New youth football team extends helping hand to players
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There is a new Bears team in the Chicago area.
In the midst of their first nine-week season, these players work hard for every yard or block and cheer after every sack or touchdown.
While some on this 50-player roster may be youth football veterans, what makes this Bears team unique is some have never before played — or even watched — the game.
Wil Juarez and John Barrington started the Ela Junior Bears, a Lake Zurich-area team that is giving children ages 5 to 13 the chance to play the game, regardless their family's ability to pay.
"We saw that no one has gone out and recruited them," said Barrington, the team president. "They have been overlooked all these years, and they assume there is nowhere for them to go."
Earlier this year, the Lake Zurich Flames, a longtime area youth football team, chose to leave The Chicagoland Youth Football League, which incorporates 37 towns, and joined the Northwest League.
Juarez, a longtime coach and member of the Flames board, said parents of former Flames players approached him because they wanted their children to stay on a team within the TCYFL.
Juarez reached out to league president Geoff Meyer, who said the league would support a new team.
"I was so excited when they unanimously voted us in and they pledged their support. I felt like crying. They don't just say one team, one family. They mean it. We are welcomed in whatever town we're playing," Juarez said.
The Ela Junior Bears were accepted into the league in June. Some former Flames were able to join the new Bears, but some chose to rejoin the Flames or other teams in neighboring towns that were also part of the TCYFL. Barrington said the Bears needed to find more players.
Juarez reached out to Barrington, who also serves as Ela Township assessor, to recruit players. Barrington said he discovered many youth within Lake Zurich who wanted to play, but due to costs, including the $425 registration fee to play with the Flames, joining was out of reach.
Barrington said organizers created a bare-bones budget and reduced the membership fee to $325. Families offered to sponsor children whose parents could not afford to pay and they looked to nonprofit organizations that offered grants and scholarships.
The team also needed to provide players with equipment such as cleats, mouth guards, athletic cups and girdles. Some of that need was met by donations from Dick's sporting goods. Juarez said many teams also donated equipment, including helmets, shoulder pads and tackling dummies.
"Our program is living the life that these kids live and making it day to day, week to week, and doing what we have to do to make ends meet," Barrington said.
Juarez said he has counted himself as one of those families who struggled to pay fees to play sports. He did not want other kids to struggle.
"I said I don't care what we have to do — get sponsorships, borrow equipment instead of buy. We have to be able to cover all the kids who want to play. We will do whatever we have to do," he said. "I understand parents are proud and may not want to ask. But we tell them if their kids want to play, they will play."
Barrington said parents are stepping up to help. They are offering financial support, providing transportation to games and taking the challenge to coach.
While practices run smoothly now, the season didn't start that way for the coaches. Paul Metcalf, who coaches the Bantams ages 5 to 8, said many players were never in organized sports and didn't understand why a stranger is telling them what to do. Few players showed up at initial practices. Those who did, spent time doing cartwheels instead of stretching.
"We want them to learn the game of football, but we want them to learn it safely," he said.
Metcalf said the kids now want to try all the positions. They are taking practices seriously and want to learn the game.
"By the end of the first week, you could see the pride on their faces that they are stretching as a group," he said. "And when a player finds his spot, his effort picks up and he plays harder."
Thirteen-year-old Shamier Austin is one of those players who is on the field for the first time. He likes the defensive side, taking the left tackle position, and has learned there's more than just running with the ball.
"When I first joined the team, I thought football was mostly running around the field with the football. There is a lot of blocking and keeping your quarterback safe from getting sacked," he said.
Among new players is a young lady who is showing her speed on the defensive and offensive sides.
Harmony Santoyo Perez, 9, said she loves tackling the boys and showing them what a tough girl she is. She made quite an impression her first game, scoring two touchdowns, including an 80-yard run.
"My friends were standing at the end zone and they were clapping for me," she said.
While many kids know each other from school, the players are also creating a special bond.
Moving to Lake Zurich from Ohio last April, Sabrina Eberhardt signed up her son, Koltin, 12. While Koltin is not new to football, playing four years in Ohio, Sabrina said joining the Ela Junior Bears means Koltin can fit in more easily as everyone gets to know each other.
"It's a new team, a new group of kids starting to learn something from each other," she said.
Juarez does not see victory based on the game's final score. Players are getting their first interception, touchdown or making a crucial block. Their confidence is building.
"I don't care about winning or losing. I care that these kids get confident," he said. "Whether they succeed on one play on the field or off the field, I think I did my job," he said.
Moving forward, Barrington said the priority will be to give these boys and girls a positive environment and let them be kids.
"It takes something as small as someone stepping into your life and saying we can help, to show a little care and a little compassion to hopefully change the direction of their life and be a positive role model," Barrington said.
For information about the Ela Junior Bears, including their remaining schedule and how to help, visit the website at www.elajrbears.com or visit the Facebook page, www.facebook.com/ElaJrBears.
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