GRAND BOULEVARD — It might have a silly name, but the teams playing for the "Soul Bowl" trophy on Saturday are taking the game very, very seriously.
"You can feel the intensity of the week right now," Hales Franciscan High School football coach Randall Townsel, whose squad faces Catholic League and South Side rival Leo High School for the Soul Bowl, said Monday afternoon.
The Soul Bowl is actually a worn-down black helmet with an "H" for Hales on one side and an "L" for Leo on the other. The multi-colored words "Soul Bowl" are on the front and back. The helmet also has a "DS" sticker, in remembrance of former Hales coach Darrel Sanders, who died suddenly in 2012 at age 52.
The name refers to the South Side schools' predominantly African-American student population.
"It makes sense," Hales quarterback Dominic Christian said. "And it's cool."
The Soul Bowl name isn't one of a kind. In Oklahoma City, Millwood and Douglass high schools have been playing a Soul Bowl for 38 years. In Florida, Pensicola's East and West side youth football teams will compete for the 24th time in an annual event dubbed the Soul Bowl.
Leo's Lions and Hales' Spartans have been playing for the Soul Bowl since 2006, according to former Hales athletic director Lawrence Nalls. Leo won the first five tilts, but Hales has claimed the last two.
Each time a team emerges victorious, a sticker is placed on the helmet, and the school has ownership until the next game.
"There's bragging rights that go along with the Soul Bowl," said Hales athletic director Chris Mallette, of Bronzeville.
The idea came from Dwayne Smith, Hales' all-time leading rusher who played at Wisconsin. While he was with the Badgers, he noted the plethora of Big Ten rivalry trophies — like the Paul Bunyan's Axe game between Wisconsin and Minnesota — and wanted the same type of importance for the Hales-Leo matchup.
Hales, in Grand Boulevard, and Leo, in Auburn Gresham, stand a few miles apart. Many of the players attended the same grammar schools or competed together on youth football teams.
"Everyone knows the game is really intense, but it's also a lot of fun," said Christian, 16 of south suburban Calumet City. "It's competitive, but at the same time you get to see a lot of old people you know."
The Lions and Spartans both have a great deal at stake this time around. After a brutal early season schedule, Hales stands at 1-4 and must win the rest of its games to have a chance at the IHSA playoffs. Leo, which has had fewer tough tests, is 5-0 and can earn a guaranteed postseason berth with a triumph.
"Our kids are excited about playing," longtime Leo athletic director Edward Adams said. "We want this victory to be an automatic state qualifier. To beat Hales would be icing on the cake."
Townsel, of Hyde Park, said he expects victory this weekend.
"The Soul Bowl belongs here and we're going to defend it," he said. "Let that be known."
Hales Franciscan hosts Leo at 3 p.m. Saturday in its Homecoming football game at Hales Franciscan High School, 4930 S. Cottage Grove Ave.