MARINE CORPS AIR STATION FUTENMA, April 17, 2009 - While growing up in the inner city of St. Louis, Marine Corps Sgt. Timothy Craig had two choices: turn to sports or the streets.
For Craig, football was the answer. He started playing at age 7, was very successful and pursued it throughout his youth.
During high school, Craig grew into a leader on the field, which kept him on the right path even while school presented its challenges.
"I struggled with school work," he admitted. "The only reason I went to high school was because of football."
Craig continued to struggle with school work throughout high school and beyond. After a year at Joplin Junior College in Joplin, Mo., his grades were not holding up, and Craig had to abandon his dream of playing college football. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2004.
While serving in California with the Corps, Craig continued to play an active role in the football community, coaching a youth league at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and playing on the all-Marine team at Camp Pendleton. After arriving on Okinawa in 2007, he became a coach in the Kadena Youth Tackle Football League. After two seasons, the league was disbanded because there wasn't enough interest.
But Craig saw things differently.
"A lot of the kids were heartbroken," Craig said. "I thought it was upsetting that these kids had no outlet, and I thought something had to be done. These kids sacrifice enough being part of the military community, and I didn't think they should have to sacrifice football as well."
Seeing a need for a youth tackle football league, Craig decided to start up the Okinawa Youth Football League.
The league is straightforward. There are no contracts, trade deadlines, advertisements or concession stands. It is just 15 teams dedicated to football, pure and simple.
The entire league is funded by contributions from the players' parents, Craig said.
The league does not single out individual effort or award most valuable player trophies. Instead, coaches stress the importance of teamwork and how each player's contribution is important to the overall team. The players give their all, not for money, but only for the love of the game. They play through fatigue not for fame, but simply to learn the game of football, Craig said.
"The league teaches humility," he said. "Players learn the difference between winning and losing, they learn the definition of teamwork, and they learn about their individual character. But, as coaches, we remind them that it's not about winning and losing, it's about learning fundamentals and having fun."
Craig said the most important thing about the league is the academic performance a player must maintain to remain eligible to play. Coaches monitor grades, and players must maintain a 2.0 grade point average and proper attendance records.
"The league is built on the very principle that kept me from pursuing my dreams," Craig said. "I want these kids to realize that although sports are significant, the most important aspect is education”
(Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Bobby J. Yarbrough serves with Marine Corps Bases Japan.)