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Helmet still on, Nick Balesteri trotted off the Tonawanda football field, a newly detached tooth in the palm of his hand.
No need for an oral surgeon. Call the Tooth Fairy. Because when an incisor pops out during a football scrimmage between teams of 75-pound-and-under players, it's a safe bet it had nothing to do with a bone-crunching hit.

With a gap-toothed grin, the 7-year-old handed his prize to his mother and sprinted back onto the field to huddle with the rest of the Town of Tonawanda Sharks.

The tiniest warriors in the youth football system don't tackle so much as grab and fall down. Some don't seem too sure about that grab part, either.

But that's fine. That's what youth football is for, learning fundamental skills of the game that college and pro players make look so automatic.

The season of sweat and tears, fumbles and cheers has already started for more than 10,000 elementary-school children across Western New York.

Legions of boys, and a few girls, will devote much of their free time to evening practices and weekend games. Their parents will spend more than time, paying registration fees, buying equipment and handling fund-raisers to cover the teams' costs.

Parents say it's well worth the investment of time and money.

"The skills they learn here, I don't know they could get anywhere else," said Bonnie Redmon, whose 14-year-old, Keenan, started playing for the Buffalo Vets in the Erie County Junior Football League at age 6.

She's talking about not only athletic moves, but skills that will help her son later in life. Discipline, from following coaches' directions so 11 players can react as one unit. Resiliency, from learning how to get knocked down and bounce back up for the next play. Sportsmanship, from losing a game without losing your dignity.

The Buffalo Vets, who play at Gleaser Park off Amherst Street in Buffalo, also make a point of tying football to education. Mrs. Redmon, a librarian at School 60, started a program that helps groups of players work on their reading skills during breaks in practice.

Players have to return weekly forms filled out by their homeroom teachers reporting their school performance. Don't do your homework? Sass the teacher? Forget about taking the field this week.

"We're trying to build character, not just muscles," said Dwight Hayes, who has coached and handled administrative duties in the Buffalo Vets organization for nearly 20 years. "The sport itself is a short-lived thing, but character is something that lasts you a lifetime."

Boys he has coached have grown up and brought their children back to become Buffalo Vets. Teachers have written coaches notes thanking them for helping turn troublemakers into class leaders.

"We must be doing something right," Hayes said.

The proof is in players like Delano Fabor, a polite 8-year-old southpaw quarterback who can already throw a 30-yard spiral. Or Tunde Babarinsa, a cheerful 60-pounder who forced a fumble at cornerback last week. It led to a Vets touchdown, even though they lost in the end.

"Defense can win the game," said Tunde, sounding a little like a coach himself.

Getting knocked down isn't so bad, he said. "I just say to myself, I'm not going to get hit next time. I'm going to hit them."

Football certainly is a contact sport, but parental fears about football injuries seldom come true at the youth level, at least, said Dennis Danheiser, a Tonawanda youth football coach for eight years.

"These kids are wearing so much protective gear that the little guys basically bounce off each other," Danheiser said. "I've also coached baseball for years, and I've seen much worse injuries -- line drive in the face, stuff like that -- at this age than in football."

Good thing, too. Danheiser's Sharks, scrimmaging against the North Tonawanda Timberwolves, can hardly get out of their own way at times. When two players collide chasing the ball carrier, he says, laughing, "That's the hardest hit I've seen all day."

Not that the other team is that much better. The scrimmage at times consisted of 22 padded pint-size projectiles performing acts of collective chaos at every snap.

The only ones on the field who seemed to sweat were the coaches. After watching them repeatedly remind players how many points there are in a three-point stance, an off-tackle running play for five yards was cause for celebration.

The task of turning elementary-school kids into a finely honed football machine seems as easy as herding cats. Attempts at perfecting the double-reverse turn into fumblerooski drills.

Finally, a wobbly pass sails over the scrum and lands in the arms of a waiting Shark, who totters away from pursuers as the whistle blows. A whoop goes up from the proud parents.

"I was like, yes!" recounted Aaron Klein of Amherst, giving his first-ever sideline interview, awfully smooth for an 8-year-old. "The coach said, just take two steps back and throw it."

He beamed. "Now I can say I threw a touchdown pass, and my parents were there to see it."

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