CHICAGO — Back in the early 1990s, when the Canaryville Lions youth football team was just taking shape, coach Adam Campbell would put out ads in the local newspapers looking for players.
“And whoever showed up, played,” said Campbell, a Canaryville resident and longtime coach.
Nineteen years later, he thinks he’s found success.
“Now, we’re recruiting parents and kids, because to have a decent program you have to have involved parents. I get a dozen parents every year just by finding them. Jewel, Home Depot, coffee shops. I’ve recruited parents in here,” Campbell said inside Bridgeport Coffee Company, 3101 S. Morgan St.
Each summer, the Lions take in about 100 kids in third through eighth grades and put them through a rigorous schedule that includes two hours of practice each weekday in the early season, plus scrimmages and weekend games.
They’re part of the larger Chicagoland Youth Football League, which includes the Brighton Park Bears, Harrison Park Panthers, Humboldt Park Patriots, the Marquette Park Comanchees and the East Side Rams, a youth club with roots stretching back to the 1940s.
The league was larger, but a few of the teams were scooped up when rapper Snoop Lion (formerly Dogg) established a Chicago division of his Snoop Youth Football League in 2011. (Campbell, the league’s treasurer, shrugged it off: “It’s always in flux.”)
For parents balking at the prospect of head injuries, Campbell said they’re a rarity — only one boy in nearly 20 years has reported a concussion.
The youth league is affiliated with USA Football, a nationwide nonprofit associated with the National Football League that’s started a major push to raise awareness about head injuries through its website and seminars, with emphasis on “heads up tackling,” which aims to reduce head collisions.
While experts say research into youth football injuries is scarce — high school and college athletes are studied more extensively — the concern lies with collisions on developing brains, obesity, whiplash and heatstroke.
Beth Pieroth is a neuropsychologist and associate director of the Sports Concussion Program at North Shore University HealthSystem who works with Chicago’s pro sports teams. She also serves as an advisor for USA football.
Pieroth said young players are “learning how their bodies move and how to do sports. They run into each other a lot. We’re concerned about the level of exposure to contact kids get in any sport.”
She said parents are a key part of any youth league’s safety strategy.
“Parents need to be educated on signs and symptoms of concussions because if you don’t know what to look for, how are you going to pick it up? And for the little guys, they don’t know how to articulate it if something is not right. We need to have a lot of parents out there who know what to look for and how to pick it up,” she said.
This year, Campbell said there’s a club member dedicated solely to player safety, keeping lookout for injuries, ensuring the kids are hydrated and that the equipment is in top shape.
Tracey White, 44, of Englewood, is a teacher with two boys who have played for the Lions for years.
“We love it. The experience has been great for my children,” she said. "It's like a family. We look forward to it every year.
The safety issue, she said, is “very relevant” in the league.
“They have coaches going to meetings and learning about concussions. We have a parent who is a nurse on the sidelines to give [the team] help with cuts, scrapes, ice packs, bruises, everything,” she said.
There is a another on-field risk: overzealous parents.
Campbell’s got the stories to prove it, saying he was once cold-cocked by a nutty dad who charged at him on the field.
“Knocked me out,” he said.
Kids whose parents step onto the field are banned from the next game. If they do it again, the kid is banned from the team.
Practice for the Canaryville Lions begins Aug. 1 at 45th and Halsted Streets. Registration is $100 per child. Parents interested in registering their kids can call Adam Campbell at (312) 961-1806 or visit the team's official website for more information.