Way back when, at a time when organized football for school kids was something of a rarity, LIFE's Alfred Eisenstaedt made some portraits of tough little guys playing in Colorado's Young America League in 1939. (See more Young America League photos here.)

The kids love the initiation into the League [LIFE told its readers.] A candidate swears to be a good student and not bully the girls. Then he must say: "I promise to remember that what matters most is courage; that it is no disgrace to be beaten; but that the great disgrace is to turn yellow."

Courage, while a slippery concept at the best of times, is a good thing. Not bullying girls — or other boys, for that matter — is a good thing. Being a good student is, generally speaking, a good thing. Sounds like the Young America League was on to something. Know anyone who played in the YAL? I'd like to hear about it. Leave a comment below, or send me a note.

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com. Picture This is his weekly (and occasionally more frequent) feature for The Stacks.

Photo Credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images