The sounds of cleats digging into the dirt, helmets and pads coming together at the line of scrimmage, coaches barking orders reverberate through the August humidity. It’s the sound of the beginning of football season. They are the sounds of the end of summer. The long, lazy, hot days are about to give way to crisp Autumn air.
Madison’s Southside Raiders are one of the city’s most enduring (and endearing) institutions. There are one of the prominent names associated with youth football in Madison. Generations of athletes, businesspeople, community leaders and people from every other walk of life owe much of their success to the values and lessons they learned as members of the popular southside youth athletic program.
The Raiders are set to embark on their 49th season here in Madison. Over the course of those decades, they have instilled the values of self-esteem, teamwork, character, education and, most importantly in this era, safety on all of the youth who participate.
Safety is of the utmost concern to parents in this day and age with research about concussions and the effects football can have on the human brain coming to the forefront of discussion about the sport.
Across the nation, youth football participation has dwindled and the Southside Raiders have not been immune to the drop in numbers. But the Raiders have steadfastly remained committed to child safety as a top priority and, despite the natural rigors of the game of football, they make sure it is played as safely as possible.
“We’re doing what we can to keep kids safe,” Wayne Strong, co-director of the
Southside Raiders Youth Football & Cheerleader Program, told Madison365. “We definitely want to make sure the game is safe. We have a parent meeting before the season begins and go over the entire concussion protocol. We tell parents to keep an eye out for things like headache, dizziness, and inform parents of the signs of concussion. Parents are very receptive. They appreciate we are doing our best. The more that we can do as a program and as a league to make sure parents know it’s safe for kids the better.”
Lower turnout of participants, however, exacerbates the possibility of injury. While the Raiders have traditionally added kids as the season is about to begin and after practice has already started, this year it is more vital than ever that they get the late numbers of kids joining the team. Fewer kids mean more time on the field for the kids who are participating and that leads to more risk of fatigue-related injuries.
“We play 7 games every year, but it does impact our team,” Strong said of the participation issue. “So if you have a team of only 18-20 players, you can’t play offense and defense. So it increases fatigue and the probability of injuries because they’re on the field more.”
The numbers dip that is concerning Strong is the result of years of neglect and denial on the part of the NFL concerning concussions, brain damage and overall player health issues. For years, the NFL fought against the idea that its game was unsafe or had lasting effects on players. Even worse, the attitude of many older players and previous generations of football participants was one of “toughing it out” or “rub some dirt on it and keep playing.”
Strong said that’s how he was raised in the game and the evolution away from that has been an important one for youth football.
“It’s a lot different now from when I was playing. When I was playing, we called it getting your bell rung. You got up seeing stars and they’d say, ‘oh, he got his bell rung’ and give you some smelling salt and get you back in,” Strong remembers. “But players started showing some serious symptoms. The NFL acknowledged this was a life-altering thing. So that’s when they started to become receptive to the need for a concussion protocol.”
Strong says the Raiders themselves implement a very tight concussion protocol and will not allow any kid who has received a head injury to go back into a game.
While safety was top of mind for Wayne Strong when discussing the upcoming season with Madison365, so, too, was the fact that the Raiders have had an incredible impact on so many young lives. And, as excited as he is about this upcoming season, Strong can’t help but look ahead to the following year when the Raiders turn 50.
Strong revealed that for the Raiders 50th anniversary, in 2020, they will have a major celebration featuring all of the Raiders distinguished alumni and a festive atmosphere open to the entire community.
“So, next year is a big year!” Strong says. “Fifty years! We are planning a massive celebration. Our goal is to have a big event in Penn Park. We want to do something during Juneteenth perhaps and maybe something after that with all the community. We want to invite past players, parents, cheerleaders, coaches and to invite people from all over the Dane County Youth Football League. We’re looking forward to that. So next year is the year.”
Strong, who has called the Raiders family for over 24 years, says that every season the Raiders receive incredible support from parents and the community.
“I’m looking forward to this season, to just having the opportunity to have our kids be able to play football,” Strong said. “Lots of kids have been looking forward to this all summer. We’re doing things like fundraisers and increasing the community support we’re getting. Success for us is getting through the year with our kids having fun and none getting injured. Kids have fun, make friends, learn teamwork, working together as a unit.
“We’re a family and I think we’re going to have a great season,” he adds. “It’s an electric atmosphere out there during our games.”