The slim chance of playing football at the college level is a difficult pill to swallow for many high school hopefuls.
However, a little-known variant of the game, known as sprint football, can provide these athletes with a much sought after opportunity on the gridiron.
One Philadelphia-area university is now extending that opportunity to those interested in extending their young football careers.
Chestnut Hill College recently announced the addition of the school’s first ever football program, a sprint football team that will begin play next fall.
“Here’s an opportunity to continue playing football in college and get your education and have a great overall experience,” said Lynn Tubman, Chestnut Hill College’s director of athletics and recreation.
Unlike the conventional game of football, where players can range from as small as 170 pounds to as big 350 pounds (or more), sprint football evens the playing field both literally and metaphorically. The Collegiate Sprint Football League sets a strict 172-pound weight limit that all players must meet in order to remain eligible to participate.
Players weigh in twice a week. They must meet the 172-pound requirement on both Monday and Wednesday if a game will be played that upcoming Friday. The weigh-ins move to Tuesday and Thursday if a game will be played that upcoming Saturday. This helps emphasize a game built more on speed and agility rather than size and strength, much like the original game of football in its earliest form.
Aside from the weight limitation, the game is played by standard NCAA rules, so the gameplay itself does not differ from its conventional counterpart.
The CSFL is the only such governing body of its kind in the United States and currently includes nine teams: Army, Navy, Franklin-Pierce University, Post University, Mansfield College, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Cornell University and now Chestnut Hill College.
All nine teams within the CSFL are located in the Northeastern United States, which helps ease each school’s financial expenditures. According to the official CSFL website, teams pay dues of $1750.00 annually.
“They do want to expand to up to 12 teams and have divisions,” Tubman said, “but they’re looking to stay in this region because it’s cost containment. Travel is not an issue if you’re staying in the Northeast. And the other cost containment items are that it’s non-scholarship and it’s a short fall season only. They do not practice in the spring.”
Chestnut Hill, a small, private college with an enrollment just over two thousand students, held a pep rally last week to get students excited about the new programs and to introduce the student body to the school’s first ever sprint football coach, Mike Pearson.
“Right away we knew we want[ed] someone who’s going to fit with the college,” Tubman said. “Someone who has the coaching experience we need, but who understands Chestnut Hill College and our mission. Those are the coaches who are most successful, so that was one of the main objectives of our search. When he came into the interview, he understood the importance of balance. He understood the importance of ‘you’re here to get your education, to graduate and have a balanced experience.’ He definitely stood out in those regards.”
“When I came to visit for the pep rally,” Pearson said, “it was really, really obvious what a great community Chestnut Hill College is. The kids are fantastic. Philadelphia’s a great football city and the kids at Chestnut Hill are really excited to have their own team.”
Pearson served as the assistant head coach for Mansfield College’s sprint football team from its inaugural season in 2011 until early 2014. Most recently, he coached the defensive backs for Lock Haven University.
However, his coaching experience goes way beyond those two jobs.
Pearson began coaching in 1991. In his 23 years on the sidelines, Pearson has been a member of seven different teams’ coaching staffs, all at the high school and collegiate levels.
“He stood out among all our candidates because he has coaching experience at Division III, Division II and sprint football,” Tubman said. “His network through his other coaching experiences provides him a good foundation to recruit a class for next fall.”
The unfortunate reality for many high school football players is that the chances of playing football at the college level are slim to none.
According to a study conducted by the NCAA, there were around 1.1 million high school students playing football as of September 2013. Of that number, only 6.5 percent went on to play at the college level.
That’s where sprint football can help make that dream a reality.
“There are a lot of great athletes who probably are getting overlooked because they’re not big enough,” Tubman said. “And they’re phenomenal athletes who would love to continue to play the sport. They’re the athletes Mike’s going to go after.”
“A lot of kids understand coming out of high school that playing professionally is a slim chance,” Pearson said. “But if you love the game that much and you want to play – and you’re looking for an opportunity to play, sprint is a great league. I think the guys who play in the sprint league really love it and it’s pretty obvious.”
Without an on-campus football stadium, Tubman said the team will play its home games at the football stadium at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School (pictured above), where the college’s soccer and lacrosse teams already play. There are also plans to convert the college’s soccer field to a practice facility.
“That was one of the things that helped us in our bid to enter the league,” Tubman said. “Without our own facilities, we have a wonderful relationship with the Colonial School District.”
With the passionate Pearson at the reins, his first steps as Chestnut Hill’s head coach will be to assemble a coaching staff and to conduct a lengthy scouting process to find the 65 athletes to get Chestnut Hill’s sprint football program up and running.
“This is a league that I really love and a league that I kind of hope to be a part of for the long term,” Pearson said. “I get the league, I get the environment that we’re going to play sprint football in. It’s a really fun environment and I just have a lot of enthusiasm for it. I’ll try to help those kids to get them competitive and get [Chestnut Hill] to be a winning program as quick as possible.”
– Text, photos and video by Stephen Pileggi.