By Angela Benfield
Just when it seemed as if the beautiful weather would last forever and a day, it poured rain one Saturday morning in September. Normally, the Downtown Soccer league would have been using the Battery Park City field for its weekend games, but they were on a bye that weekend.
So instead, the Downtown Giants Youth Football League seized the opportunity to play close to home. The rain that surely would have canceled soccer games for the day didn’t put the slightest damper on the determination of the Giants. Dozens of 10-year-olds played football in muddy uniforms and wet cleats, and loved every minute of it. The 10-and-under Junior Pee Wees won the game, 26 to 19.
The day was a perfect metaphor for the philosophy of the Downtown Giants. They have traditional ideas about learning and discipline quite distinct from the local Little League and Soccer Leagues, both of which are designed to give a general, recreational experience to almost every child in the community.
“I’m tired when I get home from football practice and that doesn’t happen in soccer or baseball,” says 12-year-old Henry Costello, who plays on the Junior Midgets team.
Although the Giants have a much smaller league than other recreational teams in the neighborhood, the experience is much more intense. They travel to games; they do workouts in the summer; they have to lug pads and equipment. During the season, they have two practices a week — demanding practices. If players show up late, they must run laps before participating, and if they don’t show up at all, they will be watching the next game from the sidelines.
“The coaches are concerned with safety and ensuring the kids have fun, but they do not give up on the discipline required to play the game successfully,” says Jim Porter, whose son, Michael, plays on the Pee Wees.
“For a lot of kids, I think they have been hearing the same message all their lives — sharing and gentleness, ‘use your words,’ and all of that. And it’s a good message. But some also want to explore more old-fashioned ideas of toughness and bonding,” remarks Mark Costello, president of the Downtown Little League and father of Henry.
Well into its second season, the Downtown Giants teams — complete with their own cheerleaders — have been winning many more games than they did their first, a season in which they reached the playoffs. Their combined record this year is 17 wins, 8 losses. In a very short existence, the Giants have become serious competitors within the wider league.
“It’s not really about winning or losing. We teach the game for the development of the child,” says Brian Giffin, president and founder of the Downtown Giants. After moving to Battery Park City in 2005 from Brentwood, Tenn., Giffin was disappointed to learn that Lower Manhattan didn’t have a football league for his son, Brennan, to join. He decided to “bring youth tackle football to the kids in our neighborhood.” With persistence and support from community leaders like Bob Townley, space was initially allocated at Pier 40 and Murry Bergtraum field.
With a dozen volunteer coaches, the Giants now have four teams: the 9-and-under Mighty Mites, the 10-and-under Junior Pee Wees, the 11-and-under Pee Wees and the 12-and- under Junior Midgets. Their home field is East River Park, and they practice at Pier 40. Registration doubled this year to 120, and Giffin hopes that number will continue to increase.
“The plan is to build the Giants into a lasting force of several hundred families,” says Giffin. His long-term objective is to expand the program into one that will last for decades. His short-term objective is just as ambitious: discipline and fun. He seems to have readily achieved this goal.
Angela Benfield’s son is a Downtown Giant.