When Butch Ward was a youngster, he always looked forward to the fall and playing fifth and sixth grade football.
“Back then, they had guys on the varsity football team as the coaches,” he said.
But somewhere along the way, that program ceased to exist, even though communities like Piqua and Troy continued to have one.
After a while, Ward had had enough. So he teamed up with Ron Scherer, did something about it, and after two years in the planning stages, Sidney Little League Football was born.
Callouts for this year’s league began Monday of this week, and when play officially commences for this season on the last Saturday in August, it will be the league’s 25th year.
“I figured not having fifth and sixth grade football was putting us behind the 8-ball when it came to competing (at the high school level),” said Ward, who is now the head of the league’s board of directors. “My idea was to start a league for fifth and sixth graders. I felt it would help out the varsity program. Ron (Scherer) and I just got to talking about it. He had a son that was coming of age, and I took my son to Troy to play when he was that age.”
Of course, Ward knew it would take money to get the league going. He figured they would need $20,000 or more to get all the uniforms, and ended up raising $25,000. And he said a big part of that came from former Sidney businessman Ralph Stolle.
“Ron contacted Stolles about getting a donation, and we got donations from some of the banks here in town,” said Ward. “We also had some individuals give some money.
“I remember the first callouts,” he went on. “Dr. Stark came up and gave me a nice check. And over the years, I’ve had parents come up during the games and hand over some money. Even grandparents.”
Ward said the philosophy is the same now as it was 25 years ago — every kid gets to play.
“We try to make sure every kid gets to play half the game, although that doesn’t always work out,” he said. “And all the teams run the same offense and the same defense. We send 50 or 60 kids up to seventh grade football, but not enough of them play so they don’t come out after that.”
In those first few seasons, the league played in the outfield of the Legion baseball diamond at Custenborder Field, under the lights. That allowed the league to also run the nearby concession stand. But the city eventually decided football could not be played there.
“They wanted to put us in the basin off Main Street (near the YMCA), but they were afraid of parking along the streets and the danger to the kids,” Ward recalled. “So they set up a 40 x 80 yard field at Custenborder between the Legion field and the parking lot, and we played there for several years. Tom Frantz raised money and got us a scoreboard, but we were only able to use it for a while.”
Then when the voters approved a levy to build the new junior high, Bridgeview School’s days were numbered. That was the site of Julia Lamb Field, and that gave Ward an idea.
“I approached the school and the city and said let’s make that our field,” he said. “And the (First Presbyterian) church has been nice about parking. It’s worked out well.”
Ward planned for six teams and wanted at least 25 players per team so they could have offensive and defensive teams.
There was also a weight limit at first, and because of that, Ward will never forget that very first callout day.
“When we first started out, we had a weight limit, and lo and behold, the first kid that walked up was too heavy,” he said. “We had to tell him he couldn’t play, and he walked away, sat down and started crying. We talked about it and Ron Burns said ‘put him on my team. He won’t play but we’ll give him a uniform and I’ll work with him so he has a chance to participate.’ ”
It wasn’t long after that the league did away with the weight restrictions. “We found out it didn’t matter,” he said. “We found out by putting them on the line, it really doesn’t hurt anything. Besides, I remember a kid that weighed 45 pounds soaking wet and he was the meanest kid in the league.”
The league was open to only Sidney and Holy Angels kids those first few years, but when Anna started football, that opened things up.
“Anna gave us a donation, and they bring down about 40 kids a year,” Ward said. “And the Anna people seem to really like the program. They like the fact that we play all our games right here in town, and they don’t have to travel all over the place.”
Now the league is open to any fifth or sixth grader in the county, whether they live in a school district that has football or not. In the first year, there were over 160 kids signed up to play. That number has fallen off, but Ward said the league still averages 125 to 140 kids a season.
“We’ve had a lot of nice comments from parents, and parents from other towns about our program,” Ward said. “And we’ve really had some good coaches come through the program. We’ve had some bad ones to, coaches I had to tell they couldn’t coach anymore. We didn’t want anyone that was going to scream and holler at the kids.”
One of those “really good” coaches Ward was referring to has been with the program since its inception. The Steelers are the only team in the league that has had the same coach throughout — Ron Burns.
“You find out what your niche is,” Burns responded when asked about his lengthy tenure. “I’ve had people ask me why I’ve done this for so long, and I tell them that you just hope you can reach one person, affect one person’s life. And we found out that we affect a whole lot of lives. That’s what keeps driving me, that what I do does have an effect.”
Don’t look for him to leave the sidelines too soon.
“I think I’ll be doing this a while yet,” he said. “I truly love what I’m doing, and the years are going by so fast that it doesn’t seem that long. Plus, I have a grandson who is six, and I coached his older brother. So I hope to be around to coach him too.”
He’s not the only one with longevity. Tim Clayton has been with the Browns for 22 seasons, starting out as an assistant.
“When I started out, my son was playing, and I figured I would coach a couple years and stop when he wasn’t in the league anymore,” Clayton said. “But I found I really enjoyed working with the kids. I did the same thing in baseball. I coached when my son was playing, and continued after he was out of it. I’ve met so many people over the years, and that’s probably the thing that sells me.
“Urban Meyer makes 7 million dollars a year,” Clayton said of Ohio State’s coach. “When I walk into WalMart and a kid I coached 15 years ago comes up and asks me how I’m doing, that’s my 7 million dollars.”
Ward turned the main duties over to the two coaches a while back, and knows the league is in good hands.
“Ron and Tim have been with me for so long,” said Ward. “They are really dedicated and deserve a lot of credit. When the season is over, they clean everything and get everything in order. And find out what we have to get for the next season.”
Ward has built a program locally that has stood the test of time and shows no signs of slowing down.
The callouts for the coming season continue.
They will be held tonight and Friday from 5-to-7 p.m. at First Christian Church, 320 Russell Road, and Saturday from noon to 2 p.m.
They will also be held Monday through Thursday of next week from 5-to-7 p.m. at the same location.
Reach Ken Barhorst at 937-538-4818.