing back. The noise of whistles in the air, enthusiastic yelling by the players, positive encouragement by the coaches and cheering amongst the fans are just a fraction of the sights and sounds reasonating throughout Burbank.
“There is a lot of excitement this year,” said Jason Dyer, the City of Burbank’s Recreation Coordinator. “We’ve also had some free camps and clinics and will continue to have them throughout the season.”
Burbank Park and Recreation has done a tremendous job in continuing the success, tradition and enjoyment of flag football. Dyer said there are 30 to 40 percent new kids participating this year.
Twenty-four teams are separated into three age brackets (Grades 2 – 4, Grades 5/6, and Grades 7 – 9) and two divisions per bracket (NFL and AFL). Each game features 8-on-8 with every player being eligible on offense. Each player plays the same amount of time. Most importantly for many parents, there isn’t any hard hitting or tackling. The emphasis is on learning the fundamentals of the sport and the rules of the game.
“You get to learn the game without getting hit. You learn how to move your feet and learn how to play each position,” Dyer said. “You want to be able to come out here and play and not worry about an injury that might eliminate your career this young. There is a need for both (tackle and flag football) and I think both can co-exist which is great.”
While teams come and go at the youth level, there is one constant in Burbank. The Burbank Dolphins and Coach Mike Graceffo are synonymous with flag football in this city. They have been a fixture of Burbank Park and Recreation for more than 30 years. Graceffo is a pillar of strength in the sports community.
“I love sports and I played all the sports when I was a kid. This is my way of giving back to the community a little bit,” said Graceffo, who has coached in this league since the late 1970’s. “I love flag football because you can open it up. Everyone is eligible to catch a pass. It’s an offensive dream and a defensive nightmare. It’s just a fun game.”
Graceffo’s love and passion for flag football and youth sports does not go unnoticed. He has gained the admiration of many former players who keep in touch with him to this day as well as coach by his side as an assistant.
“Mike Graceffo is awesome. I’ve been able to play for him and coach with him,” said Kenny Knoop, defensive coordinator for the Burroughs Indians. “I still work with him to this day with our schools and PE. He’s still right there in my life.
“I absolutely love the Burbank Dolphins,” Knoop continued. “I still go to games and see Mike (Graceffo) and Ken (Bailey) on the field. I started football with the Burbank Dolphins. That was my introduction to football. They are definitely still in my heart.”
“Mike taught me how to be a competitor, how to love sports and to be a team player,” Burbank Dolphins Orange assistant Mike Mersola said. “He is kind of like the fabric of the city and the Dolphins program is a fabric of the youth. My memories of it were the best times of my youth. Coaching now is really rewarding. It’s an honor and a privilege.”
It’s nice to win but victories are the last thing on the mind of Graceffo and his staff. It’s about teaching his players how to play the game of football properly while making it exciting at the same time.
Knoop played tackle football for the first time in ninth grade at Burroughs High. He credits his flag football experience as a major reason for successfully preparing him for the high school level.
“Flag football helps you with the concepts of moving in space and travelling and attacking a person. Two kids running into each other isn’t what football is all about,” Knoop explained. “As a kid I learned how to attack a target, move lateral, cross the field to get where I was going and learn the angles of the game.
“The basic fundamentals of hand-eye coordination, catching, throwing and blocking were all there without smashing into somebody. I am a true believer that tackling in football is an attitude. You don’t have to have pads on to do that correctly. I am a big advocate of kids in flag football. They are learning all the basics of the game.”
Many kids who played flag football first before tackle during the middle school years later became successful at the high school level and beyond.
These Burbank Dolphins alumni include Kenny Knoop, Carlos Baker, Todd Dellutri, Ryan Bowne, Dylan Mersola, Joe Cesta, Mike Cesta, Matt Pentecost, Jabbar Craigwell, Brian Kaloustian, Kyle Creamarosa, Keith Jarbo, Richie Ramos, Bobby Machuca, David Machuca, John Jay, John Wagner, Mike Wagner, Ryan Buchanon, Finnbarr Geary, Freddy Keeler, David Escobar, Migual Armendariz, Joe Ungos, Shane Clark, Seth Oseransky, Dillon Disiere, Jake Micioni, Jon McGinley and Josef Topete to name a few.
Approximately 95 percent of these players went on to star in high school football without having played tackle until their freshman year. Thus, flag football is a great way to begin one’s journey on the gridiron. The future of flag football is bright in Burbank.
Burbank Park and Recreation will be hosting a high school night at a Burroughs and Burbank High football game this season and there will be an end of the season finale that includes punt, pass and kick, and a ceremony honoring the champions, runner-ups and sportsmanship winners for this season.