Football, for the most part, was canceled for many young people during the COVID-19 pandemic last year across the United States and right here in Madison. But after a long layoff, Coach Art Bonomie wanted to make sure that young people could find a place where they could regularly get some physical activity and have fun with friends. To start to regain some normalcy this spring, Bonomie and others organized the “All-City” Flag/Passing League where multiple football games are played at Quann Park every Saturday on Madison’s south side.
“The kids love it. They haven’t had a sense of normalcy for a long time and they haven’t seen their friends in a while,” Bonomie tells Madison365. “When this was first announced, we got a lot of messages from kids asking, ‘Coach, can I play?’
“This league wasn’t focused around the competitive nature of the sport or the X’s and O’s; this is about mental health and creating a new normal for the kids and physical activity. That is extremely rewarding to see families and kids smiling and interacting safely,” he continues. “It can be done safely and it can be done the right way. I do believe that if the ‘why’ is important enough, there is always the ‘how.’”
Bonomie, who has been a youth football coach for the past decade, has always had a great passion for football. A board member for the Southside Raiders, Bonomie is also the Interim Head Varsity Football Coach for Madison West High School.
“I’m very appreciative of the amount of work that [longtime Southside Raiders Coaches] Wayne [Strong] and Isadore [Knox] have put in for the Raiders youth program over the years. I think it’s essential to understand how meaningful it is for the community,” Bonomie says. “I’ve always known the tradition, but having been in the program for the last year and a half or two years, their sense of pride and ownership of that Raiders brand is so powerful. We pay homage to that … it belongs to the community.
“I think what you’re seeing this spring is testament to what we’re capable of doing when we’re working together,” he continues. “That’s what I feel I bring to the table – creating that culture and those connecting points and adding a little bit of that energy to get things going … and then stepping out of the way.”
Three organizations – the Southside Raiders, Madison Memorial High School, and Janesville Craig/Parker schools – have worked to put together the All-City League that has over 185 kids registered from grades 3-8.
“It’s going incredibly well. We have 185 kids who are playing football for Madison Memorial, Southside Raiders, a team from the Eastside Sharks … We have Janesville teams,” Bonomie says. “We have teams at every level. Fourth and fifth grade are flag football and 6th through 8th grade are passing league. We’re following all of the health rules and some incredible things are happening.”
Kids in the All-City League range from about 8 or 9 years old up to 14 or 15. The younger kids play flag football and the older kids play in the Passing League, which is a 7-on-7 format.
“We very much on the fly called it the ‘All-City League,’” Bonomie says. “The reason I came up with that is that I do believe that given the year that we have had and the difficulties that the City of Madison has faced, I think we owed it to the City of Madison to give back and to allow that opportunity for the young people and the parents to have that in their lives.”
The impetus for the league started late last fall.
“One of the things that was evident to me as I was communicating with the board of the Southside Raiders is that it was very difficult for me as a coach — for the very first time in my career — to find a clear line of delineation between when was it safe for us to be able to be out there and how do we balance that risk against mental health and physical activity,” Bonomie says.
“We understood that the quarantines and the shutdowns and the social distancings and some of the guidelines – especially in Dane County – were geared towards promoting the safety of the community and we supported that, but we also understood that the mental health and the physical activity of young people in elementary and middle school level were deteriorating quickly,” he adds.
So many young people were hooked into something that they loved through athletics, Bonomie says, and that benefited them at school.
“It encouraged them to get their homework done so they could dress up and play on Saturdays,” Bonomie says.
In November and December, they started seriously talking about a possible spring league.
“The reality is that the only activities offered out there as it relates to flag football or non-contact football have been, for the most part, dominated by organizations that, in my opinion, controlled the cost and the registration and the participation of those programs,” Bonomie says. “My personal observation is that over time we’ve made football increasingly difficult and non-accessible for every single kid. There are barriers to entry.
“I volunteer and work with multiple organizations to be able to tell you that the process that we’re following to be able to offer scholarships, to be able to understand the requirements to be able to sign up or the amount of effort that goes into making sure that you’re communicating with the parents in a way that promotes empathy and understanding of each of those individual situations … those things are not often in place and that makes it difficult,” he adds. “So kids don’t come out.”
So they set out to create a league that had extremely limited barriers to entry.
“We wanted to make it easy as we can; make it the way we used to play as kids,” he says. “You know where it’s at and you just come out and play.”
They set the price at $45 for everyone across the board.
“Then we said we’re going to work one-on-one with the families who don’t feel like they can afford the $45 and get them in for free,” Bonomie says.
Bonomie had to find a big park for the games, insurance that covers the kids, policies, guidelines, refs, etc.
“We were able to work with the City of Madison to use Quann Park at no cost with the South Side Raiders being a non-profit organization, which I greatly appreciate,” Bonomie says. “We tried to make this as affordable as we could having the only expenses being painting the lines, getting some flags and getting refs.”
Practices kicked off at the beginning of April.
“The weather was a little bit cold, the grass was a little wet, and the coaches and the kids were a little out of shape,” Bonomie remembers, smiling. “After those first couple of practices, I told the coaches, ‘Yeah, we all kind of needed to get outside and run a little bit. It’s great.”
The first game took place on April 17. Week four was just completed this past Saturday and featured a very special guest. New University of Wisconsin Badgers women’s basketball coach Marisa Moseley came and spoke to the players. The league will run until Saturday, May 22.
“For me, it’s so rewarding to see all of these young people play on Saturdays. Don’t get me wrong … there’s a significant amount of work that goes into planning the league but also when you’re executing it on Saturdays – setting it up before they come and taking it all down,” he says. “There is an investment, but it is certainly worth it. This has been so rewarding.”