Football alive again: Youth program gets resurgence in Andover

Aug. 24—ANDOVER — Houston Texans backup quarterback E.J. Perry (and the rest of Perry family football clan).

New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien.

State Senator Barry Finegold.

Former Boston College tight end Brian Miller.

Current league president Bill Dalton and seventh/eighth grade coach Jimmy Johnson.

Those are just some of the "big" names who have gone through the Andover Youth Football program since it's inception back in 1963.

Andover and "football town" go hand-in-hand with the many big games, the Merrimack Valley Conference championships and Thanksgiving duels with Central Catholic and currently North Andover High.

Guess what?

Football was almost dead, on life support, a few years ago, with the once-thriving youth football system near extinction.

How could that be?

How could such a passionate football town like Andover — with decades of success between the high school level, kids going on to excel at collegiate programs and now professionally with Perry — have a youth program that was all but dead in the water and having to play 8-on-8 games instead of the customary 11-on-11 just a few years ago?

About ten years ago, the program was thriving with up to 300 kids and ten teams between the in-town division and travel play. After the 2016 season, the numbers dropped significantly and it continued to spiral down, forcing the program to end in-town play all together at the conclusion of the 2018 season. Excluding the canceled 2020 season with COVID, the program had been cut down to as little as one travel team, the seventh and eighth graders, until the fifth and sixth grade team was added two years ago.

"Our numbers were down between COVID, and (during that time there was a) lot more information (coming out) about concussions, especially at this age and how it impacts youth football players," said Johnson. "A lot of kids and parents were being cautious about it and we understood that. We had to come up with new and creative ways to keep these players safer and we did."

Since that change of philosophy, as well as a new, expanded and energetic Board of Directors, and a host of new coaches, Andover Youth Football will officially celebrate its 60th year of existence when the teams start competing in its 22nd year of the New Hampshire Junior Football League with opening day on Sept. 9.

Thus far in the pre-season weeks, the league's numbers are like the old days, "through the roof."

"We are super excited with the direction that we're heading," said Johnson. "When I first started coaching six or seven years ago with the seventh graders, we had maybe 35 kids and they still had the in-town league but with the dwindling numbers (that eventually ended). Now we have two different travel teams, the junior team which is fifth and sixth grade, and then my team which is seventh and graders. We have 62 kids between two teams and Barry (Finegold's) team has at least 45 kids and there's more signing up so he'll eventually be over 50 by the time the season starts."


Johnson competed in the town's youth football program and went on to play three sports at Andover High — football, basketball and lacrosse. He did all of that despite losing his mother Corinne at a young age. After graduating in 2010, Johnson went to Dartmouth College, walking onto the football team. He appeared in 20 games, mostly playing on special teams and worked his way up to No. 2 on the free safety chart.

"I played for Buddy Teevens and he was one of the first college coaches who implemented no tackling at practice," explained Johnson. "We never tackled in practice but we did drills like we're doing here in order to teach us proper form, proper tackling technique and different things. We were one of the better tackling teams in the league and our concussion rate went way, way down because of all of that so we implemented it here.

"We have all different ways of teaching the kids how to tackle, especially at this age level of fifth and sixth grade. We have tackling tubes, we have them working on high knees and how to tackle different players in different scenarios. We have a ton of coaches including (former Andover High star quarterback and 2022 Eagle-Tribune offensive MVP) Scotty Brown who has come down to help, as well as current players on the high school team. We are doing a lot of different things to try to mitigate (the possibility of head injuries). It's impossible to eliminate concussions, but it's been far, far less (since we changed our practice philosophies)."

Besides teaching tackling, both Johnson and Dalton said that part of the league's philosophy is taking a few plays from high school coach E.J. Perry's playbook and implementing them to the young players so when they get to the high school program, they are a step ahead.


When he's not at the State House, wearing a suit-and-tie and trying to serve the people of Massachusetts, Finegold can be seen down at the Doherty Middle School field wearing an Andover Youth Football sweatshirt, with a whistle around his neck and a clipboard. He coaches the fifth and sixth grade team.

"I love doing the big stuff (as a state senator), but this stuff matters, too," said Finegold, who after playing in Andover youth football, went on to play for Andover High and then Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. "Being able to influence young people's lives and being able to help them develop life skills is just so important. People did it for me and now I owe and need to give back.

"It's an amazing program. My son is playing in it now and it's just great and you just want to give kids the same thing you had. I think football is one of the greatest games to teach you about life skills and I think that's why it's so important (to keep this program going). To have all of these young men out here is just a thrill."

Throughout the years and decades, Finegold has seen first-hand the ups-and-downs of the youth program and said today it's at a very high peak.

"We've had a tough couple of years but people like Jimmy and Bill (Dalton) have helped revitalize the program. and now I just can't believe how many kids we have. The numbers are through the roof. It's just unbelievable," he said.


Dalton went through the program in the early 1980s, before suiting up for Andover High, graduating in 1986. His four children have since gone through the program, including three cheerleaders and his son who is about to be a sophomore at the high school.

Besides coaching youth football in the past, he served as a coach and the Vice President of Little League for seven years. He said the addition of new board members and coaches, have helped elevate this program.

"It's a passion for football, it's a passion to be out here and to be here every day for practice. That's what this whole thing is built upon. All of us on the board meet once a month to try to make things better," he said.

And what are the plans to continue to make the program better?

"We have to continue to raise money. We have the new shed that (board member) Chris (Ballou) built. We are re-doing the field here (at the Doherty Middle School) and with the help from the town with a state grant, we're going to have new goal posts and we're also going to have a new scoreboard. All of that is happening (in the next few weeks).

"Most of the games are going to be played at the high school field. There will be some games here, but the younger kids love playing at the high school, under the lights and on the same field as their older brothers play on. and that's pretty cool."

You can follow Jamie Pote on Twitter at @JamiePote