Ex-NFL player launches new flag football league
Jim Schwantz's career centered on tackle football. He played in the NFL for nearly a decade, then worked as a Chicago Bears radio broadcaster.
Now Schwantz, who also is the mayor of Palatine, is launching a new flag football league for kids, feeding a growing demand for the less-intense version of the sport.
The new Northwest Flag Football League, for third-through sixth-graders -- like similar leagues around the suburbs -- will fill a void for younger kids who aren't ready for tackle football, while also appealing to parents concerned about concussions in tackle games, Schwantz said.
The idea is to encourage children to play football, regardless of whether it's flag or tackle, Schwantz said. The league will prepare boys for seventh-grade tackle football by teaching them fundamentals, including how to tackle and block properly, and improving their speed and athleticism.
"I'm a huge proponent of (tackle football). ... I owe everything I have to the sport," said Schwantz, who now coaches his eighth-grade son's tackle team. "But there are a bunch of kids that tackle is their only option, and they're not ready, so they give up football."
In some suburbs, including Palatine and Arlington Heights, flag football is not available for boys in grades three and up or who weigh more than 80 pounds. They either must play tackle, or drive to another suburb's flag program.
"Now, if (after second grade), you want to stick around and continue to play football, you can play flag football," Schwantz said. "And if there's any hesitation or concern regarding concussions at a young age, this is for them."
Flag football leagues for this age group aren't unique -- there are thriving leagues in Batavia and Barrington, among other places -- but this new league signals a growing interest in flag football in the suburbs.
Yet, enrollment remains stable in youth tackle football programs, according to league leaders in Elgin and Schaumburg.
"Our flag numbers are up, and our tackle numbers have been steady, too. We've been up by a dozen (tackle) players every year for the past few years," said Tony D'Orazio, the Schaumburg Athletic Association's head football commissioner.
The economy and competing activities typically influence enrollment, but coaches say the growing interest in flag football is fueled, in part, by heightened awareness among parents about concussions in tackle football.
The issue has been in the spotlight recently and is the subject of much debate. In June, more than 2,000 former players filed a lawsuit against the NFL because of health problems from their on-field head injuries including concussions. A Sports Illustrated cover story last month detailed the dementia battle facing former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon because of head trauma he suffered during his football career.
There's also a new documentary film, "Head Games," that examines the "silent concussion crisis" in youth and pro sports. It's directed by "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James and based on a book by Arlington Heights native Chris Nowinski.
"The last generation of parents weren't concerned about this, because there was no youth football for 6-year-olds. They didn't play until they were 12 or in high school," Nowinski said.
The concussion debate wasn't a major motivator to Schwantz, who said children can be hurt in any sport. But he acknowledges that flag football has a lower injury risk than tackle.
"What you're taking away is an absolute collision on every play," he said.
Flag vs. tackle
Whether concussion fears are a factor or not, flag football is thriving in the suburbs.
Flag, touch and tackle football leagues are expanding in Batavia, where more than 500 kids enrolled this fall, said Dennis Piron, a board member on the Batavia Park District's Batavia Youth Football league.
BYF's popularity stems from its low commitment (kids can still play another sport simultaneously), community focus, and less competitive style of play, especially for first- through fourth-graders. Piron likened it to "good old-fashioned, two-hand touch, like you'd play in your backyard with your buddies."
However, Piron says a small group of parents criticize touch and flag football, saying it's "soft" and "not real football."
Piron, who also is Batavia High School's head football coach, disagrees. He said most players on his undefeated varsity team played flag football until seventh grade. He's also seen former flag players become all-state athletes and get football scholarships.
BYF league President Mike Popela said he doesn't believe the pressure and physical toughness of tackle football is necessary at a young age. That's why BYF has refused to start tackle leagues for players younger than seventh grade.
"There are a lot of opportunities to go play tackle in the area. If you, as a parent, feel your child is ready to play tackle at a certain age, then go ahead and do it," Popela said. "(In flag), you are playing the game of football. The thing you remove from it is the tackling component ... and the over-coaching. More kids get a chance at playing. At the end of the season, kids say, 'Oh, I wish it wasn't over.' What's bad about that?"
Schwantz agrees, saying it's good for parents to have a choice. He plans to coach the teams in the new league, which will begin next fall, while the business end will be handled by Matt May, who also runs the Palatine-based Team MSL basketball program. Information is at nwffl.org.
"There are a lot of people who are missing out on football, and that's a shame," Schwantz said. "It's a great game and you can learn so much from it."