MONMOUTH – Norm Thombs has already met the challenge of leading a community of football players from fifth grade to senior year and molding it into a state champion.

After walking away for three autumns, enjoying the freedom but missing the competition, Thombs has agreed to tackle such a project again. Only this time, he’s pretty much starting with only a clipboard and a can of chalk dust to mark the yard lines.

Thombs, who coached Winthrop High School to a pair of a Western Class C championships and the 2000 state title, has agreed to lead the upstart gridiron program at neighboring Monmouth Academy.

“I think I’m excited about it,” Thombs said with customary dry wit. “What I think I’m looking forward to the most is teaching the game of football again at a very basic level.”

Decreasing enrollment, punctuated by the opening of Oak Hill High School, led Monmouth to drop its gridiron program in 1977. Soccer and cross country became the Mustangs’ fall sports of choice as the school bounced back and forth between the Class C and D levels.

Monmouth’s population has spiked in the last decade, bringing its enrollment close to the level of Boothbay, Jay, Winthrop and other top Class C football schools. With an influx of families and fathers who played varsity football in other towns, it was a natural progression when a parent-led youth program picked up the pigskin in 2002.

“The Red Cross should hire those guys for fund-raising,” Thombs said. “They’re real go-getters. They’re the ones who have pretty much made this happen.”

More than 100 middle and high school students already are signed up for the start of football season next week, two-thirds of them between grades five and eight.

Thombs will welcome 36 players to his first high school session at Monmouth Fairgrounds.

“And that’s with only four juniors and seniors,” he noted. “Our biggest challenge will be finding places to practice and play. (The fairgrounds) needs some work. It has the potential to be a nice field.”

In the 1970s and ’80s, Maine was on the leading edge of a nationwide pattern that saw smaller communities swap football for soccer, a game that required fewer bodies and seemed easier on the purse strings.

Now, one of the nation’s smallest states is bucking that trend. While most of the affluent Class A and B schools in the state’s southern corridor have added football in the last decade, tiny towns are hitting the five-man sled, too.

Buckfield, Freeport, Telstar and Camden Hills are in the process of either starting or reviving their football programs. Monmouth will meet most of them in its 2006 junior varsity schedule while also picking up JV games against established Class C opponents.

“It’s part of the whole learning process. Most of the kids think that football only starts on Aug. 17 or whenever. We’re trying to show them that you only have four years to do this and that it takes a lot of work all year long,” Thombs said. “That doesn’t mean you don’t play other sports, but it means you have to stay in (football) shape.”

After starting at Winthrop as junior high coach, Thombs led the Ramblers to the playoffs in each of his five varsity seasons. He followed a supremely talented class into high school, including quarterback Lee St. Hilaire, who became the first non-Class A performer to win the Fitzpatrick Trophy as Maine’s top senior football player.

Clyde Moody, Walter Polky, Ian Mortimer and Matt Whitehouse were among the other all-state performers as Winthrop blanked Maine Central Institute, 16-0, for the 2000 Gold Ball.

With his family living in Monmouth and his oldest child now attending elementary school there, Thombs, director of the United Methodist Church camp in Winthrop, seems a perfect fit.

“It was supposed to be me helping Kirby Reardon, and now Kirby can’t do it full-time, so guess who’s doing it?” Thombs said. “I am looking forward to teaching football again. I’ve told the kids that they seem like very, very good athletes, and now my job is to make them great football players. There is a difference.”

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