Head First

August 2018 View more

Students at Naperville middle schools will still be playing football this fall, but you won’t see the players wearing pads or hard helmets.

Facing declining participation rates, Naperville Community Unit School District 203 has decided to switch from tackle to flag football in response to a growing trend as more parents express concerns about the danger of concussions. Neighboring Indian Prairie School District 204 also made the switch to flag.

“For several years, we had been noticing a decline in participation across our schools,” Kennedy principal Brian Valek says. “We were finding ourselves in situations where, because of injuries or low numbers, we had to play 8-on-8. We are hoping that by switching to flag, we’ll see increased participation.”

Instead of 11-on-11, D203 middle schools will play 9-on-9. Players will wear mouth guards and soft helmets designed for flag football or rugby.

“We’ve had a mostly positive response from our parents,” Valek says. “Talking to the athletic directors and head coaches at Naperville Central and Naperville North high schools, they think this is an opportunity to reignite interest in the sport.”

Not everyone agrees with the switch. Steve McDonald, whose son Riley played tackle football at Lincoln Junior High and is now on the sophomore team at Naperville Central, is opposed.

“I think it is going to be more dangerous when they haven’t been taught how to tackle or haven’t learned how to take a hit,” McDonald says. “These kids are getting bigger and stronger at that age. My son grew six inches in just eight months.”

The rationale for delaying the start of tackling is to decrease the number of hits children absorb, because the cumulative effect of collisions eventually takes a toll. The question remains: At what age is it appropriate to begin hitting? Some youth football organizations start tackle football as early as age 7.

“I think junior high is a good time to get them used to tackle,” says McDonald, whose son began playing tackle in fourth grade. “I understand both sides of it. My other son got a concussion and he was a punter for one year. It’s a fine line. I want my kids to be able to participate in sports.”

Parents who want to start their kids in tackle earlier can still do so. Several private organizations like the Naperville Patriots offer tackle football to grade school players. But flag football will allow kids of all sizes to be exposed to the sport.

“We’re focused on getting our kids involved in activities in the middle schools,” Valek says. “We think that we will be able to offer our student athletes a pretty good experience.”