By FRED KRONER
Youth football in Mahomet is different from what it was five years.
The tackle variety is still available for youngsters in grades 3-8, practices still start in mid-July and the eventual championship games for the three levels are still played at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in October.
What has changed since 2014 is that Mahomet-Seymour Youth Football is an entity of its own, not under the leadership of outside influences.
“We wanted to be responsible for making our own decisions, hiring our own coaches, providing our own equipment and making sure it was the safest on the market,” MSYF President Nikki Gallier said.
MSYF remains affiliated with the Central Illinois Youth Football League, so the opponents remain the same as they have been for more than a decade: Champaign, Danville, Rantoul, St. Joseph and Urbana.
A local Board of Directors makes the decisions that affect Mahomet and Seymour participants.
Justin Lamb is one parent who initially had concerns about his children getting into tackle football.
“I had a lot of reservations,” Lamb said.
To help alleviate doubts, he was a spectator at early practices when his then third-grade son Brayden started in 2015.
“I was impressed with the program and the safety the coaches teach,” Justin Lamb said. “They are all about safety and that’s very reassuring to us. They teach the appropriate way to tackle.”
As his oldest son prepares to start sixth-grade, there were no qualms for Justin Lamb on Sunday when his now third-grade son Ashton received his uniform for his rookie season in football in the pee wee division.
“I’m very glad we let him (Brayden) do it,” Justin Lamb said. “It gave him more self-confidence and it gave him more toughness.”
When Justin Lamb grew up in Mansfield, youth football wasn’t an option.
“We had to wait until high school,” he said.
When he was a freshman at Blue Ridge, Justin Lamb chose golf as his fall sport, but could have seen himself playing football, “if I had gotten into it at a younger age,” he said.
That point was emphasized to Lamb and his wife, Alisa, by Justin’s brother-in-law Nathan Bell, who is on the football coaching staff at North Central College.
“He gave us some good things to think about,” Justin Lamb said. “He reminded us that they were all getting into it at the same pace (as third-graders) instead of later when others had been through the program.”
Cornbelt fire chief John Koller has served as a youth football coach for a decade. A former head coach, Koller is now an assistant with the varsity team (for seventh- and eighth-graders) because it‘s a better fit for his work schedule.
He has had three children go through the program and he looks at the experience as more than the game itself.
“Parents drop off kids with trust and expect the staffs to keep the kids safe and well-cared for,” Koller said. “You want to win and be successful, but that is not the top priority.
“Our motto is: ‘Champions on and off the field.’”
A former athlete, Koller remembers the impact some of his former coaches made in his life.
“I have coaches I still talk to this day,” he said, “and I give them credit for where I am at.”
While devoting time as a coach, Koller also hopes to be a role model.
Football is the reason the coaches and youngsters gather at 13 Acres Park for practices on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, but it’s not an all-consuming activity.
“We put a high emphasis on grades,” Koller said. “We’ve had parents say, ‘My son is not coming to practice until he gets his math grade up,’ and we’re happy about that.”
In the end, the youth football program may produce athletes who play at the high school level, but it is guaranteed of producing youngsters who will be students of a school and members of a community.
“We want them to be good citizens,” Koller said.
Coaching philosophies and tactics have changed since Koller was in uniform.
“When I played, we were taught to go in heads down and use the helmet (on a tackle),” Koller said. “We teach heads-up tackling; keep the head up to prevent injuries.
“And we teach how to get tackled.”
A coaching colleague is Andy Ziegler, a former football player at Champaign Central High School and Quincy College.
Ziegler is in his sixth year of coaching and fourth year as a head coach with MSYF. He works with the junior varsity team, for youngsters in fifth- and sixth-grades.
The football aspect is important, but it’s not where he derives all of his joy.
“The most rewarding thing is seeing the kids progress throughout the season,” Ziegler said. “We try and teach responsibility and respect. It’s not all football.
“We talk about other things to make them the best possible kids they can be off the field.”
In the first three years after MSYF split from the Central Illinois Youth Football League, more than 100 local youngsters representing the six grade levels participated.
Last year’s count was 94. This year, there were 82 at the cutoff date for signups, though Gallier said late registrations will be accepted through July 22 and the number is already increasing.
“We have to get the mission and the message out there,” Gallier said. “We’re trying to build young adults of character.”
One of the first priorities for the MSYF Board was to purchase all new Riddell helmets.
“We promote the fact that we’re super safe and have the most updated equipment,” Ziegler said.
“We refurbish them every two years,” Gallier added.
Nearly half of the $200 registration fee goes to cover insurance.
Koller understands that safety is foremost on the minds of many parents. That issue is not limited to football, he said.
“My oldest got his license in March,” Koller said. “I had concerns when he was driving out the driveway.
“When my son plays baseball, I have concerns about a line drive hitting him when he’s pitching.”
Risks are a part of many activities. The key is to minimize them.
In youth football, he said, “We’re creating the proper culture through the coaches and the leadership of our board,” Koller said.
Ziegler recalled the process involved to become a coach with MSYF.
“You are called for an interview and sit before the board,” Ziegler said. “They talk about your history, background, knowledge and coaching philosophies.
“We’re required to be USA football-certified, and they have a set of safety standards (to follow).”
Ziegler said coaches watch “hours and hours and hours” of video and learn about topics such as concussion protocol and dehydration “in addition to new stuff on blocking and defending blocks.”
Lamb said the images of hard-hitting tackles that occur at some collegiate and professional games doesn’t exist in the youth leagues.
“There are kids here and there who are ahead of the curve,” he said, “but it’s more like kids running into each other and falling down.
“I was worried about kids hitting hard, but that really didn’t happen.”
The youth league games are played on Sundays, starting in early August, and certified trainers are at every game. Most home games for Mahomet are at Zahnd Park, in Champaign, but one game per year is scheduled for the M-S high school football field. This year’s game in Mahomet will be played on Sept. !6.
All MSYF coaches are volunteers and are not compensated for their time.
More information is available at the Mahomet-Seymour Youth Football.com website.