Editor's note: Full disclosure - my son, Kieston, is on the Tyler Lions junior team.
Members of the Tyler Lions junior team cemented their reputation for being a hard-hitting powerhouse during the Tri-County Youth Football League's Super Bowl XI Saturday at Tiger Stadium in Dangerfield. They've won the golden trophy for four consecutive years.
"We had a good run and we made it," said 11-year-old Landon Wilkerson, III, after the team's win. "We'll be back next year in middle school."
Tyler Lions president and head coach, Joe Thompson, claimed the victory on Friday. He notes that his team's legacy is a target for other youth organizations in East Texas.
"I've heard a lot of parents say ‘we practice from the beginning of summer to defeat the Lions,'" Thompson said. "The thing is ‘if we can beat the Lions, we're going to beat the best team.' A lot of folks are shooting at us."
Thompson said before they became a staple at the Super Bowl, he'd observe how winning organizations operated.
"I always said one of these years, the Tyler Lions is going to be there," he recounted.
What makes the organization successful, he said, is the grooming of players beginning at the flag level, ages 5 and 6.
"I give the credit to the flag coaches getting them ready to come to us on the junior level, winning these last four years," Thompson said.
Another factor in their winning seasons is that the board meets year-round to discuss sponsorships and distributing information about the program and summer camp.
There are 242 children on seven teams in the organization, including cheer and dance. It grew exponentially this year, as the former Tyler Ravens from the Pop Warner league merged with them.
All teams have had success, making appearances at the Super Bowl in recent years. The flag and sophomore teams (ages 9 and 10) made it to the Super Bowl Saturday. Another Tyler team, the Saints' freshman team, also made an appearance in Dangerfield.
Allesandro "Coach Dro" Jackson, who coaches the Tyler Lions Blue sophomore team, has coached youth football for 26 years at various organizations.
"Coaching for me is being able to teach them something other than just the game," he said. "When you correlate the game of football with life, its similar. You have to be disciplined, follow the rules and you have to be able to execute various plays you've learned-same as life."
Bryson Donnell, 12, a high-scoring running back, counted 32 touchdowns for the season. He hopes to play professionally one day and his mother, Kristi Donnell, said the coaches help mold him.
"I've had some of the coaches do extra things for my son," Ms. Donnell said. " Last year, he went to a couple of John Tyler games with Coach Dro and (Coach Stan Traylor) after the season. It just goes past the season."
Bryson notices it, too.
"They don't just coach," he said. "They like what they're doing and they help you as a person."
Academics are important, too. Students show their report cards to coaches and they also address any discipline problems that may arise in the classroom.
Thompson, a Tyler business owner, has coached Tyler Lions for 14 of the 15 years he's coached youth football.
He was motivated to not only share his love of the game, but also give youth what he missed as a child.
"I wanted to help out with kids because my dad was never there for me," Thompson said. "My grandfather went to all of my games."
Noting that some kids won't play football once they leave the organization, he tries to make their experiences as a Lion exceptional. This includes having nice football gear and riding to the Super Bowl on charter buses.
Each team-grouped by ages-has team moms. These women help disseminate information, handle logistics and a host of other duties. Ruby Saenz has been with the Tyler Lions for two years, while JoJo Duncan has been there since 2002. They say they enjoy being an integral part of the children's lives.
"It's the satisfaction of seeing the glow on the boys faces when they excel," Ms. Duncan said. "That's what its all about, the boys … A part of their lives is being fulfilled … We want to make it as enjoyable as possible."
Ms. Saenz added, "It's the joy of watching them play. When they get their little snacks or whatever they're getting, it lets them know they're appreciated, that someone cares."
Thompson, known as a huge John Tyler Lions fan since 1994, has coached about 10 current John Tyler players.
He teams with the school to help with their annual summer camp. John Tyler coaches, players, band and cheerleaders were on hand earlier in the season for the youth teams' homecoming pep rally. Borrowing from John Tyler's ‘Cujo' motto, the little Lions' socks and helmets are marked with the name.
While some of his youth football players play for various teams such as Robert E. Lee, T.K. Gorman and Brook Hill, a majority go on to play for John Tyler.
Evident by the nearly full visitor side at Tiger Stadium in Dangerfield Saturday, Tyler Lions parents and fans love their football. They show up in Lions colors, shout, and encourage the young players at each game.
"They take it seriously," Ms. Donnell said. "Here, everybody goes all out. I would think this was like a real high school team, compared to what they do in other little leagues.
She added, "It's a well put together organization. Plus they're the little Lions. I think that has something to do with it."
Taneicia Hawkins' son, Elijah Howard, has played for the Lions for four years. She, along with Ms. Donnell, spent many days volunteering for the organization. On the eve of the Super Bowl, they stuffed duffle bags with snacks and personalized gifts.
"Coach Joe has been a daddy to me since I was 14," Ms. Hawkins said. "That's like my second dad so anything he needs me to do I'm going to be all for it. And since my son is a die-hard Lions fan, it's anything for my baby."
Coaches agree that Lions fans bleed blue.
"A lot of our parents, we take it to extremes sometimes," Thompson said. "We don't' like to get beat. It's not just those kids getting scored on its parents getting scored on."
He added, "They're a good group of parents, but oh boy if we fall behind one second, everything changes around. They have a lot of pride."
See more photos from Saturday's Super Bowl at www.focusinon.me.