The Cataract Little Loop Association has given inner-city youth in Niagara Falls the opportunity to participate in football and cheerleading since 1967.
As one of the most recognizable little league football organizations in Western New York, Cataract has perennially fielded competitive teams and produced players who have gone on to perform at the next level.
Green Bay Packers running back James Starks, University of Pittsburgh running back Qadree Ollison and former Syracuse basketball star and NBA player Jonny Flynn came through the program and continue to inspire the next generation, one that’s noticeably different to Cataract President Eric Dixon.
“They don’t have dreams and aspirations that many kids did years ago,” Dixon said. “That’s our primary focus is to get these kids to dream. It opens their eyes and gives them hope with aspirations.
“It doesn’t have to be a football player or athlete. It can be a doctor, the president, a lawyer. You can really achieve anything if you work hard at it.”
Dixon didn’t grow up in the Cataract City, but he’s well aware of just how important these types of opportunities are for children who sometimes deal with disadvantaged situations at home.
“There’s great tradition and history here,” Dixon said. “It inspires me to keep up the tradition and even build on it.”
Dixon grew up in the Bronx and came to Western New York to play football at the University at Buffalo from 1992 to 1996. He got his start as a volunteer coach in 2006 and quickly became a board member.
He worked under then-presidents Joe Luna and Wayne Ollison (Qadree’s father), who were among the generous volunteers who have been tremendous assets to Dixon as he made the transitions to vice president and eventually president in 2012.
While there are teams in Erie County who compete in Pop Warner Little Scholars on the national level, Cataract is the only organization in Niagara County that does so.
There are many benefits to being involved with Pop Warner, the oldest national youth football and cheerleading organization in the world.
There are no tryouts or cutting of rosters, and every child is guaranteed to playing time under the rules of play. Pop Warner also requires participants to perform in the classroom before permitting them to play out on the field.
“We preach education, family and then football here at Cataract,” Dixon said.
Costs are kept relatively inexpensive, as well.
The organization’s annual budget ranges from $40,000 to $60,000, with the primary revenue coming through registration.
USA Football has provided equipment grants in the last four years to help out, and the organization also receives money from the City of Niagara Falls and through sponsorships and donations from local businesses.
All the efforts keep costs at what Dixon believes are the cheapest in the area. For example, early bird registration costs $140. But $140 worth of raffle tickets are provided for parents to sell. The parents keep all those funds so the child has the opportunity to essentially play for free.
Even before Cataract joined Pop Warner, its teams would still travel up and down the East Coast.
All five age groups, ranging from 5 to 13, play their home games at Ruth Nicoletti Field on Niagara Falls High School’s athletic complex against teams from the Greater Rochester Conference, which involves a decent amount of travel during the season. That includes Syracuse and Albany for the older Eagles junior midget program.
Teams have also gone to New Jersey and Delaware for regional competition with hopes of making it to the national championships at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in December.
The cheerleading program was invited to go to Florida last year but couldn’t due to a lack of funding, but Dixon was able to obtain extra money from local businesses this year in case any football or cheerleading group earns an invite.
The football teams also play in some of the biggest annual tournaments the region has to offer.
The Midwest National Youth Football Championships take place in November in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Game of Life Tournament is presented by the Pro Football Hall of Fame Academy in December.
They’re one-of-a kind experiences for everyone involved.
“We deal with a lot of inner-city kids,” Dixon said, “so we try to get the kids out of town and experience different cultures and areas. Economic issues may not allow the kids to be able to travel much otherwise.”
There has been a decline in participation levels since Dixon started volunteering in 2006, which he attributes to the expanded awareness and knowledge of concussions in the sport.
Cataract once carried more than 200 kids total. There are currently 130 players signed up for this fall across five levels of competition, an average 25 to 28 players per team.
Numbers have remained steady enough, though, because all coaches are certified in the USA Football’s Heads Up program that promotes proper tackling and blocking techniques.
“The methods should allow the kids to have long, productive careers beyond little league football,” Dixon said.
Starks and Ollison share that same message when they come out to practices and speak to the kids when their schedules permit. Earlier this week, Dixon expected Starks to be in attendance at today’s first games of the season.
“They have inspired many, many participants,” Dixon said.
“We try to promote former players and highlight their successes on our website. It shows the kids everything they had to put into it in order to make it that far.”