For the past 45 years, members of the Walker Renegades family numbering about 160 youthful football players, a large chorus of aspiring cheerleaders, a collection of parents, relatives and friends of the youngsters and a small army of volunteers have maintained a tradition observed on late summer and fall Saturday mornings by gathering at Wildcat Field on the campus of Walker High School for a celebration of sports focused on the young.

The Walker Renegades comprise four groups of youth football players divided into four teams by ages ranging from 5- to 12-year-olds who are at the heart of the program that fosters development of multiple skills in the young.

While the football games are at the heart of the program, the Renegades movement also involves young cheerleaders, coaches, parents, concession stand workers and other volunteers who help keep the thriving program going strong.

“We are here primarily to provide something that is fun for our young people. … We want to give them an experience that teaches them responsibility, accountability, the value of team play and commitment,” Brandon Buhler, president of the Renegades program, said of the community effort. “We are trying to teach the young people who participate in the Renegades program how to be their best.”

On a bright, cool Saturday morning, the first Renegade team was on the well-groomed Walker High School football field early to take on their counterparts playing for the Galvez Tigers.

The game had all the trappings of a high school and college game, even though the players were only pint-sized. Cheerleaders enthusiastically gave their best to encourage the youngsters on the field. Certified officials ensured that all football rules were enforced, and a press box announcer articulately described each play informing the several hundred spectators on who had carried the ball and who had made the tackle. The scoreboard, with a volunteer at the controls, maintained the game clock and posted scores.

Three more games were to follow before another morning of Renegades football would be concluded.

Buhler said that the smooth operation of the program is testimony to the Renegades executive board of 11 members and the many parents and volunteers who make the program function so well.

“We have a good set of bylaws that we follow and we have the great tradition that the Renegades Program has built on. The groundwork for our program was laid by good folks a long time ago and we just built on what has been accomplished by those who came before us,” he said.

The Walker Renegades are members of the Southern Louisiana Youth Football Association. Other teams in the association are the Ascension Bulldogs, Central Wildcats, Prairieville Broncos, the Live Oak Eagles, the St. Amant Wildcats, the Zachary Broncos, Denham Springs Yellow Jackets and the Galvez Tigers, who brought the visiting teams Saturday.

Each community has an organization similar to the Renegades that plans for the Saturdays when they will be the home team. The teams play eight regular-season games and top winners in the regular season advance to the playoffs.

Playoffs are held in each of the four divisions, which are divided by age and weight. The four divisions are: A teams, players 12-13 years old; B teams, players 10-11 years old; C teams, players 8-9 years old; and D teams, 5-7 years old. Weight restrictions in each division are enforced so that equity in team ability is maintained.

Stressing safety

Buhler said that safety is a primary concern of all the coaches and volunteers in the program. He cites as an example concerns about possible concussions that are an issue with football at all levels. The SLYFA requires that all coaches must be trained in the prevention and treatment of possible concussions and that the coaches must also study the Heads Up program, which teaches players how to avoid concussions.

“We really haven’t had much of a problem with this. … Most of our players are so small that they just pretty much bounce off each other. A young boy is more likely to get hurt with a skateboard, bicycle or doing other things than playing football,” he said.

All coaches are volunteers and many have been with the Renegades for years. Buhler said that one coach, Robert Dugas, has been with the program for 25 years. “We are about to give him a gold watch or something,” Buhler laughed.

Game officials are certified by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association and are paid for their services. Buhler said that hiring officials for a Saturday of football costs the Renegades $790.

And speaking of money, the Renegades are funded by a $150 registration fee per player, a $5 entry fee to games, profits derived from the concession stands, and fundraisers conducted by parents and volunteers.

“Raising funds to keep our program going is tough … and getting tougher with so many other groups trying to raise money for different youth programs. A major expense is uniforms. Each player is given a uniform and the players are allowed to keep their uniforms at season’s end. Insurance costs are also high,” Buhler said.

Parents and volunteers are at the heart of the Walker Renegades program. Jennifer Esser has two boys playing in the league: Kirin, who is in his seventh year as a player, and Kaeden, in his fourth year. She said her boys have enjoyed their time as Renegades.

“The Renegades program is great. … The experience teaches the young people involved about acceptance, growth, nurturing, safety and many other things,” she said. “My boys very, very much enjoy the Renegades. This is their place, they love it here. It’s a big commitment, starting with almost daily practices starting in July to the regular season, but it’s what we enjoy.”

Her husband, Morgan, is an assistant coach on one of the teams.

Scooter Paetz is a parent-coach and he called the Renegades a family.

“It means a lot to me because it teaches our kids so much,” he said. “Besides the football, we emphasize that our players must be respectable young people. They have to keep up with their schoolwork and try to make good grades. They have to be good family members. We are trying to instill values in all the ball players and the cheerleaders who are part of this great learning experience.”

Christian Payne, a 10-year-old football player who has been in the program for five years, said that he loves football but likes his schoolwork too. “I come home and do my homework first and then it’s time to play football. I make all As and Bs. I sure like playing for my team. I like the way our team comes together to make everyone better.”

Victory cheers

The cheerleaders are a big part of the Renegades program. Each team has its own squad of cheerleaders and most are the sisters or close friends of the players.

Haileigh Penton, 12, said that she enjoys being a cheerleader because it allows her to spend time with her friends and she is learning how to cheer, something she hopes to continue in junior high and high school. Her friend and fellow cheerleader, Tabitha Bryan, 11, said, “It’s fun being a cheerleaders. … I have made friends by being a cheerleaders and I have learned some new things. This is what I like to do and it will help me to be a cheerleader in high school.”

No football game experience would be complete without a trip to the concession stand, and the Renegades offer a fully-stocked eatery for its fans. Misty Milburn, who has volunteered for five years with the Renegades, is manager of the concession stand this year. Her fellow volunteers sell a variety of soft drinks, chips, candy, hamburgers, hot dogs, and a special of the day, pastalaya, nachos and pickles.

She said that the nachos are one of the most popular items.

“I’d better not get caught running out of nachos,” she said. She termed the Renegades a “great organization” that is teaching a large number of young people about leadership, sportsmanship and “how to be little gentlemen. We appreciate what the Renegades do for our community.”

Clay Henry, a Renegades coach, said that while playing with the Renegades is no predictor of how some of the football players will fare in the future, many veterans of the program have gone on to successful high school and college football careers. The emphasis, though, is to provide a fun, learning environment for youngsters who enjoy playing a team sport that is well managed and has high goals.

Buhler sums up the general philosophy that guides the Renegades Program: “It’s not winning at all costs, but we do teach our kids to try to win because that is why you work hard and that is why you play the game. But in the end, the important thing is that our young ball players and cheerleaders have fun, learn some important life lessons, and just know the joy of being young, being involved, and having a good time in a nurturing, team-oriented environment. We’re here to make our young people’s live richer and better.”