It all began in 1929 when the owner of a new factory in Northeast Philadelphia enlisted the aid of a young friend, Joseph J. Tomlin, to solve a recurring problem. The factory’s huge ground-to-floor windows were constantly being shattered – 100 broken windows in just one month – by teenagers hurling stones from a nearby vacant lot.
Joe Tomlin, an enthusiastic athlete who had excelled in sports in high school and college, had a possible answer. Since the other factories in the area were also being plagued by the young vandals, he suggested that the building owners get together to fund an athletic program for the kids. In those days, the city did not have organized recreation programs to keep idle kids occupied and out of trouble.
The owners agreed, and asked Tomlin to set up a program. Commuting from his job as a stockbroker in New York City, he returned to his home in Philadelphia each weekend. Fall was approaching, so football seemed a logical choice to begin the new project. He set up a schedule for a four-team Junior Football Conference in time for the 1929 season.
Then October came, and with it the collapse of the stock market. He left New York and returned to Philadelphia to concentrate on youth work.
By 1933, the Junior Football Conference had expanded to 16 teams. That year Glenn Scobie “Pop” Warner, already a legend among active football coaches, arrived in Philadelphia to coach the Temple Owls. Joe Tomlin met Pop Warner at a winter banquet and asked him to lecture at a spring clinic Tomlin was planning for his JFC teams.
On the evening of April 19, 1934, the temperature dropped to an unseasonable low, with high winds and torrential rain mixed with sleet. Of the dozen area college football coaches scheduled to speak at the clinic, only Pop Warner showed up. The 800 excited young football players kept him talking and answering questions for two hours. By the end of the evening, by popular acclaim, the fledging youth program was renamed the Pop Warner Conference.
The prestigious Warner name was a powerful attraction. By 1938, there were 157 teams. Most of the players were at least 15 years old and a few were even over 30. Competition was organized along top weights only, except for the youngest kids. Teams represented neighborhoods in the city, while suburban teams represented towns.
During the depression years, a large number of kids left school. Tomlin, a great believer in the importance of education, fought the trend with literature and speakers. He also arranged for tutors for “marginal” kids who wanted to stay in school.
When World War II came, the Pop Warner Conference lost most of its older players. Some squads folded, while others merged. Only 42 teams remained.
Although the Conference rebounded to 100 teams in the 1947 season, there was a shift in membership. Many of the returning service-men abandoned football. Increasingly, the teams were composed of 15-year-olds or younger. Rules were set up for their benefit, including minimum and maximum weights. The era of “midget football” had begun.
The first “kiddie” bowl game, called the Santa Claus Bowl, was played on December 27, 1947, in 6 inches of snow before 2000 freezing spectators. The Clickets midget team, sponsored by Palumbo’s, a Philadelphia supper club, competed against Frank Sinatra’s Cyclones, a New York team.
The Philadelphia team won the game, 6-0, and the Philadelphia Pop Warner Conference won the attention of the nation for the first time.
As football for kids began to develop in communities across the country, Tomlin was deluged with requests for help in starting teams. By the early 1950s, he was determined to “go national.” Although he had some supporters, he also had detractors. Many people were convinced that tackle football was too dangerous for kids. Joe told them that the Philadelphia midget program had operated for 15 years without a fatality or serious injury. They wouldn’t listen.
In 1953, he spoke at the National Education Association symposium on “Sports for Youth” in Washington, D.C. He suggested to the attendees that a liaison should be formed between the sports and educational establishments for the good of the students. They wouldn’t listen.
But there were others who did. Among them: the American Football Coaches Association which bestowed its coveted “Stagg Award” on Joe Tomlin in 1955 for his pioneering work among youth; a major national insurance underwriter which offered a plan with rates based on empirical evidence that tackle football for kids is as safe as its proponents claimed; and Bert Bell, then NFL Commissioner, who, shortly before his death, agreed to introduce the PW program to team owners to gain their support nationally.
Tomlin’s dream finally became a reality when Pop Warner Little Scholars was officially incorporated as a national non-profit organization in 1959. The name was selected to underscore the basic concept of Pop Warner- that the classroom is as important as the playing field.
Walt Disney, attracted by this philosophy, filmed a two-hour show, “Moochie of Pop Warner Football.” It aired on ABC in 1960, and can still be seen today on the Disney cable channel.
In the 1960’s, Pop Warner Football burgeoned in small hamlets, mid-sized cities and metropolitan areas from coast to coast. By the end of the decade there were over 3000 teams.
But football was for boys and girls felt left out. Cheering from the stands wasn’t enough. They wanted, somehow, to share in the excitement and fun down on the field. So Pop Warner introduced a new activity: cheerleading. The girls loved it, and during the 1970s this new branch of Pop Warner grew rapidly.
In 1983, in response to many requests, a flag football program was initiated. Originally designed for teams on a tight budget, this sport has become an excellent training ground for tackle leagues.
Today, there are over 400,000 boys and girls, ages 5-16, participating in Pop Warner programs in the United States. Teams in Mexico, Japan and other countries have also joined the “Pop Warner family.” There are now over 5,000 football teams, playing in eight different age/weight classifications.
Cheerleading programs have expanded beyond the traditional “sideline squads” to include performing groups such as majorettes, pom squads, dancing boots and pep squads. The first National Cheerleading Competition was held in 1988 and now shares the spotlight with the annual Pop Warner Super Bowl, held each year at Walt Disney World.
There is also another competition which is an integral part of the Pop Warner program. This competition recognizes academic excellence, and being named an All-American Scholar is a coveted honor for any PW player or cheerleader.
Author James Michener termed Pop Warner Football as “organized juvenile sports at its best.” But Pop Warner is more than sports for kids. It’s also the dedicated volunteers- the coaches, field administrators, Board of Directors, Trustees – and the generous contributors and sponsors who make it all possible.
Joe Tomlin passed away on May 16, 1988 at the age of 85, however, he left a legacy which will endure as long as there are kids and footballs- and dreams.