Flag football to replace tackle at Naperville junior highs
Junior high ball carriers will be down with the tug of a flag -- not the thud of a tackle -- this fall in Naperville Unit District 203, as the district switches to noncontact football for seventh- and eighth-grade athletes.
District 203 joins neighboring Indian Prairie Unit District 204 in eliminating junior-high tackle football, citing decreasing participation and concerns about injuries, including concussions.
Between the past two seasons, participation dropped by 45 students, from 258 players on seventh- and eighth-grade teams at five junior highs in 2016, to 213 players on the same number of teams last fall.
Brian Valek, principal of Kennedy Junior High in Lisle, said the decrease followed a few years of earlier declines in football participation as cross-country participation increased.
"We thought this would be the time to make a change to hopefully see an increase in (flag football) participation next fall," Valek said.
While districts 203 and 204 are ending tackling for 12- to 14-year-olds, a state bill that could have prohibited tackle football for children younger than 12 does not have the votes to pass, sponsoring state Rep. Carol Sente, a Vernon Hills Democrat, has said.
Still, Valek said District 203 wanted to change its football program at the junior high level to take advantage of high interest in intramural flag football and offer sports students want to join.
"Our main goal in all of making this change is to get more kids involved in school activities," he said.
Principals and athletic directors plan to spend the next few weeks ironing out rules for the flag league, in which District 203's five junior highs -- Jefferson, Kennedy, Lincoln, Madison and Washington -- will play each other. Leaders then will meet with students before the year ends to tell them how flag football will work.
Meanwhile, private leagues in Naperville, including Naperville Chargers Youth Football, Patriots Youth Football and St. Raphael Football, say they will continue to offer tackle teams for junior high players.
St. Raphael Football President Paul O'Toole said he's been busy fielding calls from parents since District 203 announced its decision. He's telling them the program is focused on "safety, fun and development" and it's looking for qualified coaches to take on new seventh- and eighth-grade teams.
St. Raphael also is introducing a 7-on-7 non-tackle league this fall at the middle school level and has eliminated tackle for its youngest players in first and second grades, O'Toole said.
Junior high principals in District 203 met with football coaches and athletic directors at Naperville Central and North high schools before announcing their decision. Valek said the coaches understand there is a trend away from junior highs offering tackle programs.
"We want to work together," he said, "to hopefully reinvigorate some interest into playing the sport of football."