Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc. (PWLS) is a nonprofit football, cheer, and dance program for youth ages 5-16. PWLS requires all participants to maintain academic standards, recognizing that scholastics and athletics “go hand in hand.”1 While they provide fun athletic learning opportunities in football, cheer, and dance, they also emphasize “the ideals of sportsmanship, scholarship and physical fitness.”2
What ultimately became a youth athletic and academic program began as a solution to vandalism. In 1929, several factory owners in Northeast Philadelphia had a problem with the local youth breaking windows. One owner invited Joseph J. Tomlin, a local accomplished athlete and college graduate, to find a solution. Joe suggested the factory owners work together to fund an athletic program for the local children. They agreed and asked Joe to set up a program.
As a stockbroker in New York, Joe commuted to Philadelphia on the weekends to set up a four-team Junior Football Conference for the fall of 1929.3 When the stock market collapsed in October of that year, Joe began working with the local youth full time.
In four years' time, the Junior Football Conference (JFC) had grown to 16 teams. That fall, Joe met the legendary coach Glenn Scobie “Pop” Warner, who had just come to Philadelphia to coach at Temple University. Joe asked Pop to be one of a dozen coaches to speak at the spring clinic he was putting together for the JFC.
However, that April meeting in 1933, met with severe winds, rain, and sleet. Pop was the only coach to show up to speak to the 800 young football players who were undeterred by the weather. After two hours of speaking and answering questions, the athletes spontaneously renamed their program the Pop Warner Conference.
Over the next four years the conference grew from 16 teams to 157 neighborhood teams with players as young as 15 and as old as 30. However, with the advent of World War II, the conference shrunk down to 42 teams and lost most of their older players to the army. Even after the war and the JFC was rebuilt to 100 teams, the conference remained focused on youth aged 15 and younger. This new movement became known as “midget football.”
The Santa Claus Bowl, Pop Warner Conference's first bowl game, was played in 1947 in six inches of snow. Philadelphia's Clickets midget team, which was sponsored by Palumbo's, competed against New York's Cyclones, which was sponsored by Frank Sinatra. The Clickets beat the Cyclones, 6-0, and midget football began to spread across the nation.4
As Joe assisted communities to create youth football teams, he also worked to make the Pop Warner Conference a national organization. Joe had the support of the American Football Coaches Association and Bert Bell, the National Football League Commissioner. And, to calm the fears that football was unsafe for youth, he had the support of a national insurance underwriter who presented evidence of the safety of tackle football for youth.
In 1959, the Pop Warner Little Scholars nonprofit organization was official incorporated. “Little Scholars” may have been an unusual name for a football organization, but it was chosen to emphasize that “the classroom is as important as the playing field.”5 From the beginning, during the depression when many youth were leaving school to find work, Joe had focused on the importance of education with speakers, literature, and tutors to help those struggling academically. Walt Disney, who was impressed by this philosophy, filmed a two hour show, “Moochie of Pop Warner Football,” which was televised in 1960. By the end of the 1960s there were over 3000 PWLS teams in America.6
In order to play on a PWLS team, a student must maintain a 2.0 grade point average and have a 70% school attendance record. If they qualify academically, they will participate in 7-9 games plus the league playoffs. The league winner participates in the regional playoffs with the regional winner going to the national championship games at Disney World.7
Required scholastics is just one way that PWLS is different from other football teams. Other differences include that there are no tryouts for joining a team8 and that every player is guaranteed to play at least 6 plays in each game.9 Also, PWLS focuses on teamwork and team achievements and therefore does not keep individual statistics, such as for yards rushed or touchdowns made.10
Another major difference in PWLS teams is their Age and Weight Matrix, which organizes athletes to compete against similar sized opponents, thus reducing risk of injuries and encouraging balanced competition. There are seven divisions:
- Tiny-Mite for ages 5-7 and weights of 35-75 pounds
- Mitey-Mite for ages 7-9 and weights of 45-90 pounds
- Junior Pee Wee for ages 8-10 and weights of 60-105 pounds
- Pee Wee for ages 9-11 and weights of 75-120 pounds
- Junior Midget for ages 10-12 and weights of 85-135 pounds
- Midget for ages 11-14 and weights of 105-160 pounds
- Unlimited for ages 11-14 and weights over 105 pounds11
The 1970s brought a whole new angle to the PWLS program. Girls wanted to be involved, so PWLS introduced a cheerleading program where participants learned cheerleading and spirit skills, competed in safe and supervised environments, and maintained satisfactory grades in school.
Over the decades this has grown into the Pop Warner Spirit Program that includes Traditional Cheerleading Squads and Year-Round Cheerleading Squads,12 as well as majorettes, dancing boots, pom squads, and pep squads.13 The first Pop Warner National Cheer & Dance Championship was held in 1988 in DeKalb County, Georgia. This annual competition is now held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Disney World.14
A Flag Football League was formed in 1983, partly as a less expensive way to involve youth in football. It has also proven to be a valuable training program for tackle football teams.15 Flag Football divisions include the Cub for ages 5-7, the Bobcat for ages 8-10, the Wildcat for ages 11-13, and the Panther for ages 14-16.16
Another valuable PWLS program is the Challenger division programs for youth with special needs. With peer coaching and trained coaches, youth with physical or mental disabilities join in the fun by competing in flag football or on cheerleading squads.17
The PWLS All-American Scholar Program annually recognizes the top scholars and players by naming the top 35 football players and 35 cheerleaders per grade to the National First Team All-American. To apply, a PWLS player must have a minimum of 96% grade point average. Each applicant is given a score based on their grades (85%) and their activities and achievements (15%). A second tier of scholars are named to the Second Team All-American and the remaining applicants are Honorable Mention All-American Scholars.18
Through their football teams, flag football teams, cheerleading and dance competitions, challenger teams, and All-American Scholar program, Pop Warner Little Scholars “strives to teach valuable lessons beyond the playing field and dance stage, including self-discipline, teamwork, concentration, friendship, leadership, and sportsmanship.”19
- 1. “About Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc.” Pop Warner. < http://www.popwarner.com/aboutus/pop.asp > 18 Oct. 2011.
- 2. “The Pop Warner Mission.” Pop Warner. < http://www.popwarner.com/aboutus/mission.asp > 18 Oct. 2011.
- 3. “History of Pop Warner.” Pop Warner. < http://www.popwarner.com/aboutus/history.asp > 18 Oct. 2011.
- 4. Ibid.
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. Ibid.
- 7. “Getting to the Pop Warner Super Bowl.” Pop Warner. < http://www.popwarner.com/football/qualifications.asp > 18 Oct. 2011.
- 8. “Benefits of Playing Pop Warner.” Pop Warner. < http://www.popwarner.com/aboutus/benefits.asp > 18 Oct. 2011.
- 9. “Pop Warner Mandatory Play Guidelines.” Pop Warner. < http://www.popwarner.com/football/mandatoryplay.asp > 18 Oct. 2011.
- 10. “Why There are No Personal Statistics.” Pop Warner. < http://www.popwarner.com/football/pop.asp > 18 Oct. 2011.
- 11. “Football Age & Weight Structure.” Pop Warner. < http://www.popwarner.com/football/footballstructure.asp > 18 Oct. 2011.
- 12. “Year-Round Cheerleading Squads.” Pop Warner. < http://www.popwarner.com/cheer/yearround.asp > 18 Oct. 2011.
- 13. Op.cit., “History of Pop Warner.”
- 14. “Pop Warner Cheer & Dance.” Pop Warner. < http://www.popwarner.com/cheer/pop.asp > 18 Oct. 2011.
- 15. Op.cit., “History of Pop Warner.”
- 16. Op.cit., “Football Age and Weight Structure.”
- 17. “Let's Move! Goes to the Pop Warner Football, Cheer & Dance National Championships.” Let's Move Blog. December 16, 2010. < http://www.letsmove.gov/blog/2010/12/16/lets-move-goes-pop-warner-football-cheer-dance-national-championships > 18 Oct. 2011.
- 18. “Pop Warner Scholastics.” Pop Warner. < http://www.popwarner.com/scholastics/allamericanprogram.asp > 18 Oct. 2011.
- 19. Op.cit., “Let's Move!”