Junior Trojans’ Success Builds Framework for Transition to High School Football
Despite the sting of a disappointing 21-13 playoff loss to DeWitt one week ago, the overall future of East Lansing Football continues to shine bright. The Trojans posted a record of 7-3 and captured a share of the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue division championship. Over the past three seasons the Trojans have flexed their football muscles more consistently, tallying an overall record of 25-8 and earning playoff berths in each.
This is major improvement from the previous three campaigns (2014-16) that resulted in a combined 12-16 record, including a meager 1-8 season in 2014.
East Lansing varsity head coach Bill Feraco and his staff have remained steady at the helm, and the influx of talent coming up through the ranks of the Junior Trojans program has given reason to be optimistic. (ELi photographer Raymond Holt captured these images at last week’s playoff game.)
But it’s not just the adults who are driving the success of the four Junior Trojans teams, which capped off their respective seasons just over a week ago. The players have taken ownership themselves.
“A lot of the kids have bought into the game itself,” said Junior Trojans seventh grade coach and former Michigan State University basketball standout Andre Hutson. “They work pretty hard in practice and even though they’re silly, goofball kids, a lot of these kids put in extra time. Some of these kids take it really serious.”
The Junior Trojans, a nonprofit organization that competes in the Mid-Michigan Pony Football League, has a rich history in East Lansing that dates back to the late 1950s with then-retired MSU coach Clarence “Biggie” Munn, who founded the program. A brief hiatus was ended when another Spartan, Art Brandstatter, picked things back up in the late 1960s. There was another hiatus in the 1980s and 1990s, but sports commentator Tom Crawford started the program again in 2005 and it has served as the feeder program to the high school ever since.
There are four age groups: eighth grade, seventh grade, sixth grade, and a team of fifth and fourth graders mixed together. The players are all member of the East Lansing community.
“I believe that one of the biggest factors for the more recent success has been continuity of the programs,” said Junior Trojans Director Rufus Jackson, who also serves as an East Lansing assistant coach at the freshman and varsity levels. “With me running the program and coaching on the staff at the high school, I’ve been able to reinforce the program that runs at the middle school level.”
With Jackson — and by extension Coach Feraco — helping to shape the Junior Trojans program, the learning curve is much smaller and the players hit the ground running when they transition from eighth grade to high school.
“It was organic and intentional,” Jackson said of the streamlined approach. “Coach Feraco has been very instrumental in letting me ... He’s given me his trust and I have a role and I help on the varsity. But I think it’s instrumental that they have somebody teach [the youth] techniques and schemes.”
At its essence, however, Trojan football is about more than just the sport by itself. It’s about building a lasting relationships.
“What I taught them was, when you walk on this football field we’re all family,” said sixth grade coach and former Trojan standout Demetrius “Snoop” Hallums.“We participate in a lot of the camps and clinics put on at the high school,” Hutson said. “And we go to some of the varsity games. A lot of the kids have older brothers playing so they go to games all the time.”
Bucking the trend
The number of participants in youth tackle football has continued to decrease across the country over the past decade. East Lansing has been no exception, as evidenced by the high school program not fielding a junior varsity team this season. The Sports and Fitness Industry Association reported that national participation in football among 6- to 17-year-olds was down 3 percent since last year.
“The numbers are slightly down,” Jackson said of the Junior Trojans. “We probably average 23 to 25 kids per team. Probably about 100 kids in the program.”
Numerous surveys show that parents cite concussion-related injuries as a major reason for reluctance around their children playing football. The studies around CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) continue to provide important data about the effects of head trauma. But there are other reasons that participation has dropped in recent years.
“I do think the concussion scare may have a slight impact on the numbers, but mostly I feel it’s just involvement,” Jackson said. “People just wanting their kids to do multiple things. They let their kids play different sports and they know they can wait until high school to play football.”
While some parents are hesitant to allow their children to play football, there remain benefits to instilling values and positive habits in players while at the youth levels.
“Discipline, that’s what we teach,” said Coach Hallums. “Discipline and accountability to one another. Turning in [academic] progress reports and taking care of business in the classroom.”
Community support is invaluable
Jackson says there is still a need and hope for more East Lansing community engagement and support.
“We need to find a way to create urgency to get kids registered in a timely manner and a way to build excitement in the community,” he said. “I think our program – youth through high school – truly yearns for community backing. If our community could find their way into the stands and find their way to support these young people, I do believe it would make a difference in them.”
Even still, the Junior Trojans continue to experience success which bodes well for Coach Feraco and the future of the high school program. Over the past two seasons the Junior Trojans teams have combined for an impressive 42-7-3 record, and there’s no reason why that trend shouldn’t continue.
“We should be pretty loaded,” Jackson said of the future. “I’d say we’re in pretty good shape.”
8th Grade Team (Class of 2024)
- Coach: Eric Williams
- 2019 record: 8-0
- Key stat: This group finished a jaw-dropping 30-1 in five seasons from fourth through eighth grade
- Notables: Donavan Patterson, wide receiver; Andrew Watters, quarterback
7th Grade Team (Class of 2025)
- Coach: Andre Hutson
- 2019 record: 5-1
- Key stat: The seventh grade Junior Trojans are 11-1 over the past two seasons
- Notables: Jeff Bridges, wide receiver/running back; Alex White, offensive lineman, linebacker; Cameron Hutson, wide receiver, outside linebacker
6th Grade Team (Class of 2026)
- Coach: Demetrius “Snoop” Hallums
- 2019 record: 4-1-1
- Key stat: Fewer than 10 penalties all season, including a 3-game streak with no penalties
- Notables: Tyree Anthony OLB (fifth grade); Malachi Hallums WR/DB; Marshawn Hallums RB/S; Grover Patterson RB/FB/MLB; Demetrius Hallums played for the last undefeated East Lansing team in the regular season (2001).
5th / 4th Grade Team (Classes of 2027, 2028)
- Coach: Karry Smith
- 2019 record: 2-2-2
- Notables: John Michael Smith RB
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