Elgin has a Bears football team with a shot at a championship this year
One local Bears football team has a shot at a championship this season, and as you might expect, it's probably not the pro team in Chicago.
The Elgin Bears 11U-orange team will travel to Florida early next month for the United Youth Football League national championship. The players are 11 years old or younger.
"I'm excited for them," said coach Shaun Hopkins. "It's like a dream come true for these kids."
And it's a second dream come true for many of them. Eight of the 17 kids on the team won a national championship under Hopkins in the 8U division three years ago.
"This group is really special," he said. "We are the smallest team in the league, but our heart is bigger than any other team."
The Bears will head to Plant City, Florida, for a planned 16-team playoff featuring teams from around the country starting Dec. 4. If all 16 teams who qualified can attend, the Bears will have to win four games in seven days to take home the championship.
Two teams from Illinois qualified for the national finals. The Bears finished the season with a loss to Bolingbrook during the Northern Illinois United Football League state finals. The players hope to exact some revenge in Florida.
"It was a great experience," Hopkins said of the finals.
Most of the kids on the team are from Elgin. A couple of the players are from Streamwood.
"We've got kids from a variety of situations, all races, all walks of life," Hopkins said. "Some of them have never flown before. Some of them have never been outside of Elgin."
The Bears have been fundraising throughout the season with this goal in mind.
"From the start in the preseason, I told these guys that if they listened and did the right things, we'd be going to Florida," Hopkins said.
While they have some sponsors and a GoFundMe page set up, Hopkins wants the kids to help earn the $15,000 it will take to get them to Florida.
"We're going door to door and will rake leaves, shovel snow, clean up yards," he said. "Whatever we have to do, we want to show these boys how to earn it."
Anyone interested in hiring the Bears for odd jobs and supporting their trip can reach them through their Facebook page, he said.
Hopkins, who is on the board of the Elgin Bears, said that ethos is part of what the club is about. The Bears program, which has played at Drake Field for over 40 years, has about 175 kids on their eight teams. They're hoping to double that number.
Unlike other larger clubs, he said they don't turn any player away.
"Our coaches are geared to teaching our youths the basics of football, and winning is secondary," he said. "We want to make sure those kids -- by the time they leave us -- are ready for high school football. If that's not the case, they're disciplined in their everyday lives to be good students and good mentors in the community."
As for this team, Hopkins says the players are ready.
"We're tiny, but the kids dream big," Hopkins said. "It's an honor for me to be able to teach these boys life lessons and show them that no goal is too far out of reach."