A fervent football fan, Jeff Miller’s family wore his favorite team’s jerseys for family photos this year. With four boys, his household is as rough-and-tumble as it gets, playing multiple sports including basketball, soccer and baseball, the first two through the church-sponsored Upward sport leagues.
But they haven’t played football, a point of disappointment for Miller, who grew up in Minnesota cheering for the Vikings and has attended every championship game since 1974.
After waiting and watching for an Upward flag football league for several years, Miller isn’t going to watch the football turf grow. He’s kicking off Upward flag football at Berean Bible Church later this summer.
Miller had already volunteered as a coach and then a commissioner through the eight-year-old Upward basketball program, sponsored by Spokane Valley Church of the Nazarene, Spokane Valley United Methodist Church and Opportunity Presbyterian Church.
This year 920 kids played and led cheers in Upward basketball. The five-year-old Upward soccer program, sponsored by Valley Open Bible and Valley Wesleyan churches, had 358 kids.
It takes hundreds of volunteers to put on Upward sports, said Deb Weisen, the Northwest regional representative for Upward Unlimited, explaining that to do football they needed more help. “It takes an army of volunteers. Nobody is paid. Last year we had such huge growth in basketball I brought on leadership and tried to find it in other churches, so it wasn’t just Spokane Valley Nazarene Church.”
That included training Miller to run the second- and third-grade boys basketball league of 200 kids. “He did a wonderful job. He was on the inside seeing how we put it together and how we run it. We sent him to flag football (training) to see if he would have interest in running it and it just clicked,” said Weisen, noting she expects to see football grow like basketball did. “With the backing of the church leadership they will do a phenomenal job with football. I think we will see it explode in two or three years.”
“I love Upward. I love football. It is the coolest experience,” said Miller, laughing as he recalled the sign that helped him know he should start the program: this year’s jerseys are Viking purple and gold.
Flag football, he said, is designed to prevent injury while teaching the sport in a fun way. All the kids get wristband play holders and run through a tunnel and gantlet of cheering fans at the beginning of games, for example. And like Upward basketball and soccer, flag football employs a positive approach they call the circle of affirmation – with parents, coaches and referees all focused on encouraging participants.
Every child, for example, is guaranteed to play half a game. “No matter your skill level you will have really solid playing time,” Weisen said. “It is first class, detailed and organized and all about making every child a winner. It is really a positive experience for parents, families and kids.”
Jeff Miller grew teary-eyed explaining how this impacts all the kids, but especially those who aren’t as athletic. He described how the whole team works to make sure a weaker player still gets to score, cheerfully passing the ball over and over again until the child makes a goal.
“The whole crowd cheers,” he said, his voice choking with emotion. “I’ve been part of sports my whole life. The circle of affirmation can work in sports. We get caught up in competition and intensity and stress, but when the coach doesn’t do it, the parents don’t do it and the kids don’t do it.”
“The way they run sports is different. All the parents cheer for all the kids,” adds Miller’s wife, Pam, who is helping him organize the league. She praised the program, comparing it to other leagues where the drive to win is so strong parents yell at coaches and officials while kids who aren’t as proficient get benched. “I’d get stressed out going to the games and feel bad for my kid if he didn’t perform.”
“The most import thing we can offer kids today is a safe, fun experience. We all know sports have become competitive and because of that competition we have lost a lot of the fun. A lot of sporting events end up not being fun,” Weisen said.
But the league is still competitive, Miller quickly added, noting kids are assessed so teams are evenly matched and everyone still strives to play well. “It is as competitive as you can be. We are human. We still want to win.”
As a faith-based organization sponsored by local churches, Upward is also a ministry. Kids learn a Bible verse each week during the devotion at weekly practice. And during half-time on game days the spectators hear a devotional.
“It is always a balance of ministry and sports league,” Weisen said. “We try to do an excellent sports league but our purpose is ministry and we try to keep that focus. We believe that we can minister to our community in a very special way.”