It was born after a conversation between Brainerd attorney Glen Gustafson and Warriors football coach Ron Stolski.
In the early 1980s, Brainerd was faced with the prospect of cutting elementary athletic programs. Gustafson wondered if there was any way he could help.
So he approached Stolski, who then also was athletic director, about the possibility of establishing a tackle football program for fourth- and fifth-grade students in the Brainerd School District.
The program, which came to be known as the Brainerd Youth Athletic Association, would be coached and run by volunteers.
Twenty years later, BYAA may be a model for other communities and programs to emulate. It stresses participation, sportsmanship and fun. Every youth plays, regardless of their ability. No player is cut.
"It's not a select program. All kids are involved and can participate. It's not a traveling program. Each year, through football and basketball, we serve close to 400 kids in fourth- and fifth-grades. It's for any ability level. We focus on skills, sportsmanship and basic fundamentals. It's a great program." -- Brian Stark, BYAA president
Before Gustafson moved to Brainerd he was a volunteer coach in Rochester, which had a program similar to the one he helped found in Brainerd.
"I hear nothing but positive comments," Gustafson said of BYAA. "I haven't been involved the last few years but as I observe it looks very similar to the same philosophy we started way back."
BYAA's philosophy is to practice twice a week, play games on Saturdays. Scoreboards are not used for football games. Scoreboards are used for basketball games but they revert to zero in the second half. Statistics and results are not reported to the media.
High school players officiate games. No champions are declared. There are no playoffs and no trophies are awarded. The season lasts about six weeks.
Registration costs $15. Helmets, jerseys and shoulder pads are provided for football, which attracts about 200 players.
Football is divided into four heavyweight and four lightweight teams. Teams have sponsors while players primarily play with teammates from their respective elementary schools. Games are played Saturday mornings at Brainerd High School.
Baxter fourth- and fifth-grade heavyweight players practiced before a game against Nisswa. Both teams are members of the Brainerd Youth Athletic Association. (Dispatch Photos by Mindy Niemela)
The BYAA basketball program, which began a year after football, averages between 9-12 teams with about 10 players on a squad. Boys' games are played Saturday mornings at Riverside Elementary. The girls' program has 6-8 teams and plays Saturday mornings at Garfield Elementary.
BYAA is run by a board of directors that meets Thursday mornings during the football and basketball seasons. The board is responsible for registration, recruiting and instructing coaches, developing rosters and schedules, coordinating officials and being available for Saturday morning games.
"I think it's unique in an age of traveling teams," Stolski said of BYAA. "It certainly is unique in that we don't (travel). It's unique in that there's little or no expense. It's unique in the number of volunteers who have volunteered their time over the years.
"It may be unique in that it is tackle football. We believe it's completely safe. And, the season is short and it is defined."
Brian Skogen is the parent of a second-year BYAA player. He believes the program offers youths a chance to experience competition and gives them an idea of whether they want to continue pursuing a sport.
Skogen believes BYAA is a barometer of what can be good about activities and athletics.
"For kids at that age, with their attention span, and their interest level, this is a taste of organized football or an organized program," Skogen said. "They're in it long enough so they learn the plays, they practice, and can move on to basketball, hockey or something else.
"They get a feel for what practice is all about, the rewards of practice and teamwork. I think it's just ideal to learn those things."
Brian Stark may have an unparalleled view of the organization. He was a fifth-grader in the fall of 1983 when BYAA football began. For eight years he has been on the BYAA board, the last four as its president.
"It's not a select program," Stark said. "All kids are involved and can participate. It's not a traveling program. Each year, through football and basketball, we serve close to 400 kids in fourth- and fifth-grades.
"It's for any ability level. We focus on skills, sportsmanship and basic fundamentals. It's a great program."
Stark and others wonder about the future of BYAA. In January 2005, Forestview Middle School is scheduled to open in Baxter. It will house grades 5-8.
Will the school district possibly begin offering athletic programs for fifth-graders? Will fifth-graders be bused to schools to compete with fourth-graders? Will fourth-graders be bused to Forestview to play with fifth-graders?
Will BYAA disband?
Brainerd activities director Todd Selk said BYAA's future needs to be discussed.
"With the opening of Forestview Middle School, the school district and BYAA will have to look at how we offer programs and changes that may be needed in how we offer programs," Selk said.
Stark said "my biggest fear is (BYAA) becoming traveling teams. Traveling teams are fine but we're not associated with them."
BYAA has proven you don't have to travel to be successful.
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