As a three-time Pro Bowl selection, Mike Pouncey
has firmly established himself as one of the premier interior offensive linemen in the NFL, and it all started some 20 years ago when Pouncey first started playing organized football.
Those care-free days spent playing youth football set a foundation for Pouncey, one that has played a significant role in his ascent to the top of his profession.
“Started playing when I was 6 along with my brother in the Lakeland area,” said Pouncey, who will turn 27 in late July. “I felt like with me starting at such a young age allowed me to understand the game that much faster. I’ve been playing it for so long now that I feel like I know every in and out there is to know and can’t wait for my son to turn 6 so he can start playing.
“Youth football helps develop the love and the passion for the sport. When you’re a kid you just love going out there and playing football. Once you’ve done it for so long, it’s something that just becomes part of you.”
Wide receiver Kenny Stills
has similar feelings about youth football, which for him began in Oceanside, California, near San Diego.
“I would say it’s the most important thing I’ve done in my life,” Stills said. “I played with the same team from age 7 all the way until I was 14 with the same coach, and we actually played in the Pop Warner Super Bowl here in Florida and won the national championship. All of my coaches were in the military, so discipline and hard work were instilled in me at a young age and those things have gotten me to where I am today, so I’m very thankful to my coaches and still have a great relationship with my head coach, who is like a second father to me to this day.”
Pouncey and Stills were just two of the current Dolphins players who shared their memories of youth football in anticipation of the Dolphins Academy’s Symposium and 7on7 this weekend.
While a rare few players — such as defensive tackle Earl Mitchell
— didn’t start playing football until high school, most Dolphins players got their start in youth football.
And the memories pretty much are all good ones.
• Running back Jay Ajayi
: “It was huge, especially coming from England and not knowing how to play, not knowing what football was. One day one of my friends took me to a practice and showed me what they were doing and it looked like fun, so I gave it a shot. It was my first taste and here I am today.”
• Quarterback Matt Moore
: “I played for Palmdale Youth Football in California and we actually ran the wishbone offense, which was really cool, and I learned a ton. I felt really lucky because I had phenomenal coaches and it turned out to be a really good foundation for me at that level and really did a lot for me when I got older.”
• Safety Michael Thomas
: “It was great especially since I grew up in the Houston area, because all of us that made it to the NFL, we were the best in our area but played against a whole bunch of people outside our area and once you saw how competitive it was in that state and you were STILL excelling at that level, it gave you the confidence that, yeah, I can definitely compete at the next level.”
• Tight end Dion Sims
: “I started when I was 7, played in the inner city (Detroit) for the Westside Cubs I played for that team for seven years and it was really competitive. We went to the championship almost every year. At that age, at least early on, it was just all about having fun because it kept you busy and kept you off the streets and out of trouble.”
• Defensive tackle Chris Jones
: “I started off in Miamisburg, Ohio (just south of Dayton) and eventually moved to Michigan and have been playing since I was 7. I think starting to play at such a young age really helped me to develop the way I have because I still play the same way today. Having fun, enjoying it and having a passion for the sport. I loved it then and I still love it now.”
• Cornerback Bobby McCain
: “I played from pee wee all the way up and when you play youth football in Oxford, Alabama, they mean serious business. It’s the real deal and we had some really good coaches and they did a great job of teaching me the game the right way to make me the player I am today.”
Linebacker Spencer Paysinger
also was interested in football at a young age, though he ran into a bit of a problem.
“I grew up playing at Van Nuys Recreation Park in South Central Los Angeles and I’ll tell you that there was a decent amount of talent out on that field,” he said. “Unfortunately, I was only able to play flag football because they said I was too fat. Went to Baldwin Hills to sign up one day and they just said I was too big. I guess I liked too many of those milkshakes. So I played flag football up until I was 12. Two years off and then started playing in high school.”
Along with youth football programs, most Dolphins players also have had plenty of exposure to seven-on-seven tournaments, an event that just keeps growing every year.
“We did it in high school and it was fun because it brought out a competitive nature for sure,” Ajayi said. “Me and my teammates took it seriously every summer. And it was all about voluntary work and guys wanting to come in on their own time to become better players, thus you could see who was really serious about playing at the next level. It also created a strong unity with teammates for the upcoming season.”
Said tight end Jordan Cameron
: “It was always a fun time. In L.A., it was huge, so we had a bunch of schools ready to play. It definitely helped me. In this offense the tight end moves around a lot and are in positions where the receivers are sometimes and I played receiver in the 7on7s and always felt comfortable being split out wide.”
McCain also said the 7on7 tournaments proved beneficial in his development.
“In high school we did all the 7on7s, the national stuff, we did it all,” he said. “It helped with techniques and also learning about opposing defenses when you were on offense and the other way around because I played on both sides of the ball. You don’t have pads on and can’t really tackle each other but you can go out there and learn technique, learn proper leverage and just learn the game as a whole.” Please CLICK HERE for more information on Dolphins Youth Programs, Summer Camps and 7on7 tournament. Now in its ninth year, over 1,000 students from top high schools and youth teams throughout the tri-county area will take part in the event from Friday - Sunday, June 24-26, 2016. The Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE) will play a key role in the event with educational programming and activities for students. Bill Daley contributed to this article.