Ridaught: Learning football and life

Alachua Raiders go through a tackle drill.
An Alachua Raiders youth football coach teaches players durining a tackle drill. (Photo by C.J. Gish)
Photo by C.J. Gish

Over the course of my 30-year broadcasting career, I’ve been able to cover sports at every level.

I’ve broadcast and covered high school, college, and professional sports, plus I’ve had the opportunity to broadcast youth sports.

I even broadcast a youth Tee-ball state tournament one time. 

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I was both amazed and humored. 

Sometimes I marveled at how good a 4- or 5-year-old could make the plays that they did. Other times I could have sworn I could hear the Bad News Bears theme music in the background.

But either way, I loved it.

That’s the great thing about sports at that level. You’re learning the fundamentals but you’re also learning so much more.

Sports teaches you life lessons, teamwork, commitment, self-esteem, and developing good habits. The list goes on.

Locally, the Alachua Raiders Youth Football & Cheer is dedicated to teaching youth through positive role models.

The second-year “community organization” is making an impact in kids’ lives.

“We put an emphasis on learning, playing, and enjoying the sport while instilling high moral standards by stressing the importance of academic achievement and community involvement,” said Brandon Thrower, commissioner of the Alachua Raiders Football & Cheer. “Last summer a group of volunteers worked hard to facilitate educational opportunities, athletic excellence, promote physical fitness and sportsmanship with a desire to challenge kids and help keep them off the street. Our organization is creating an environment that is both educational and yet competitive.”

Former Newberry football and basketball player Darron Hadley is a coach for the Alachua Raiders’ 8-year-old division.

Alachua Raiders in tackle drills.
Photo by C.J. Gish Two Alachua Raiders youth football players running through a tackle drill.

“This organization is based on books first and sports second,” said Hadley, who ended up getting a scholarship in 2003 and played football at LaGrange College in Georgia. “We’re here to teach kids the fundamentals of football and life.”

Hadley said that having the football organization in Alachua allows kids to play for their hometown and it “gives the kids from a small town something to be proud of and it keeps them off the streets and positive.” 

Thrower said it can be far-reaching.

“Fostering confidence and a sense of self-worth, in players that extend beyond the gridiron and into the school, family and community,” he said. “We strive to prepare youth to face the future with sportsmanship, teamwork, honesty, responsibility, self-discipline, positive aspirations, academic preparedness and confidence. If we teach them positive lessons, such as playing by the rules, our young athletes will learn to live by the rules.”

Former Santa Fe High School football coach Jared Allen said the organization was in its infancy when he was at SFHS. However, he was a big proponent.

“Having people that care about kids is the most important thing for those age groups,” he said. “It’s important to build the competitiveness in kids from a young age. Getting them around the sport, developing a love for the sport, and having fun.”

Allen said that during his time at SFHS (2020-21 and 2021-2022 school years) that kids who don’t have football growing up “find something else they consider fun and won’t come out and play.”

He cited that the middle school program has been pretty much non-existent, wasn’t well coached, etc. in previous years.

So infrastructure is important.

Hadley, who first started playing football at 8 years old at the Boys and Girls Club in Gainesville, said that playing early helped him a lot.

“It got me mentally tough and to be more fundamental once I got up in age,” he said. “Football helped me growing up. It gave me discipline and something to look forward to through the week and build friendships around the area.”

Thrower said the goal of Alachua Raiders is to make youth football and cheer all-inclusive, “by not excluding participants based on superficial factors such as weight, finances or athletic ability.”

“We are open to youth from Alachua, Archer, Gainesville, High Springs and other nearby towns,” Thrower said. “These teams will truly represent the different cultural backgrounds that make up our city and surrounding communities.” 

As an organization that strives to provide area youth with an opportunity to learn, have fun and experience the importance of teamwork, the organization offers four tackle football teams (6U, 8U, 10U, and 12U). 

Alachua Raiders warming up before practice
Photo by C.J. Gish Alachua Raiders youth football players go through warmups at the start of practice.

Currently, they have three active teams — 6U, 8U and 10U. Each team has about 20 players. They also have cheerleading groups in the same age brackets.

“As the commissioner of the Alachua Raiders Football & Cheer, I am gracious to serve along with three other commissioners,” Thrower said. “We oversee all football and cheer operations and we serve as a link between the league (AYF), the board of directors, the coaches, the players and parents of the league.”

Hadley’s team got off to a 4-1 start and with four games to play and a chance to make the playoffs.

One of their top players is Darron’s son, Damani, who plays running back and linebacker, but can play any position the team needs him to. 

He already has 15 touchdowns and 600 yards rushing, along with 25 tackles in just five games. The 8-year-old had one game where he scored five touchdowns.

“We have a kid who goes by the name ‘Ray Ray’ who has come a long way with his first interception,” Hadley said.

The Alachua Raiders are closing in on a playoff spot.

Their final home game will be at 10 a.m. on Oct. 22 at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex. It’s also homecoming for the organization.

“We have great coaches and great parents of this Alachua community behind us so we are looking to win a championship,” Hadley said.

For more information about the Alachua Raiders Youth Football & Cheer, call 352-359-2044 or email alachuaraiders21@gmail.com

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