TIME Sports

Little Tough Guys: Faces of the Young America Football League, 1939

In the 1930s, youngsters around the U.S. were, in increasing numbers, playing football under the aegis of organized leagues. But one league, in particular, caught Alfred Eisenstaedt's eye

Not long ago, we posted a gallery of photographs featuring National Football League players in 1938. “In those years,” we noted, “the biggest sports in the land were baseball, boxing, horse racing and college football; the NFL barely registered on most sports fans’ radar. But it was making strides, and LIFE magazine noticed.”

LIFE, it turns out, also noticed that youngsters around the country were, in increasing numbers, playing the game under the aegis of organized leagues. But one Colorado league, in particular, caught the eye of LIFE photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. As the magazine told its readers in its Oct. 9, 1939, issue:

In Denver this fall, the daydreams of some 550 youngsters, 8 to 18 years old, are coming true. These schoolboys are all members of a non-school organization called the Young America League, which is teaching them to play regular eleven-man football. It is much more fun than scrimmaging in a backyard. When they play for the League, they have their own brightly colored uniforms. Regular coaches teach them to block and tackle. Every Saturday they play regular games, and sometimes 4,000 people come to watch them. With such experience, they figure, they are sure to be great football heroes when they go to college.

The League was started in 1927 when a distracted Denverite named Frederic Adams was entertaining two young nephews. He created an athletic club and arranged for the kids to play football. An essential feature was that every boy, regardless of ability, would have a chance to play. The idea spread and branch clubs were formed. Today the League claims to have the world’s youngest organized football players.

The kids also love the initiation . A candidate swears to be a good student and not bully the girls. Then he must say: “I promise to remember that what matters most is courage; that it is no disgrace to be beaten; but that the great disgrace is to turn yellow.”

Courage is a good thing. Not bullying girls — or boys, or anyone — is a good thing. Being a good student is, generally speaking, a good thing. Sounds like the Young America League might have been on to something.

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