As the Chicago Bears roll into Bourbonnais this Friday, less than 20 minutes east in Momence, Illinois, a youth football program struggles to field a team.
While nearly 53 percent of American mothers have turned their backs against football and the NFL, Nicole Ford, of Momence, chooses to forge on. Her husband, Matthew, a former semi-pro football player for the now-defunct Kankakee Seminoles, has always helped coach football for the Jr. Redskins.
“The differences erase and you see kids that might not normally talk outside of football becoming brothers. One of my favorite pictures we took was of our JV team holding hands as they got ready to walk out for the coin toss.”
Nicole Ford is the Communications Coordinator of the Momence Junior Redskins Association (MJRA) and Matthew Ford, president. As Team Ford and the MJRA begin their third year together in the program, they find the challenges of the modern football parent facing them on a daily basis.
“I think spreading awareness is key,” Nicole Ford said about the program. MJRA easily fields three teams each year in the Central Illinois Football League [that] represents Momence, ranging from third to eighth grade. Yet, one is at risk of not making it this year. “We have 11 players (Juniors level) and you need 11 players on the field at all times. We’re desperately in need of more fifth and sixth graders this year.”
Sometimes it’s that awareness that can come in the most unwelcoming of spotlights, especially when it’s a national event, like the Super Bowl. Last year during an NFL news day, prior to his Super Bowl halftime performance, Justin Timberlake was asked if he would let his son play the game; “Uh, he will never play football. No, no.”
“I was once that parent too!” Nicole Ford said, “But youth football [is] significantly different than what most parents are lead to fear. It’s not the football you see on TV.” Programs like USA Football work to inform parents about “Heads Up Football” which promotes the safe way to tackle. More than 7,000 youth football leagues across the country are enrolling in a program that’s mission is to advance player safety through education and nationally endorsed standards.
“All players spend their first week of practice, ten hours, without pads so they can focus on the proper way to do things before they’re ever allowed to make player on player contact,” said Nicole Ford. According to the NFL Foundation, 16 of the nation’s top 20 largest school districts enrolled in Heads Up Football in 2018.
“They’re not just our rules. These are the rules followed by our entire league. We also have age and weight restrictions to help ensure a safe gameplay. For instance, our 180-pound defensive player is going to stay put on the defensive line instead of running full speed ahead at your 80-pound wide receiver.”
Yet, for all the groundwork programs like Heads Up Football have made, there are groups out like the coalition of former football stars, medical experts and #CTE advocates behind The Dave Duerson Act.
Named after former Chicago Bears player, four-time Pro-Bowl and two time Super Bowl Champion, Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in 2011. Duerson was later diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Sponsored by Rep. Carol Sente, the bill was unveiled this past January to prevent children under the age of 12 from playing organized tackle football in the State of Illinois. The bill failed to get sufficient backing to pass the legislature.
“It’s not just about football.” Nicole Ford explains, “Cheerleading is always high in participation numbers. If we lose football, we lose our cheerleading program. Sports have taken major funding hits at our school. Now more than ever we need a passionate and dedicated community to keep them alive.”
Momence recently went as far as opening up their local community youth football program to the surrounding area. “We fundraise every year. Last year it was brand new helmets [and] this year brand new shoulder pads to make sure we provide our kids with the best safety gear.” Nicole Ford said, “At the end of the day, are there risks in playing football? Yes. But can I honestly look at a parent in the face and tell them, it is no more or less dangerous than the other sports their kid plays? Yes. I will always respect a parent’s decision to do what they feel is in the best interest of their son or daughter (yes, we have girls that play on our football teams!) But you can read a million articles and they won’t compare to coming down and experiencing first hand our youth football program.”
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