MATTOON — If a parent approaches Mattoon junior football league president Greg Capitosti at Wednesday and Thursday’s in-person registrations, he will happily discuss why he thinks the game is safe to play at the youth level and the lessons it can teach.
“It instills your ability to function as a unit,” Capitosti said. “It’s the one sport where an individual can’t dictate the outcome.”
That’s the only campaigning he will do, though.
“If we’d invest in something, I think there’s enough skepticism where people would think, ‘They’re just saying it because they want more kids to come out,’ rather than doing the homework to see if we’re right,” Capitosti said. “Our job is to get them to come out, give it a year and go from there.”
Added Charleston JFL board president Tony Coffey: ““We don’t really promote safety to people, but we practice safety.”
Mattoon's and Charleston’s JFLs remain visible and well-known in their respective communities, but they aren’t imploring anyone to play or changing their approach to marketing the game to boys and their parents as the risks of football, even at the youth level, remain a nationally discussed topic. Last year, Illinois attempted to pass a bill to ban tackle football before age 12, but it was thrown out after passing through the House’s mental health committee. Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre was among those who voiced his support of it.
“It’s ingrained now,” Capitosti said. “The ones that are against it are against it, and they aren’t changing their minds.”
“Once that’s what you want to believe, I’m not going to try to talk you out of that.”
Perception remains the concern for Capitosti, who pegs the increased concerns about the game’s safety as a notable reason for a drop in numbers compared to earlier in the decade. Mattoon JFL fields four tackle teams, one each for grades 5-8, and one or two of them used to hit the 33-player roster limit. Now, numbers hover in the low 20s, Capitosti said.
Last year’s 5th grade team had 14 players, the first one to dip into the teens, though Capitosti allows for the possibility that it may be a fluke because of a grade level’s lack of general interest for no specific reason or lower number of boys.
Charleston JFL numbers, meanwhile, have held fairly steady in the last six to seven years, Coffey said. The total for the four levels hovers between 90-120, with last year around 100. Registration is open for another month for this season. The levels in each grade can fluctuate, but not primarily because of safety concerns, per Coffey.
“It might be a small issue why kids don’t go out,” Coffey said. “I’ve heard a few parents say they don’t want their kids to play football. But as far as losing numbers due to the fact, I don’t think it’s a huge issue right now.”
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Mattoon’s online registration has been open for a few weeks, and Capitosti said 13 players have already signed up for the 5th grade team, along with 11 for 6th and 14 for 7th as of Monday. The goal is to double that at in-person signups. Even if numbers remain stagnant, there’s a level of immunity and a floor – there are always a few players and parents that have no concerns.
“There will always be a core group that wants to play,” Capitosti said.
The potential to increase the numbers depends on those who aren’t as convinced or have less of a pre-existing passion, though. Both leagues have increased their already present emphasis on proper tackling form and reducing the amount of contact in practice. Each league purchased tackle wheels, which are essentially monster truck tires made entirely of padding and designed to replace players in tackling drills. Charleston has six weighted tackling dummies.
“It gets the technique down without beating on someone else,” Coffey said.
Coffey said Charleston spends $6,000 to $10,000 per year on keeping the fields watered so they stay soft and provide a less severe collision if a player’s head hits the ground.
“Our field conditions are a big deal for safety,” Coffey said. “We keep water on it all the time and that goes a long way.”
Both presidents said coaches are instructed to teach players to tackle with their head up and lead with the shoulder instead of lowering the head and leading with the helmet. Charleston puts all players through seven days of non-contact conditioning before they are allowed to don pads for the first time.
Mattoon advertises at local baseball fields and on Facebook, and also sends fliers to elementary and middle schools to distribute to students. Charleston’s awareness efforts are similar and it also holds a camp each July for anyone who is considering signing up.
Mattoon does not run its own camp, but former Eastern Illinois defensive back Ray McElroy holds one each summer in Mattoon for grade school boys. Mattoon’s high school staff had scheduled a grade school camp for last summer, but it was rained out. The goal with any camp is to draw those who are undecided about signing up and sway them with the hands-on experience.
The most impactful promotion, Capitosti said, comes from parents of players who, without any prompting from the league, discuss their child’s positive experiences playing football and the league’s efforts to promote safety.
“I always view it that you need someone to promote it as safe who’s not directly tied to the board or the coaching staff,” Capitosti said. “To me, that’s something that’d be good for a group of parents to do: ‘My kid plays and it’s safe.’ That’s better than a board to put out there for no reason.”