Flag football tourney gets kids moving for MLK Day
Harold Jackson stands in front of the bleachers behind the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center in Southeast Denton, lecturing a group of kids who wait eagerly to be chosen for one of the flag football teams that will be competing in today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Flag Football Classic.
Some of the kids have been practicing since early December for today’s games, perfecting their dance moves on the field. It’s an activity that dominates their thoughts and, more importantly, keeps them off the streets.
“Now some of you guys haven’t been coming to practice,” says the 52-year-old Jackson, who resembles Denzel Washington from Training Day as he admonishes the anxious children on Sunday. “So if y’all haven’t been coming from Christmas till now, you all missed out. That’s on you all. And I’m just trying to balance it out.”
Dressed in a yellow jacket, grayish-black pants and a black ballcap that covers his bald head, Jackson is coaching youths in the flag football tournament he’s coached since its start in 2001.
His rules to play in the game are simple: If you come to practice, you will be selected for one of the four youth teams before the other kids who haven’t been practicing are chosen to play.
“It’s football, and they all want to play,” Jackson says. “It doesn’t take much money, just your time. If they want to play, the kids will listen.”
Jackson, who’s spent the last 34 years working maintenance for Denton County, came up with the idea to host a flag football game because he wanted the celebration of the legendary civil rights leader to be an all-day event.
Only two teams faced off the first game 15 years ago, but over the years, more and more kids have shown up to play.
This year, four youth teams will face off against each other, and two older teams, mostly middle school- and high school-aged kids, will challenge each other to determine who gets to face off against a flag football team made up of students from the University of North Texas.
The teams are not identified by names like the Cowboys or the Steelers but by the color of their jerseys. There’s the blue team, the black team, the white team and the gray team. The kids tuck two flags into their pants — although the flags aren’t really flags but lengths of yellow caution tape.
The object of the game is to remove a player’s flags (instead of tackling) before he makes it down the field to score a touchdown for his team.
Jackson, a Louisiana native, is no stranger to the football field, either. He played linebacker for the Denton High School Broncos in the early 1980s, although he claims his older brother, Larry, was actually the football star.
“When you think about Denton High football, you think of him back in the ’80s,” Jackson says and laughs. “I had an Afro back then, too. It’s all gone now.”
Over the years, other people in the community have volunteered to help coach one of the flag football teams as more and more kids show up to play. This year, Willie Hudspeth and Clark Coleman have undertaken the coaching duties once again.
“On a day like this here, the grown folks are at home watching football,” Jackson says. “The kids want to play, and they’re the next little stars.
“The first time you meet them, you see how quick they are,” he continues. “They leave an impression.”
Some of the kids, he says, go on to become high school and college football stars, and one, Bud Sasser, was even drafted into the NFL.
This year’s youth flag football teams include a bunch of aspiring football stars, including some who go by the nicknames J Baby, Cocoa and Juicy.
Cocoa, who’s 10 years old, has been playing in the MLK Flag Football Classic for a couple of years now. Unlike the other kids who want to play quarterback, Cocoa doesn’t mind letting his teammates stand in for quarterback so he can play receiver.
“It’s basically just having fun and enjoying it,” he says.
Cocoa looks up to Jackson, who’s taught him a lot about football, including to move around when he plays quarterback and not just focus on receivers who are running down field.
Candace Jackson (no relation to the coach) brought her son Dajuan to play because she felt it help him bond with the other kids. She’d seen Jackson at the King recreation center as well as at Fred Moore Park, and he told her about the annual flag football tourney.
What he’s doing is important, she says, because some of the kids don’t have fathers or strong male role models in their lives.
As Sunday afternoon turned into early evening, Jackson had finally assigned most everyone to a team. He still had a few positions to fill before the game starts at 11 a.m. today at the small football field behind the MLK center.
He watches over the kids as they run through several plays, hollering when someone does something right or wrong.
Shaping individuals into a team is tough work. But it’s work that Jackson enjoys.
“Denton has been so good to me,” he says. “This is my way to give back and say thanks.”
CHRISTIAN McPHATE can be reached at 940-566-6878 and via Twitter at @writerontheedge.
Denton’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Celebration
This year’s theme is “Building the Bonds of Humanity.”
11 a.m. — Flag Football Classic at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center, 1300 Wilson St.
3 p.m. — Rally begins at the UNT Union, 1155 Union Circle.
4:30 p.m. — March begins at the UNT Union.
5 p.m. — March meets community members at Fred Moore Park, 501 S. Bradshaw St., to continue to Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center. Program will begin immediately following the march.