Tommy Morgan graduated from Haverhill High School in 2013, but years earlier he was a Hunking School student who dreamed of playing football under the Friday night lights at the stadium.
For three years at Haverhill High, Morgan made his longtime dream a reality, suiting up in the brown and gold as the Hillies quarterback, playing for Coach Tim O'Connor.
Now, Morgan and O'Connor are among several people in the city aiming to pay it forward for Haverhill's budding football players by launching a feeder program for their Junior Hillies football team. This summer, the team organized by Morgan and O'Connor — in its second season — will be open to fifth- and sixth-graders at any of the city's middle schools. It was previously open to just seventh- and eighth-graders.
"This program allows kids from Haverhill to play with each other rather than against each other," Morgan said. "Winning games is an important factor, but it's not the only factor. We're trying to build a team the community can be proud of: A team of young men who can grow up through the program and go on to the high school and want to represent the high school."
The feeder program allows younger players from across the city to come together to sharpen their skills in hopes that they will continue playing football during their high school years.
Prior to the Junior Hillies launching a team for seventh- and eighth-graders in 2018, kids in Haverhill were able to play in the city's recreation league with other students from their middle schools, Morgan said. When he chose to create his own team, O'Connor recruited Chris Farrell to coach the team, and tapped former player Dan Tashjian to serve as Farrell's assistant.
Concussions? Safety first
The Junior Hillies plan to include fifth- and sixth-graders runs counter to a recent call from people worried about concussions. They say football programs should move away from including young players, instead reserving the sport for players in high-school and older.
Morgan said the Junior Hillies program is overseen by a certified athletic trainer on hand at all home games to ensure proper safety protocols are followed. By opening up the program to younger players, O'Connor and Morgan said they hope to instill the basics of football mechanics, such as proper tackling, to avoid injuries. Key lessons include tackling with players' heads up to avoid concussions, Morgan said.
Concussions are a "real concern" for coaches, who prioritize visual learning over hands-on instruction and allow players to have hard physical contact for only 20 minutes per practice, according to O'Connor.
“I'm sure the whole concussion aspect is not in the back of the mind of a 12-year-old kid, but what's important is that it's on the forefront of the mind of our coaches,” Morgan said. “What we're trying to drive home is that these kids aren't looking to go out there and take people's heads off. There's a method to what we do.”
Registration is open for the Junior Hillies program. Interested players can visit haverhillyouthfootball.com for more information. Practices begin in the city's Riverside neighborhood this summer.
A total of 54 seventh- and eighth-graders took part in the program last year, and 20 fifth- and sixth-graders have already signed up for this year's team, according to O'Connor. The group will be in what's called the Northeast Youth Football League, playing games and practicing with an entirely volunteer staff three times per week. The per-player fee is $125 for the season.
Not formally backed by Haverhill High School athletics, O'Connor's program is supported by private donations, he said.
Cheerleaders also go young
While O'Connor prepares to welcome a new crop of Hillies to the field, another Haverhill sport is expanding offerings to the younger generation.
Cheerleading will soon be open to fifth- and sixth-graders across the city when Hunking School coach Christen O'Brien's Elite team begins training.
Like O'Connor and the Junior Hillies, O'Brien felt a need to form a squad to help younger athletes develop their cheerleading skills and the ability to avoid injury. Developing a bond is also of key importance, she said.
“If they're all competing against each other in eighth grade as rivals, they're not becoming better athletes when they go into high school on the same team,” O'Brien explained. “We really want them to come together over the summer season and get to know each other. There's so much that youth sports can provide: Discipline, learning to work together, character building. Learning the respect for the sport is just not prevalent.”
Through her Elite Squad, which will practice at American Tumbling Academy in Groveland, cheerleaders will receive guidance from O'Brien and current Haverhill High coach Elizabeth Burgess, O'Brien said. Prior to the formation of Elite, athletes were only able to cheer on middle school basketball squads.
“This city deserves a feeder program,” said O'Brien, who is accepting registrations for her program via Haverhill Elite's Facebook page.
Indeed, the future for Haverhill youth cheerleaders is looking bright: The Haverhill cheer team captured the MSSAA DIvision 1 Regional Cheer title on Sunday at Wilmington High School. They advance to the MSSA State Championship this weekend at Worcester State University. The team also won the Merrimack Valley Conference Championship this year.
Feeder programs like the Junior Hillies and Elite are more than just about learning sports fundamentals, Morgan said.
"What we're trying to do is drive home the basics, which helps keep our kids safer," he said. "It also allows them to have more fun. They know what they're out there to do — they're not just out there running around. It allows them to bond with each other and strive toward a common goal."