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Youth Sports Today – What Would Joe Tomlin Think?

It was the spring of 1984 and my wife (fiancé, back then) Michele and I were finalizing the invitation list for our upcoming wedding that fall. It was to be a small affair, built on a budget befitting two young twenty-somethings less than a year out of college, whose parents were themselves still hard at work building their own nest eggs.

Keeping the wedding list to around 100 people was not a challenge for us. With relatively small extended families, and neither of us having yet spent enough time in the workforce to cultivate many new adult friendships, we filled the list with the familiar names of family members and our closest childhood and college friends. It was a small enough list that Michele and I personally knew each other’s guests pretty well. Except for one.

“Wait a minute,” I said to Michele. “Who is this guy?” The sight of a singular unrecognizable male name instantly created the jealousy-driven assumption that Michele had perhaps snuck some former ex-boyfriend onto the list. If so, I was on to her little game.

“Who?” she replied, clearly using such a clever and complicated response to shield her guilt and try and throw me off the trail. I was buying none of it.

“This guy, Joe Tomlin,” I said, emphasizing each syllable to project my disdain at the discovery of this stranger on our sacred wedding list.

“You know Joe Tomlin,” she said. “He and I go to lunch together at the office almost every day.”

After shaking off the “we-go-to-lunch-together-every-day” comment, I quickly regained my composure triokids and realized that I did indeed know Joe Tomlin. And he was more than welcome to attend our wedding.

The Friendly Old Mystery Man

Michele and I were living in Philadelphia at the time, where I was a salesman and Michele worked as an assistant in a law firm in Center City. She had told me about meeting “Joe”, a friendly 81-year-old man who worked in an office just down the hall from the office of Michele’s law firm. Joe would regularly poke his head inside the law office and make polite conversation with the receptionist and anyone else lucky enough to be walking by or within earshot. Given the proximity of Michele’s work station, she happened to be a frequent beneficiary of Joe’s pleasant hellos.

Eventually, Michele began accepting Joe’s kind offer to occasionally join him and the law office receptionist for lunch. This unlikely trio – the 22 year-old recent college graduate, the 50 year-old receptionist and the 81-year-old gentleman from down the hall – became something of a regular.

At the time, I remember being a bit mystified by this man. I had met him once, while picking up Michele at her office. He was just as Michele had described – the consummate gentleman, impeccably dressed in his suit and tie, warm and effusive in his greeting, and carried a gentleness and genuineness that seemed to make anyone he met his instant friend.

I was curious about Joe. “Is he a lawyer too?” I asked Michele at the time.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “He just has his own business office down the hall from ours.”

“Well what kind of a business is it?

“I’m not sure,” said Michele. “But the sign outside his office says Pop Warner Football.”

Since Michele never queried Joe on his relationship to Pop Warner Football I was left to assume that he was somehow involved in the organization’s administration, perhaps as an attorney or semi-retired executive. It didn’t really matter. To us Joe Tomlin was just a very nice man who enjoyed a friendly lunch and sharing some funny stories with acquaintances.

One day, when Michele was discussing her upcoming wedding plans with the “lunch trio” Joe said, “would you mind if I attended?” Michele was a bit surprised, and thought he was kidding at first. But as Joe left the question hanging for a response, punctuating it with his patented smile, Michele knew he was sincere, and there was no doubt in her reply.

“Of course,” she said. And our wedding list happily went from 97 to 98.

Joe did indeed attend, and seemed to enjoy himself immensely despite hardly knowing anyone there. And when family and friends would ask, “Who is that nice old man sitting at that table?” we would just answer truthfully. “Oh that’s Joe, Michele’s good friend from work.” We had no appreciation for the fact that Joe Tomlin was actually the founder of the Pop Warner youth football organization, which he had started in Philadelphia some 55 years earlier.

Pop Warner Football

In 1929 Joe Tomlin was a young stock broker working in New York City, returning home to his native Philadelphia occasionally to visit. On one such visit, a friend who owned a factory in Northeast Philadelphia complained to Joe that his business was frequently being vandalized. Other factory owners were complaining of similar vandalism, and they all assumed that local teenagers were to blame. The friend asked Joe for some ideas and any help he could offer.

Being a former high school and college athlete himself, Joe suggested forming a local youth athletic program to keep the kids busy and “off the streets.” Back then, there were no such programs sponsored by cities. The local factory owners agreed to put up the funds, and then convinced Joe to organize it himself. He set up a “Junior Football Conference” for the fall of 1929 comprised of four teams, and Joe commuted back from New York each weekend to supervise. When the stock market collapsed that October, Joe returned to Philadelphia to pursue the cause of youth athletics full time.

By 1933 the Junior Football Conference had expanded to 16 teams and Joe Tomlin was well known amongst the local college football coaches. That same year the legendary Glenn Scobie “Pop” Warner became the head football coach at Temple, and Joe met him at a local banquet. He asked Coach Warner to be amongst a list of college coaches scheduled to speak at an upcoming youth clinic. When the date arrived for the clinic, Philadelphia was hit by a huge late-season snow storm, and Coach Warner was the only coach to show up. He stayed and answered questions for two hours from the crowd of almost 800 eager young players. A few days later, Joe renamed his league, the Pop Warner Conference.

Joe Tomlin continued to be a pioneer and innovator in youth sports through his organization over the years. Throughout the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s Pop Warner football programs emerged in towns and communities all over the country. In 1959, when Pop Warner was officially incorporated as a non-profit legal entity, Joe chose the name Pop Warner Little Scholars, to underscore that the classroom was just as important as the playing field. To this day, Pop Warner is the only youth sports organization that requires a minimum academic standard, and rewards its participants for classroom performance. In the 70’s he added a cheerleading organization as a way to offer participation to girls as well. In the 80’s he made the economically practical decision to add flag football, so that communities on tight budgets could still offer a youth program to local teens. Today the Pop Warner organization has over 425,000 participants, ages 5 to 16.

It Was Always About The Kids

Super Bowl Champion Kurt Warner presents Little Scholars award.

Perspective. As parents of kids playing youth sports today, we hear that word a lot; mostly in the context of reminding ourselves that we need to maintain some, or go find some. For Joe Tomlin, perspective was never a problem. On the contrary, perspective was actually the driving force behind his life-long cause. And that perspective was this: It wasn’t about football. It was simply about the kids. Not the parents, not the organization, and not himself. Joe had one goal in mind from the beginning, and that was to provide an environment for kids to grow and develop – as people and as students, not necessarily as football players. The game of football was merely a convenient vehicle for that goal, chosen by Joe only because he happened to have started his league during the fall of that initial year, and had some personal knowledge of the sport. It was never about college scholarships. It was never about nursing dreams of the playing in the NFL. The fact that nearly 70% of all NFL players played Pop Warner football speaks more to the endurance of Joe’s program based upon its virtues and values, rather than some professed or implicit promise of athletic stardom.

In 1988, four years after attending our wedding, Joe Tomlin passed away at the age of 85. As I’ve watched and coached hundreds of various youth baseball, hockey, soccer and basketball games in recent years, I’ve often wondered what Joe would think about today’s modern manifestation of his original four-team league created 83 years ago, 10 years before Carl Stotz was to organize the first Little League game in Williamsport, PA. I’m guessing that at times Joe would struggle to find the connection between the simple principles he employed back then, and the commercialism and emotional fervor surrounding youth sports today.

Three years ago I was doing some research for a speech on youth sports to a local community group, when I stumbled upon the Pop Warner Little Scholars website. I was impressed by the perspective reflected in the organization’s mission statement. And I was intrigued by their History page. It was there that the name Joe Tomlin jumped out at me. And it was only then that I solved the mystery of the friendly old man who had become Michele’s affable lunch buddy, and who had asked if he could attend our wedding. I regretted having missed the chance to truly appreciate who he was at the time, and wished I could have pulled him aside for a conversation on youth sports. So many questions to ask.

But I still smile to myself at the amazing coincidence that this pioneer of youth sports – who had defined what America’s perspective about youth sports was supposed to be – had anonymously graced our humble wedding. And I choose to think of it as a sign; a reminder that whenever we show up at a youth sports practice or game, we should keep Joe Tomlin’s spirit and perspective in mind.

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