Charity strengthens Naperville-area football rivalries

There's a feeling in the air, and maybe a bit of a chill, too.

There's a marching band on the field, the national anthem giving way to two teams ready to duke it out.

Maybe it's Wheaton Warrenville South vs. Wheaton North, or Glenbard East against Glenbard West, or Willowbrook playing Addison Trail.

It's a rivalry game, and it's one of the highlights of the high school football season for players, families and fans.

But during at least two rivalry games, there's another reason for high energy, too - another current of purpose to the games pitting Neuqua Valley against Waubonsie Valley and Naperville Central against Naperville North.

It's something Naperville values as much as sports - if not more. Charity is an element of these crosstown games as teams raise money for two community causes.

Veterans and children with disabilities benefit from funds raised through T-shirt sales and sponsorships around these two gridiron classics - Waubonsie hosting Neuqua at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Naperville Central hosting Naperville North on Oct. 7.

Here's how these teams incorporate philanthropy to strengthen the impact of their fight for bragging rights ...

Naperville Central, North

The evening before the Naperville Central Redhawks football team takes the field against its rival Naperville North next month, players will spend some time with a family affected by disabilities.

The family, served by Easter Seals, will meet with Coach Mike Stine's players and talk about their lives.

It'll be a learning experience before the culmination of a fundraising experience to benefit the charity that has been with families and individuals with special needs for nearly 100 years. It's called Blackout for Easter Seals, and the campaign to coincide with the crosstown game in Naperville Unit District 203 has been going on since 2010.

Abby, left, and Nora Granato, both of Naperville, attend the Blackout for Easter Seals football game at Naperville Central High School against Naperville North High School last fall. The sisters both receive therapy and support from Easter Seals, which has received about $50,000 from the annual fundraiser since it began in 2010. Courtesy of Easter Seals DuPage & Fox Valley

"It's a great message - having our kids work together through competition and athletics and working together to benefit each other's causes," said Bob Quinn, athletic director at Naperville North, which lets its rival take the lead in the Easter Seals fundraiser. "It creates more of a community event as opposed to a community rivalry."

Before 2010, when a former player suggested the cause, Stine said he wasn't really aware of Easter Seals and the therapeutic, medical and employment assistance it provides to help people with disabilities lead fuller lives. As he learned, so have his players.

"The boys can really understand and just really feel a connection with what Easter Seals does and how it touches other people's lives," said Cindy Meier, whose two sons both have played football for Naperville Central, which spearheads the football fundraiser.

With the help of booster club parents such as Meier, who seek sponsorships, and classmates who sell matching T-shirts at both schools, the players have raised nearly $50,000 in six years.

"This generosity helps raise awareness and funds for local children with developmental disabilities," said Theresa Forthofer, president and CEO of Easter Seals DuPage and Fox Valley.

"We are so appreciative of the Naperville community for dedicating this big event to highlight children's needs."

And a big event it is. Naperville native Patti Gustafson remembers the crosstown football game from her time as a basketball player for Naperville Central.

"It's charged," she said. "It's got that energy of a big game, the big-game feel."

The rivalry strengthened when she married a Naperville North graduate and their children also attended the north side school. And it dove a layer deeper when the crosstown basketball game, for which North takes the fundraising lead, chose two years ago to donate to the foundation formed in honor of her son Michael, who died in January 2013 of a brain tumor.

The basketball fundraiser for the Swifty Foundation takes on much the same feel as the football version. Matching T-shirts donned by fans of two schools instead of one. Unity instead of division. All for a common cause.

"We know the rivalry from 30 years back and how usually it's an 'us against them' type of a feeling. Instead, when we come to the Crosstown Classic now, instead of having this sense of rivalry, it's a beautiful feeling," Gustafson said. "Even though we can be rivals, we can work for the greater good."

Waubonsie, Neuqua

Administrators from Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley high schools plan to present a check to representatives of the Semper Fi Fund on Friday as the two schools play each other in football after a fundraising campaign to benefit veterans. Courtesy of Neuqua Valley High School

Last year, Indian Prairie Unit District 204's oldest high school played its biggest football game Sept. 11.

Not wanting the 14th anniversary of the terrorist attacks to go unnoticed, administrators at Waubonsie Valley and Neuqua Valley high schools brainstormed ways they could lead their students to do good in memory of something so bad.

They came up with Valley Strong, an effort to raise money for the Semper Fi Fund, which helps injured or critically ill veterans of all branches of the military who have served after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Both schools sold spirit socks with the same design - although in different colors - and the result was a $2,500 donation to the California nonprofit, which provides immediate and lifetime support to its clients.

"It was a matter of us feeling great about the work they do for veterans," said Jason Schmidtgall, assistant principal at Waubonsie Valley.

The veteran fundraising effort was a departure from the previous theme, when the rivalry game was in October. In those years, the game was a "pink-out" for cancer organizations such as Susan G. Komen, Schmidtgall said. Money from bright pink T-shirts that "sold like hotcakes" would typically amount to between $2,000 and $2,500.

Last year's campaign grew to include both schools, as does this year's, which leads up to today's game at 7:30 p.m. at Waubonsie.

"We've got these two schools that are really strong rivals, but we're both great schools in the same district," said David Perry, assistant principal of the Kathryn J. Birkett freshman center at Neuqua Valley. "This was a way for us to show some unity."

Marching band members, veterans and first responders stand at attention before a Sept. 11, 2015, football game between Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley high schools, when both teams raised money for the Semper Fi Fund. This year's rivalry game Friday at Waubonsie will also be a fundraiser for the veterans charity. Courtesy of Neuqua Valley High School

T-shirts with the same design have been selling for $10 at both schools - Waubonsie's in red and white, and Neuqua's in blue and white, sure to create a patriotic vista as Valley Strong fans fill the stands. Booster clubs in charge of sales have agreed to contribute all proceeds to Semper Fi.

The game will have a winner and a loser, but the fundraising challenge won't. Administrators say they'll only announce the total generated by both schools, with no mention of which team brought in more.

"Our rivalry is very strong, but we don't want it to be contentious," Schmidtgall said. "This helps create a common ground."

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