As the Sunday morning workout concluded at Ralston Field on Sunday, Oct. 11, coach Rob Shiron gathered a bunch of young football players together and led them in a cheer, where the unified response was just “Hamilton!”
Back in the pre-COVID-19 days, the players would yell “Hamilton” and then the name of their team. But this fall, it was all about the township football programs uniting as one to keep the sport alive amongst its young participants.
With actual competition shut down for Hamilton Pop Warner and Hamilton PAL, the two organizations decided to merge as one and provide six weeks of non-contact drills for any player ages 5 to 14. The sessions, which cost $10 per person to cover insurance, ran from 9 to 11 a.m. on six consecutive Sundays from Sep. 19 to Oct. 25.
“It’s all football-based workouts, no equipment needed except for cleats,” Pop Warner president Jeff Jaworski said. “Kids come out and we put them through the basics.”
First-year PAL President Dom Cuniglio, a former Steinert and Monmouth University standout, brainstormed with Jaworski to make sure there was some kind of football for Hamilton youths this fall.
“This is great to see,” said Cuniglio amidst 50 socially-distanced players going through their warm-up exercises. “Each week it’s gotten better and better. The kids are excited. They really wanted to be a part of something and doing something, and we’ve provided them that opportunity. In this world of COVID, where you can’t do this and you can’t do that, we still give them the opportunity to have football on their minds.”
The presidents had their first discussions in February even before the pandemic, in order to try and rebuild the dwindling numbers in Hamilton.
“We talked about building football here,” Jaworski said. “Dom’s been around forever and a day, so he knows what it was like. I remember when each high school had its own team in Pop Warner, now it’s just one league with everyone combined.
“We saw our numbers starting to drop, their numbers were dropping. We just said, ‘To heck with it, let’s get together, let’s have some fun.’ It’s about the kids, having them play ball. We’re just looking to build Hamilton football back up to a real respectable level.”
Cuniglio was quick to note that participation is down on the youth gridirons around the country due to health concerns.
“With concussions and injuries, numbers are starting to dwindle,” he said. “Now you add the COVID piece to it, you’ve got parents who are scared to death about concussions, now they’re scared to death of a virus, which we all should be in some sense. But just keeping this on their mind and keeping football fresh with them, hopefully will increase the numbers.”
The six weeks alternated between defense and offense after the players went through a strength and conditioning session. During the offensive weeks, coaches would break things down into groups of two running back drills, two receiver drills, one lineman drill and one quarterback drill. On defense, it is two groups each of linebackers, linemen and defensive backs. The players rotated to every drill.
“Every kid will get to play every position on the field,” Cuniglio said. “At this age, how do you know who’s gonna be a lineman and who’s gonna be a quarterback? Give them experience trying all of that stuff and see where the chips fall.”
Equally important is that the players were learning from sharp football minds.
“They’re getting great coaching, that’s first and foremost,” Cuniglio said. “When Jeff and I sat down to talk, one of my biggest things is that if I’m going to put 20 years of (high school) coaching experience in, it’s gonna be a high quality product. I’m hoping every kid that comes here is getting that quality of instruction and coaching them up.”
The program has received the blessing from all three high school coaches, with Hamilton’s Mike Papero saying, “It’s outstanding that they’re doing something like this, to give these kids something to do with football. We all support it.”
The program drew consistently solid numbers, with attendance reaching 65 one week. For the players, it was a welcome relief from staying home.
Conner Bresnen, a 9-year-old Sharon Elementary School student and Hamilton Revolution quarterback, says he has learned a lot about how a quarterback should try and attack various defenses.
“I was really mad and sad and when our season got cancelled,” said Bresnen, who has played Pop Warner for four years. “I really wanted to play. But this is good because we get to get out of the house and do football drills, and it’s fun.”
Cuniglio’s son, Dominic Cuniglio III, also welcomes the program. An offensive lineman for the PAL Blue Devils, Cuniglio is a 12-year-old Our Lady of Sorrows student.
“When I learned there wasn’t going to be a season I got pretty upset because I had a lot of fun playing last year,” he said. “I was pretty excited when this started. We get to go out and learn how to play more football. It’s helped a lot. And since I’ve been in the house so long it’s great getting out and being active.”
The younger Cuniglio never thought he’d see the day the two leagues came together.
“I obviously did not expect this,” he said. “But now there’s more players and more coaches, so it’s good.”
Jaworski noted that the drills used were a combination of thoughts, saying, “We all get together and plan them. We all throw our ideas in the pot and go from there.
“It’s really been great. I watched them doing defensive line drills and just watching the excitement from the coaches was awesome. We all like football and we want to coach the kids.”
The presidents are hoping the fall program becomes a foundation for such things as spring league with the two teams participating, although that is still being decided.
“We’re trying to plan a four-to-six game season for the kids in-house,” Cuniglio said. “Hopefully we’d be able to come together. If they bring 50 and I bring 50, that’s 100 guys. So hopefully this is a springboard to bigger and better things.”