CRYSTAL LAKE – They huddled up in a classroom on the top floor of the Crystal Lake Central High School building. It was a July evening, on the eve of football season, and Eric Ernd brought about 15 youth football coaches here for their summer retreat. A boot camp, as he called it.
Ernd, the director of football operations for the Crystal Lake Raiders, a charter member of The Chicagoland Youth Football League, puts on the gathering each year to rehash league rules and revisit X's and O's. They all return every season, pulled back as volunteers, as former players and as fathers in search of that cherished bond with sons.
Football is a unifier.
“You’re our future for keeping this sport going,” Ernd began, as he thanked them for coming.
This time, a whiff of concern floats in the air. The predicament is obvious. Each year, in McHenry County and across the Chicago suburbs, fewer parents sign their children up to play tackle football.
The Raiders, like most programs from the TCYFL, the Illini Youth Football League and Pop Warner, are experiencing a sharp decline in participation. In 2010, 470 kids put on a Raiders helmet. By this season, more than one-third of them are gone.
Youth football is also at a crossroads.
“We’re not only fighting concussions,” Ernd told the coaches, “We’re fighting lacrosse. We’re fighting kids playing one sport.”
League officials cite a mixture of reasons for declining participation. Some bring up the rise in sports specialization, a trend over the past decade-plus where kids play only one sport over the calendar year rather than a different one depending on the season. Some bring up the rise in new options like lacrosse. For example, the Crystal Lake Hawks, a lacrosse club formed in 2013, shot up to 120 players by its second season.
School enrollment is also down in most McHenry County school districts. Take District 155, spanning Crystal Lake and Cary, which has seen K-12 enrollment fall by 6 percent since the 2009-10 academic year.
But all acknowledge the heightened safety concerns surrounding football, as evidence continues to link concussions and blows to the head from the sport with brain damage.
Pop Warner Medical Advisory Board chairman Dr. Julian Bailes, co-director of the NorthShore Neurological Institute in Evanston, believes this stands as the primary cause for the decline in participation among children between ages 5 and 14, the group that encompasses most youth football leagues.
No matter the reason, there’s little denying fewer kids are putting on pads.
Among the 15 area youth programs from the IYFL, Pop Warner and the TCYFL that provided participation figures to the Northwest Herald, participation has fallen by 11 percent since 2011.
The Prairie Ridge Jr. Wolves of the TCYFL represent one instance where numbers have dropped especially rapidly. In 2012, they had 312 kids signed up. Two years later, they are down to 198, a 37 percent drop. President Steve Drain wonders if they’ll eventually have to fold into the Raiders program.
The numbers mirror a national trend.
According to the National Sporting Goods Association, participation in tackle football at all levels dropped by 17 percent from 2011 to 2013, marking the lowest numbers in more than a decade.
Pop Warner, the largest youth league in the U.S., watched its numbers fall by 10 percent from 2010 to 2013.
USA Football reported that youth and high school participation across the country fell from 3.2 million in 2007 to 2.6 million.
In almost every corner of America, football participation is falling.
“It scares me to think they’re not going to play,” Drain said. “Because then don’t let him ride a bike, don’t let him ride in a car. Put him in bubble wrap. Let kids be kids.”
Kids have been playing tackle football for almost a century. Pop Warner was founded in Philadelphia in 1929, named after the hall of fame college football coach, Glenn Scobey “Pop” Warner.
But the sport especially took off in the northwest Chicago suburbs during the early 1980s with the birth of teams such as the Crystal Lake Raiders and the Cary Junior Trojans. By 1999, they banded to form The Chicagoland Youth Football League, which claims the title of the largest independent league in the country and boasts teams in 38 communities as far as southern Wisconsin.
The Raiders have produced future NFL players such as center John Bock (Crystal Lake Central grad), who spent seven seasons playing for the Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders in the 1990s, and Bryan Bulaga (Marian Central grad), a right tackle for the Green Bay Packers.
Houston Texans tight end said C.J. Fiedorowicz, a Johnsburg grad, also played two years before quitting in the fifth grade.
Youth football has long stood a part of the culture in the area, a way for kids to take up the popular sport at an early age.
“It’s not Texas,” Woodstock Thunder President Shane Overly said, “but it’s big.”
“Football is king,” added Dave Golnick, the president of the Lake in the Hills-Algonquin Junior Eagles.
Youth leagues also serve as de facto farm systems for high school teams, feeding the biggest and best to the partner high school programs. In almost all instances, the boundary lines for youth teams follow those of the counterpart public schools.
Even to play for a youth team out of area, a player must have a waiver approved by the league. They share the same fields and public parks, nicknames, colors, logos and cheers. Part of the playbooks – at least the basics – trickle down. They carry the same philosophy. The hope remains that players eventually will make an impact on Friday nights.
“Our goal,” said Drain, the Prairie Ridge president, “is a high school state championship.”
When Bill Mitz took over as coach at Jacobs in 2010, he oversaw Algonquin’s TCYFL team name change. Previously known as the Falcons, they now go by the Junior Eagles to reflect a tighter partnership with the high school. He remembers meeting with the players soon after the switch.
“I want every kid here to dream of being an Eagle,” the coach told them.
In Mitz’s mind, the primary goal for youth programs is to ensure that players have a positive experience, and keep them playing the sport.
“The biggest thing is getting them to love football, learn how to tackle and have fun,” he said.
Developing skills, and prepping for the possibility of playing varsity, however, is especially paramount. At Cary-Grove, regarded as a favorite to reach the Class 6A state title game this fall, players learn the basics not long after they’re out of preschool.
“We mirrored the same concepts,” said senior lineman Michael Gomez, who began playing for the Junior Trojans at age 5.
Gomez remembers learning how to “dive block,” a technique valued by Cary-Grove for its triple-option offense. He remembers learning a 3-inch first step, a 6-inch second step as a way to block for a team that leans on its running game.
“So when I came up here, it was review for a lot of us,” he said.
A majority of the C-G players went through various youth programs.
Trevor Ruhland, who played for the Jr. Wolves, estimates 95 percent played youth football, where discipline and toughness were ingrained.
“It’s all mindset and mentality,” said Ruhland, a senior offensive lineman who is committed to Notre Dame. “I’m lined up opposite this guy, and I’m going to beat him. They drill that into you at an early age.”
Building a powerhouse high school program starts long before freshman year.
High schools aren’t alone in their desire for the “pee-wees” to keep playing football. The NFL has long strived to promote the game to its younger audience.
From 1998 to 2007, the NFL spent more than $100 million in promoting youth football, largely through the establishment of the NFL Youth Football Fund, according to an ESPN Outside the Lines report. And earlier this year, as part of its effort to grow the sport among the lower levels, the league announced a $45 million grant to USA Football, a nonprofit national governing body of amateur football.
“We need to support it, because we believe in the game,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said during the March announcement. “We believe in the principles it teaches, the teamwork, the discipline, the hard work, the perseverance, all the things I learned in youth football that I believe helped me today. We want kids to have that opportunity.”
Mark Hyman is skeptical of that. An assistant professor of sports management at George Washington University and the author of three books about youth sports, Hyman contends that the NFL has a financial stake in whether kids keep playing football.
It’s not all about teamwork.
“Not to say they want to put children in harm's way, or they have some sinister motive, but they're complicated,” he said. “They want to promote fitness and health, but they also have a business agenda. The NFL, I think it's clear, believes kids playing tackle football helps them. Those kids are going to be more devoted fans of the NFL. They're going to be buying more jerseys, watching more games on TV. They're going to be consuming the NFL in a different way than kids who are not playing football.”
Before Eric Ernd’s boot camp commences on the July evening, he offers the coaches a number of reminders and explains the litany of new safety measures that have been implemented in recent years.
He reminds them to take their certification test, their backgrounds checks, the online concussion awareness program. The list continues.
He reminds them to take their sons in for a neurological baseline test, now mandatory for all teams in The Chicagoland Youth Football League.
He brings up the latest restrictions in tackling in practice, and the acclimatization period before they “go live.”
They hope this is enough. They hope they can weather their storm.