Youth football enjoys booming registration for the fall 2022 season

By Larry Atseff

For over 50 years, tens of thousands of boys from the second grade through eighth grade have learned the proper ways to play tackle football, and thousands of girls have become enthusiastic cheerleaders for the Hinsdale Falcons Football & Cheer organization. This is all thanks to very qualified, dedicated, and passionate coaching from their dads (and, in some cases, moms). Players and coaches come from not only Hinsdale but Clarendon Hills, Burr Ridge, Westmont, Oak Brook, Willowbrook, and Darien. What follows is some history of Falcons Football and how learning the game is just one part of the experience as well as how the organization has overcome recent concerns about safety.

THE BEGINNINGS OF FALCONS FOOTBALL

They say necessity is the mother of invention. Hinsdale Central High School (HCHS) football coaches, athletic directors, and dads of sons were the fathers of invention for youth football in Hinsdale. Randy Pyle, son of Dick Pyle, is one of those fathers. Randy Pyle recalls the early days. “Falcons football was founded in the winter of 1969 to provide all those who lived in the HCHS district a place to play youth football. Harvey Dickinson, who Dickinson Field at HCHS was named after, was the Head Coach and Athletic Director at HCHS. He wanted to create a feeder program for his Red Devils, and thus Falcons Football was born. My father, Dick Pyle, Al Ward, Frank Berger, and future HCHS Head Coach Gene Strode and others worked to start the program. The Falcons played their first season in the fall of 1970 in the George Halas Division of the Fox Valley League. Back then, there were three teams of seventh and eighth graders. They played games on the field at Prospect Park, where the Clarendon Hills Middle School sits today, and practiced at Robbins Field in Hinsdale.”

According to Randy Pyle, “the Falcons uniforms back then were white pants with a brown and orange stripe down the side with white or brown jerseys with white helmets. Park Ridge already had rights to the red and white colors.” Randy recalls, “eventually the Fox Valley League dissolved, and the Falcons joined Pop Warner, again with seventh and eighth-grade players. In the ’90s, a couple of Falcons teams went to the Pop Warner Super Bowl in Florida, including a group of players who eventually made it to the semifinals.” In 2000, another player’s father, Tom Moen, and then HCHS Head Coach Ken Schreiner, had the foresight to leave Pop Warner Football and join the Bill George Youth Football League. Bill George Youth Football had been around for many years but was adding teams. Coach Schreiner wanted to expand the program so that younger kids could choose between playing football and soccer.

Fathers and coaches realized that younger boys could safely be taught the right way to play football, and the demand and interest were there. To this day, the Falcons compete in the league very successfully. Levels now range from second grade through eighth grade. The Hinsdale Falcons consistently vie for championships across the league’s more than 15 divisions within each age group. It is not unusual for Falcons teams to take a handful of trophies each season. As Randy Pyle puts it, “supporting Falcons is a great cause and I firmly believe this is one of the most important organizations in youth sports in this town and is a tremendous asset for the community. I give much credit to Tom Moen as we needed a ton more equipment, several more coaches, more field space, and so on. Without that move, I am not sure what the status of Falcons football would be today.”

“My belief, having been a part of this for quite some time, is that not only has Falcons provided a program to teach sportsmanship, teamwork, the joy of victory and the agony of defeat but has also contributed to the community spirit of the people it serves. Examples of this can be seen at the well-attended Falcons fest events we host, the great attendance we get at Brook Park and Dickinson field, the homecoming parades, and the sense of community shared by all of those who are involved. “Sometimes, people will ask me how it is that Hinsdale Central, year in and year out, fields a good team and competes for conference titles. I think it is not because we have the best athletes (although they are very good), or the best coaches (although they are also excellent and extremely dedicated), or we have the best facilities.

“My belief, having been a part of this for quite some time, is that not only has Falcons provided a program to teach sportsmanship, teamwork, the joy of victory and the agony of defeat but has also contributed to the community spirit of the people it serves.”

I believe it is truly because of the community and parental support of the program. The community comes out to watch Falcons games, the huge band on Friday nights at Hinsdale Central, the cheerleaders, and the amazing pom pom routines. And the football games.” So, now you know. Because of Falcons Football, HCHS thrives in the very competitive West Suburban Conference. Every year, the vast majority, and sometimes all the 22 varsity starters have played Falcons football, and that will be no different for the upcoming 2022 season. Naturally, some Falcons players continue to play football in college. Some go beyond. Jim Zajicek has been involved with Falcon Football as a player, a coach, and a board member, and now has a son playing. He has followed Falcon Football players who have made it to NFL teams. Some only got as far as practice squads, but even that is quite an achievement. The most successful is Brian Allen who played at Michigan State and was drafted in the fourth round in 2018, by the LA Rams. He is in his fifth season and was starting center on the Rams team that won the Super Bowl this year. Others include Jack and Matt Allen, brothers of Brian, Thomas Ives, Ian Bunting, Brian Musso, and Doug Kramer, and an Illinois grad, who was just drafted by the Chicago Bears. Youth football is much more than learning how to play the game Beyond learning the proper techniques in playing the game, players learn much more.

As Jay Novatney, who served as president of the Falcons from 2011 to 2021, says, “players learn the value of teamwork, discipline, and sportsmanship. They know how to respect teammates and opponents and the rules. Within the league footprint, they compete against the same kids and towns even up through Hinsdale Central, and friendly rivalries also grow. They gain friendships that can be life-long. More than athletic development, the program helps kids become better and more confident students because they see the value of discipline and how hard work pays off. Countless parents have commented to me over the years how much their sons and daughters improved in the classroom by learning how to make time for study as well as for time for practice and games. And while safety and fundamentals are the highest priorities, it is also important that kids have fun and enjoy being part of the Falcons family.”

IIU Gold Hinsdale Falcons quaterback, Keaton Cassell, steers clear of opponents

According to Brian O’Malley, a current Falcons player in eighth grade, “I have been playing Falcons Football since I was seven. As a child, I grew up with the red jersey from four older siblings in my house. My older brother Billy played football and my three sisters, Annie, Lindsey, and Christy, were all Falcons Cheerleaders. We have been a Falcons Family for over 14 years. My dad, Bill O’Malley, has been a coach all those years. It’s been a true family affair. I understand why my parents love the organization, and our family supports the teams. I have made the greatest and closest friendships playing the game I love. Discipline and team leading as a quarterback has given me confidence and perseverance. I have become a stronger, driven person from playing football. Work ethic, focus, and listening skills have taught me how to take direction. Motto: Never quit, never tire, never lose faith. Falcons has prepared me for high school-level football. After a week of practice, I can’t wait to get into the weekend game. I am proud to wear the Falcons jersey.”

In addition, as coaches, parents take pride in their sons and daughters and are satisfied knowing they have contributed to their children’s growth. Falcons is run and coached entirely by volunteer parents and supporters. They are more than willing to make considerable commitments because the results are there for everyone to see. Almost all involved stay involved throughout their child’s tenure as a Falcons football player or cheerleader, which says a lot about the equal amount of enjoyment the parents receive from the program.

GREATER EMPHASIS ON SAFETY

Novotney adds that perhaps one of the things that further makes the Falcons program stand out for parents, players, and coaches is its proactive commitment to safety. Football leagues throughout the country, from youth teams to the highest level of the sport in the National Football League, grappled with genuine concerns about concussions. Those concerns had a chilling effect on parents and a negative impact on the perception of the game. The Hinsdale area was no exception. Concussion concerns contributed to a dramatic drop in registrations for the Falcons from 2015-2019, reaching a low point of about 140 players – nearly half of the numbers earlier in the decade. The Falcons program and the league took several actions and renewed and enhanced the overall commitment to safety to address the concerns.

First, the program reviewed concussion protocol relative to the prevailing science and continues to have it checked and approved annually by a professional athletic training vendor. That protocol follows the “when in doubt, sit them out” model. Second, all Falcons coaches must receive an annual pre-season certification from USA Football. This is a national governing body for the sport that includes training in the latest techniques in safer blocking and tackling, equipment fitting, and concussion recognition and response, among other coaching and safety-related elements. Third, following the pioneering lead of HCHS, the Falcons deployed padded helmet caps in practice before the 2018 season which many colleges and even several NFL teams are now using. Additionally, for several years, each player must obtain a baseline concussion test before the season, the cost of which is borne by the program. Finally, the program continues to have all helmets reconditioned each off-season by the manufacturer, a process that includes inspection, cleaning, repair, and if warranted, rejection.

The word on safety has gotten out, and the message has resulted in an uptick of players. This season, numbers in the program have ballooned to over 250 participants, and the arrow is pointing up. As Novatney says, “the program’s focus on football and cheerleading fundamentals, safety and health, teamwork, sportsmanship, respect, and fun, has never wavered. It is great to see the community again recognizing those efforts and seeing kids returning to the greatest team sport. It also helps that the game is more open and exciting with passes and catches that can more easily be seen and appreciated, compared to the ‘grind it out’ type football of earlier times. It is also one of the few ‘no cut’ sports left-at both the youth level up through high school, with little competition from travel programs. Kids that start now have the opportunity to continue playing and developing as they move from weekend Falcons football to Friday night lights.” He adds, “Having watched two boys of my own, both starting as Falcons in third grade and playing at HCHS, I can personally attest to how exciting and rewarding the path is.”

*Photos provided by Hinsdale Falcons

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