"The traditions developed through football are numerous. From the little guys to high school, to college and to the professional level. Who can imagine a Thanksgiving without football?," says Black Hills Youth Football League director Shawn Boyle.

121 years ago on November 12, 1892, football was born when the Allegheny Athletic Football Association defeated the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.

Today, the sport is still thriving, and in the state of South Dakota with a population of 833, 354, more young people are strapping on shoulder pads, lacing up cleats, breaking tackles, and running down sidelines to break the plane and celebrate touchdowns with their teammates.

Two youth football leagues in South Dakota are flourishing despite concerns over health and safety in the sport.

South Dakota Junior Football plays in Sioux Falls, while the Black Hills Youth Football League competes in Rapid City. In both leagues, more kids than ever are playing football.

In South Dakota Junior Football, 2,700 kids played the game in 2013, a 350-player increase from 2012. At this level, kids begin playing football in the third grade, and it runs until eighth grade.

A new level beginning in second grade was just added for players to understand the basic positions. Tackling begins in the second grade, too.

Perhaps the biggest reason that SD Junior Football is growing is that the game offers a variety of ways to get involved.

"First of all, there is a place in our league for kids of all skill levels. If you can't catch or throw a ball, there is a position for you. Maybe you're fast or slow, big or small. There is a position for you. Secondly, we have a rule that allows every player to play at least one quarter in the game. Everyone gets to play. Lastly, our league is unique in that we do not draft players according to skill level. Instead, we pick players according to address. This means that teams are comprised of players with a high level of football skills and low-level football skills. I love the fact that they play side-by-side unlike other leagues where the elite players only play with the elite players," says SD Junior Football 2013-2014 Board of Directors President Ken Sproles.

In Rapid City, the program was founded in 2009, and since that year, they have gained over 1,000 kids in five years. In 2012, the program had 780 participants, and in 2013, the program had around 972 players. In this program, kids can begin playing football in the first grade. Tackling begins in the first grade as well.

Yet, while football participation is increasing in South Dakota, ESPN's Outside the Lines reported that participation in Pop Warner has decreased 9.5 percent from 2010 to 2012. Steve Fainaru said in the report on OTL that Pop Warner has lost nearly 24,000 players and the decrease is caused between the relationship in football and head trauma.

The numbers outside of South Dakota suggest that football participation should be dropping, but yet, the numbers continue to grow.

So, why?

More studies, more technological improvements, and programs are being added to create a safer football environment. SD Junior Football teamed up with an area hospital and a national football organization to help teams become more aware of concussions.

"We recently became a pilot program for USA Football in training 'Heads Up' tackling. We have also come alongside Sanford in the research of concussions by adding sensors to the helmets of one of our 7th and 8th-grade teams. Every hit is being recorded and analyzed. After Sanford releases their findings, this data will then be used to make the game safer," says Sproles.

In the BHYFL, Boyle has implemented 'Heads Up', too, and with the new program, new techniques are beginning to be the norm.

"Great hits are out, and great tackles are in."

SD Junior Football and the BHYFL added 'Heads Up' from USA football in order to train kids and coaches how to tackle and train properly. These programs have required coaches to be USA football certified. Coaches go through hands-on, and online training.

The BHYFL has sent player-safety coaches to Denver, Colorado and to Sioux Falls for training to teach players responsible for tackling techniques. Boyle of the BHYFL adds that 'Heads Up," has been a great tool and is a step in the right direction.

"We need to make it safer with a new approach in training, coaching, certification, and technology. The equipment, training, and certified coaching are paramount to making it safer. The 'Heads Up' safety training we've adopted through USA football in conjunction with the NFL is changing the game for the better."

In addition to the 'Heads Up' program, SD Junior Football and the BHYFL require trainers to be at all games.

Both junior football leagues have put a lot of hard work into creating a safer game, and while the issue of player safety isn't going to go away, football in South Dakota is moving forward into the right direction.

"Football has a long history of changing to make the game safer. Look at how far the helmet has come. In fact, helmets weren't even required until the 1940s and even then, they were mostly only leather. Think about the penalties that have changed or have been added over the years; face masks, head slaps, clotheslines, high/low blocks, spearing and the list goes on. Football has evolved, and it's time to evolve again. The future is bright for football as long as it continues to become a safer game," affirms Sproles.

For parents that do have health and safety concerns for their children, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Sioux Falls and Brandon offers a flag football league that begins for children in the first grade.

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