Private programs ready to take on tackle footballers from District 204
The heavyweight football team at Hill Middle School in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 last year fielded 11 players.
With 11 positions on offense and 11 on defense, administrators say many players at Hill -- and at some of the district's six other middle schools -- had to play both sides of the ball for the entire game.
The math wasn't working out for years, as participation declined because of factors that include concern about concussions and other injuries, said Brad Hillman, assistant superintendent for middle schools in the district that serves portions of Naperville, Aurora, Plainfield and Bolingbrook.
So next year, there will be no weight classes and there will be no tackling. Instead of offering heavyweight and lightweight football for middle schoolers, the district will field one flag football team of seventh- and eighth-graders at each school. Teams will play each other twice to complete a 12-game season.
"We hope we will have greater numbers coming out to participate in flag football," Hillman said. "Hopefully the games are competitive and fun."
The switch comes as a bill that would ban tackle football among children younger than 12 is being debated in the state legislature.
While District 204 will no longer offer tackle football for middle schoolers, at least three private leagues -- two of them traveling programs -- still have tackle teams for students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
"We've been building our program around the potential of seventh and eighth grade not being available at the junior highs," said Paul O'Toole, president of St. Raphael Football, which this fall is offering tackle football and a new 7-on-7 nontackle league at the middle school level. "We're open to anyone who wants to play football."
Private football leaders say changing demographics, not just concussion worries, could be behind part of football's decline in the areas served by District 204. Enrollment is projected to decrease across the district, and families from diverse ethnic backgrounds might not be used to playing football, travel coaches say.
The tendency of more serious players to seek coaching and competition in a travel league also could be lowering school participation, said Ray Gronowski, president of Naperville Chargers Youth Football.
It's relatively rare across the suburbs for middle schools to offer football, Gronowski said, so District 204's decision to switch to a flag style of play could even the field among travel programs in the region.
"There are other communities' travel programs that have not had to compete with the middle school," he said. "Now we're more like a Bolingbrook or many of the other areas that actually just have travel football."
Last year, District 204 had a total of 257 middle-school students playing football, feeding into Metea Valley, Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley high schools.
"The thought is that if we could get more students involved in football, even though it is flag, that it would be better for the high schools than the continuing declining enrollment in football numbers," Hillman said. "If we can get more kids playing football and interested in football, that would be beneficial."
Girls will be able to join the flag football teams, too, and the district already has heard from some who are interested, Hillman said.
While leaders of the St. Raphael and Chargers leagues say their participation also has declined during the past 10 years, St. Raphael still has 700 players and the Chargers have 80. Patriots participation has remained steady, coach and board member DeWayne Tyler said, and sits at 180 players, all between the ages of 6 and 13.