LAKE STATION | Football has always been Marcus Dowdell's favorite sport.
Now, he can truly experience it — and not by way of the MADDEN 2013 video game.
"This is the way I always wanted to play it," said Dowdell, fully dressed in helmet and pads for his Northwest Indiana Iron Eagles varsity football game Saturday at the Lake Station High School.
"This makes the game so much better," Dowdell said. "This is real football."
Dowdell is one of about 200 local youth football players and cheerleaders who congregate every weekend at the high school to play and whoop it up in full gear in front of a paying audience. In most any other circumstance, they would have been locked out for the season.
"Lake Station no longer has a Pop Warner charter," said Iron Eagles president Paul Cuellar, who started the first-year fledgling program with vice-president Dewayne Bailey Jr. "Kids around here who wanted to play Pop Warner were told to either go to Portage or Hobart. But even then, football was out of their reach.
"There are a lot of single mothers around here who can't afford all the fees involved in signing their kids up. And then there are kids who get turned away because they're too heavy. We don't turn anyone away."
The league caters to ages 5-12 (football) and 5-14 (cheerleading). The football divisions include flag football (ages 5-6), junior varsity (7-9) and varsity (10-12).
All this comes free of charge
"And we're still taking sign-ups ... from all communities," Cuellar said. "We're were able to raise money through raffles and car washes, and Mike Blythe (of Blythe's Sporting Goods) helped us with a finance plan for helmets and equipment."
The league is a work in progress. The Iron Eagles don't have the budget to hire licensed referees, relying on the volunteer work from Lake Station High School football players and coaches.
"We're a little lenient on some of the calls ... especially in our flag football division," Cuellar said. "Most of these kids have never played (organized) football before.
"And that's a problem for some high schools have trouble getting enough kids out. They have these 250-pound athletes in the halls, but they never played football in pads before because they were always too big for youth football."
Each week the Iron Eagles have a different theme while honoring various civic contributors. Opening week honored local first responders; the following week (Sept. 8), the league honored local veterans.
Among those receiving certificates of appreciation before the junior varsity game was Brandon Hiatt, a Navy veteran who served in the Middle East through 2004.
Hiatt, a former collegiate and semipro football player from California, is one of the Iron Eagles volunteer coaches.
"I plan to get into teaching someday," said Hiatt, who is a carpenter with the Local 1005, "and this is a good way to start getting involved with kids."