Comeback Story

Appears in the November 2022 issue.

After years of declining participation, youth football in Naperville is making forward progress, with a refocus on safety

Despite the popularity of the NFL, college football Saturdays, and the nostalgic pull of those high school Friday night lights, the future of football had been looking a little cloudy in recent years. 

With serious safety concerns, pandemic pauses, and competing activities all taking significant tolls, many youth leagues—the foundational programs from where those eventual Friday, Saturday, and Sunday superstars develop their skills and their passion for the game—have downsized or even folded. Bucking that trend, the Naperville Saints youth football organization has just wrapped up what some consider a renaissance-like season. “I characterize Naperville youth football as a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Saints board member and player parent Mike Lemons, who cites a 60 percent growth rate in enrollment from 2021 to 2022 and more than 400 registered players across 19 teams from second through eighth grades this past season. “The league we belong to has grown by 50 teams year-over-year.” 

While Lemons doesn’t dismiss the safety concerns that helped contribute to the downward trend in youth football over the past several years, he and other advocates for the sport believe the recent surge in participation is a reflection of how the game has refocused on player safety, stressing the importance of thorough preparation and proper technique to help kids learn how to play the right way to avoid injury. In addition to technique changes, heightened concussion awareness and protocols, and the evolution of player equipment are other steps toward making the sport safer. 

Lemons also thinks more parents and kids are understanding just how much the game of football has to offer—both on and off the field. “We look at the game as much more than just Xs and Os,” Lemons says. “While many kids in the program have gone on to have success in their post-Saints football career, we want to make sure every player comes away with the broader life lessons that football offers, including fair play, team building, goal setting, plan execution, and the enduring friendships the game can foster.”

The Saints were founded in 1963 as the football team for St. Raphael Catholic School, anchoring what would grow over time into a powerhouse St. Raphael youth program that numbered almost 2,800 kids at its apex. By around 2017, however, as many school districts were dropping tackle football programs amid growing safety concerns, years of declining participation led to the dissolution of the St. Raphael organization. Out of that collapse, the Naperville Saints were reconstituted in 2019 as part of the Bill George Youth Football League, allowing Naperville football to expand beyond the St. Raphael community while joining a league that shares a similar historic legacy. Many football success stories that have come out of Naperville—including NFL standouts like Owen Daniels and Cameron Brate—came up through the St. Raphael program, and Saints organizers believe a notable rally for the program is now underway.

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Photos courtesy of Naperville Saints