Jonah Barstow works on his proper tackling form during warmups at the Kennebunk Youth Football Program’s first day of practice Monday. Barstow and the other approximately 120 players in the league received new Riddell SpeedFlex helmets this season as the league and the Tommy McNamara Charitable Foundation joined forces to help provide the youth with the safest helmet on the market. (ANTHONY LOMBARDI/Journal Tribune)

KENNEBUNK – The Tommy McNamara Charitable Foundation is always looking for ways to make a direct impact on the lives of youth in the community. 

So, when the Kennebunk Youth Football Program reached out over the winter in need of help with the purchase of 120 top-of-the-line helmets, it was a match made in heaven.  

“It’s really a perfect fit for what we do,” said Tom McNamara, the foundation’s president. “It’s a fabulous cause … It completes the mission that we had when we started out.” 

A love of sport 

Thomas Fergus “Tommy” McNamara was 25 years old on July 5, 2012, when he drowned about a mile off the coast of Kennebunk during a day on a boat with friends. Born in Falls Church, Virginia, Tommy McNamara grew up in Massachusetts and also spent years living in Kennebunk. 

He was a film actor in New York – a member of the Screen Actors Guild – and he was also a gifted athlete. He loved golf, football, lacrosse and, of course, hockey, even lacing up his skates for a season at Kennebunk High. His favorite game, though, was Wiffle ball, said Tom McNamara, Tommy’s father, and he and his friends from Kennebunk, Arundel and Wells would play for hours upon hours in the backyard. 

Tom McNamara founded the Tommy McNamara Charitable Foundation (TMCF) in 2013 to pay tribute to his son’s passion for sport with a mission focused on raising funds to “develop and maintain quality recreational and sports facilities for the enjoyment” of the kids in Kennebunk and Kennebunkport. 

The foundation has used its main event – an annual Wiffle ball tournament held at the Tommy McNamara Wiffle Ball Field in Kennebunk – as a springboard for various causes such as the donation of a Beach Wheelchair for Gooch’s Beach and the provision of scholarships for the Kennebunk Recreation Department’s Summer Day Camp. 

Helping supply 120 youth football players with Riddell Speedflex helmets can also be added to the list. 

The SpeedFlex 

The Riddell SpeedFlex is one of the best-rated helmets on the market no matter the rankings system. The Virginia Tech Helmet Ratings, a leader in helmet research, gives the Riddell SpeedFlex five stars, the highest rating Virginia Tech researchers assign. 

Riddell, according to the manufacturer’s website, studied data from millions of on-field impacts and used its research to develop a “groundbreaking football helmet.” The result: the Riddell SpeedFlex. 

The helmet’s “flex system” is engineered with hinge clips to reduce impact force transfer to the athlete, and the interior liner that conforms to various head shapes to provide comfort and stability. Other aspects of the SpeedFlex such as a flexibility-oriented facemask and adjusting chinstrap make it easy to see why the Riddell helmet is highly esteemed within the football community.  

Seventh and eighth-grade players in the Kennebunk Youth Football Program line up for sprints at the end of their
first day of practice Monday. The team purchased approximately 120 new top-of-the-line helmets this offseason
thanks, in part, to a generous contribution by the Tommy McNamara Charitable Foundation. (ANTHONY LOMBARDI/Journal Tribune)

It’s also the helmet that the Kennebunk Youth Football Program circled on its wishlist shortly after the SpeedFlex’s release in August of 2014, said Treasurer Gary Connor. 

At the end of each season, said Connor, the youth program sends its helmets to Riddell for “reconditioning.” Riddell inspects the helmets, throws out a few that don’t meet standards and refurbishes the ones that pass inspection. The reconditioning process alone costs the program between $5,000 to $6,000 each time, so Connor spoke with Riddell reps about how much it would cost to equip each of their players with a top-of-the-line product. 

“We’ve always talked about, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get the best helmets that are available?’” said Conner, who also serves as the head coach of the program’s third and fourth-grade team. “We definitely knew we wanted to do something.” 

Even with Riddell working out a significant deal, the total would have been difficult for the program to absorb, said Connor. Conversations in board meetings started to center on deciding which kids would get new helmets first and who would have to wait until the funds were there. 

Are we going to make the seventh and eighth-grade team as safe as possible and then learn that one of our third graders got hurt? The topic deflated those in the room. 

At the end of each season, in addition to annual reconditioning, the Kennebunk Youth Football Board sends a survey to the league’s parents with a few questions inquiring on their perspective of various aspects of the organization. This time around they included a question that asked if parents would support a one time fee of around $150 toward the purchase of new helmets. More than half answered, “Yes.” 

For now and the future 

With research in-hand and the majority backing of league parents, Connor contacted Tom McNamara and TMCF founding board member David Sweetser around December of 2018 to gauge the foundation’s interest in helping with the purchase of the helmets. 

Tom McNamara and Sweetser needed a few questions, such as where the helmets are produced and the quality of the equipment, answered first but both sides came to a quick agreement: TMCF would initially donate $14,400 to the Kennebunk Youth Football Program. Additionally, TMCF would match every dollar raised up to $7,000 for a contribution of $21,400 out of the total amount of approximately $28,400 needed for 120 helmets. 

“We wanted to make sure that Gary and the group had done their due diligence and this was in fact truly an advanced safety helmet that would provide the highest level of protection for these kids,” Tom McNamara said. “And we really wanted to challenge them to raise the other piece of it so they felt gratified that they were involved.” 

The league took the challenge head-on. Within a few hours, the league had raised almost $2,000. Within a couple of weeks, TMCF mailed the league its first contribution. 

“They moved very, very quickly,” Connor said. “I was kind of overwhelmed with how much they were willing to support us.” 

Those with children registered in the league are also grateful for the contribution.   

“It was a very generous donation, and, obviously, we relied a lot on that,” said Ali Maguire, the mother of seventh-grader, Eli. “It is a lot of money, which means they believe in us, as well, and they believe in the health and safety of our players.” 

As a local paramedic, Maguire knows the long-term dangers of head injuries better than the average fan. She also knows that the players on the field are going to be physical and the Riddell SpeedFlex gives “all of us as parents security knowing that they’re going to be well-protected.” 

The Kennebunk Youth Football Program will wear a “TMCF” sticker on every helmet this season. It’s the least they can, said Connor, for the largest contribution to the league in his 15 years. 

While many youth football leagues around the country are experiencing dwindling numbers, Kennebunk’s program has continued to grow. Last season, 116 youth played in the league. This year: 120. 

“It’s about building young men into men and part of that is safety,” said first-year league President Nathan Peabody. “Without safety, they wouldn’t be here playing. They’d be on the sidelines watching … The (new helmets) are going to be wonderful, not just for the kids here now but in the future.” 

At this year’s Tommy McNamara Wiffle Ball Tournament, held July 27, Connor and a few of the youth in the league were invited to share a few words with the crowd. They thanked the TMCF for its generosity, presented Tom McNamara with some Kennebunk football T-shirts and a helmet signed by members of the league and shook his hand.   

“It was a really special moment,” Tom McNamara said. “It really brings us home in terms of the reasons why we did this and seeing the funds that we raised really impact kids’ lives.” 

Comments are not available on this story.