Chris Martin, quarterback and free safety for River Hill High School's football team, is a hot commodity.
Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, Yale, Holy Cross, Wofford, Army, Georgia Southern and Middlebury College have all contacted the Clarksville senior, hoping he will pursue a college football career with them next season.
Before Martin became a standout three-year varsity starter on a Howard County high school football title contender, he learned the sport with the Columbia Bulldogs football club.
Martin began his career as a running back at age 7 on a Bulldogs team for 7- to 9-year-olds. He played three seasons on that squad before his family moved to the Chicago area. When he returned as an eighth-grader, Martin rejoined the Bulldogs and played quarterback on an 11- to 13-year-old squad.
From there, he started at quarterback as a freshman on the River Hill JV team. He then started at cornerback and wingback during both his sophomore and junior years on varsity.
"I attribute all my success in high school to playing little league football and the coaches I had," Martin said. "I had such a big advantage over everybody else because I was used to all the drills, and I had experience. Coaches look for that, especially if you've had prior experience."
The Columbia Bulldogs club dates back 20 years and was started as the Columbia Cobras, a name derived from the then-sponsor, the Columbia Optimist Club. The nickname was changed 12 years ago, and the program has 175 players on teams competing in five age groups.
The organization is one of five youth tackle football programs in Howard County. The Bulldogs and three others with similar programs are partially affiliation with the new Central Maryland Youth Football and Cheerleading Association this fall. The fifth is for players heavier and larger than allowed by the other programs.
The Bulldogs play in the Carroll County Football League, an organization that has 11 teams from Howard, Carroll, Baltimore and Frederick counties. Two years ago, the Bulldogs also started a cheerleading program, which has about 45 participants.
The cheerleaders are "used just for spirit, and are basically siblings supporting their brothers," said Tricia Stokes of the Bulldog organization. They do not compete in cheerleading competitions, but Stokes said that is a possibility in the future.
As for football, the Bulldogs start with a 6- to 8-year-old instructional league. The youngsters strap on the pads immediately. Some youth football organizations begin with flag football, not the Bulldogs.
There is an overlap in age groups -- with the other teams being 8- to 10-year-olds and 9- to 11-year-olds-- because of the differing weights of children.
To make sure everybody gets experience, the Bulldogs enforce a minimum five-play rule for every player on every team, even though the league does not require it.
"We just want to make sure the kids are having a good time," Stokes said.
"We don't have any overzealous coaches. We want to be competitive, but we want it to be a positive experience because we want them to come back," Stokes said. "Football is a complex game that takes more than a year to learn. For us to feed high schools with players who know what they're doing on the field, they need to stick around."
The preseason began July 31 with practice Monday through Friday for two hours at a time. After three weeks, practice goes to two, two-hour sessions a week, with a game on the weekend.
There is also a start-of-season picnic called "Break Camp Night," which celebrates the end of training camp; a "homecoming" in the middle of the season; an adult crab feast; and an end-of-season banquet.
Stokes said the Bulldogs try to emphasize three points more than anything for every player: "Safety, participation over competition, and education over performance."
Coaches, she said, are judged on what the organization likes to refer to as the "Fun Co-efficient."
"What's really good about our program is we are really trying to teach the kids how to play football, how to be tough, and how to stand up for yourself, but be a humble and classy winner too," said Melvin Powell, who has coached three seasons with the Bulldogs.
Today, most kids in Howard County grow up kicking a soccer ball instead of throwing a football. Martin, who seems to be the exception to the sandlot rule, said he thinks more kids should try playing football.
"I would push little kids to go out and play football," Martin said. "If they ever want to get anywhere in the sport, they'll do it by playing at a young age. It's a great experience."
He also said that parents' concerns about the sport are unjustified. "Some parents think it's too rough and that coaches are yelling at you," Martin said. "But some of my best memories of my very early childhood are from playing with the Bulldogs."