When Daniel Harper's 9-year-old son, Daniel Jr., made his first youth football all-star game last year, the younger Harper proudly wore his jersey, but didn't get it very dirty on game day.
"They had these kids pay money, they gave them a jersey, and the kids stood on the sideline," said Harper, a strength and conditioning coach at Friends. "His experience last year is what fueled me."
Harper, a Baltimore police officer, last April founded Elite Youth Training LLC, which trains young athletes. The most visible result of the business venture will be on display Saturday when more than 140 youth football players participate in the inaugural Baltimore City/County East vs. West Youth All Star Football games at Mervo.
The games are different from other youth all-star games, Harper said, because area high school football coaches have volunteered to coach participants through a series of practices this week, plus three games on Saturday for players between 6 and 14 years old.
The games have generated lots of interest from local elected officials, too, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and members of the City Council, who are expected to attend.
Having high school football coaches on hand gives young players the opportunity to learn the technique expected of junior varsity and varsity players, said Rocco Bruno, the head football coach at Friends.
"We're finding great athletes, but they still hold the ball in the wrong hand when they run up the sideline," said Bruno, offensive coordinator for the 9-to-11-year-old Eastside team. "They're not receiving handoffs correctly, they're not putting the ball the proper hand. [Learning] that will help them in their rec career, and hopefuly when they do get to high school … it'll be better for their coaches."
Bruno and members of his coaching staff are joined by coaches from John Carroll, Poly, City, New Town, St. Frances, Gilman, Kenwood and other Baltimore metro-area high schools.
Corey Johnson, the head coach at Edmondson, said Harper approached him about coaching the 11-to-14-year-old Westside team about a month ago. Much of his varsity and junor varsity staff joined him.
The practices and games let coaches scout and recruit the area's best young players, Johnson said, while teaching them how to play the game.
"My coaches and I thought it was a great chance to really interact with the youth," he said. "Sometimes, it's kind of hard to scout opponents and see the young kids at the same time. It's more so than just sitting in the stands. You get a chance to see skills firsthand."
Participants and their parents can meet with high school guidance counselors and coaches Friday at Poly, where the academic requirements of playing high school sports will be stressed.
"A lot of the times, kids come in from middle school who are just barely passing ... and they're still playing at the Pop Warner level," Johnson said. "It's the introduction, right away, that you're going to need a 75 [percent] to play. That's a big benefit for them."
Harper, a Poly graduate who had help organizing the all-star game from his business partner Samuel Johnson, a City graduate, and Jaclene Thompson, an Amateur Athletic Union basketball coach and Harper's fiancee, hopes the young athletes and parents will see the game as more than a jersey and resume bullet.
"We're training the kids," Harper said. "Let's not just do something just to keep them with us."
Baltimore City/County East vs. West Youth All Star Football
Where: Mervo High School
When: Saturday, Dec. 21, games start at 11:30 a.m.
Age 6 to 8 East vs. West, 11:30 a.m.
Age 9 to 11 East vs. West, 2 p.m.
Age 12 to 14 East vs. West, 4:30 p.m.
More information: eliteyouthtraining.org.