South Georgia Pop Warner League first of its kind in state

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

LEESBURG -- Pop Warner and Georgia are names many associate with football.

However, the two terms have never been used in concordance with one another -- until now.

With the recent founding of South Georgia Pop Warner in Lee County, the state now has its sole league under sanction of Pop Warner Little Scholars, Inc., the world's largest governing body of youth football, cheerleading and dance.

League co-founder and coach Daniel Cruz said it was exciting to finally get a Pop Warner league going in Georgia, and it was something he has wanted to do for a long time.

"Me and my brothers have been talking about it for at least four or five years," Cruz said. "Last year in November or December, we said we were going to go ahead and take this step and run it.

"It's taken us since November of last year until June of this year for (Pop Warner) to say, 'Hey, you guys are (now officially) South Georgia Pop Warner.' "

Founded in 1929, Pop Warner has distinguished itself from other youth athletic organizations in that it has required its participants to meet academic requirements in order to remain eligible, the fundamental standard being a 2.0 GPA or a 70 percent average across all subjects.

Cruz said implementing the Pop Warner program and its academic regulations especially should serve local youth interested in pursuing futures in football at the high-school level and, in some cases, the collegiate level.

"We're bringing something more to our city for our kids," Cruz said. "We're holding them accountable for academics. All the way around, it's just going to be a more exciting football (operation)."

Cruz then added: "A lot of organizations that have been around a long time here are just strictly football and kind of just going through the motions. With Pop Warner, we're pretty much going to be together from (now) until next year (and beyond). Every year these same kids will be together. They'll form a bond."

Cruz said he anticipates having anywhere from 300 to 400 kids from ages five to 14 participate. He expects to have five age divisions with five teams per division, and play should start in a few weeks.

It's a contrast to the local recreational leagues, Cruz said, because they only offer playing opportunities for children ages 12 and under. Cruz said Pop Warner would also be there for youth at the various junior-high ages.

"From 12 years old to 14, those kids aren't playing in the middle school, they're kind of lost," Cruz said. "That's an influential age. (Sometimes) they start messing with drugs, they start messing with the wrong crowds. We're going to have something for those kids to participate in."

Although, it might come as a surprise to some that South Georgia Pop Warner is the state's only Pop Warner league.

Not only is football immensely popular in Georgia -- and the South in general -- but the organization's namesake, Glenn "Pop" Warner, coached the University of Georgia football team during the 1895 and 1896 seasons.

But apparently the Pop Warner movement in Georgia that was started by Cruz is already catching on. According to South Georgia Pop Warner's Facebook page, the Albany Recreation and Parks Department will be putting together a team for the league, while a second Pop Warner league in Georgia will be formed in 2012 in Atlanta called the Greater Atlanta Pop Warner League.

Cruz and other local coaches have been working to establish the brand in Georgia quickly, conducting football clinics for prospective league participants weekly in the evenings in Leesburg.

Cruz said local participants have plenty of reason to take advantage of the new opportunity.

"You have a lot of influential people that have played Pop Warner, and the name has stuck with them," Cruz said. "Seventy percent of NFL players started in a Pop Warner league, so those guys are always willing to come back and help the kids because it's something they were proud of."