I’m a girl’s girl who grew up dancing. I gravitated to team dancing where our hard work was more than just individual achievement. Doing my part was necessary to be successful.

Now I’m the mother of three boys (no girls) who’s motivated for them to have the same positive experiences I had as a kid. I grew up in Lake Zurich where football is a big deal. The local youth football organization, the Flames, has a reputation for being more than just a feeder program for the high school. In 2013, starting with my eldest playing flag football, our family was all in.

What I learned was how my son worked hard, took responsibility and trusted others so that the team could be successful. I thought back to my own days on a competitive dance team and realized my boys could have that same experience through football.

With each son we invested more into the program. The best part isn’t game day; it’s how my kids built friendships. Through after-practice dinners, post-game gatherings and all-program events, we bonded with other families.

Cheerleading is a big part of the Flames. Boys and girls involved with the Flames are cheering or playing football and all are made to feel like part of the team.

These days any discussion about football should consider the risk from injury. Traditional team sports (football, baseball, soccer, basketball and track & field) have shown declines in participation over the last few years while involvement in lacrosse, beach volleyball, hockey and rugby have grown, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Football, basketball and girls soccer have the highest rates of injury of team sports. Also on the rise are injuries from bicycling, skateboarding and baseball.

Player safety is a top priority. While I can honestly say I have never been concerned about my kids’ safety while playing football I know that other families have doubts. Five years into the program, I am consistently reassured about my sons’ safety after only experiencing minor bumps and bruises on the field. Matt Zawilenski, a Flames Board member, reports, “The safety of our athletes is the utmost concern.” For this reason, we have a multi-level approach to ensure that the game is as safe as possible for all. It starts with our coaches.

Zawilenski points out that pre-season is all about conditioning and acclimatization. As the season starts the majority of practice is spent in non-contact drills, like in the NFL and college, emphasizing the safest techniques. Most important of these is shoulder tackling, which removes the helmet from contact during a tackle to reduce the risk of head injury. Frequent water breaks are mandated to minimize dehydration, muscle cramps and heat-related conditions.

The Flames are dedicated to concussion prevention and awareness. All athletes participate in pre-season baseline concussion testing, a set of neuro-cognitive tests that measures visual and verbal memory, reaction time and processing speed on a computer, and can be used to guide treatment and safe return to play. “We have partnered with sports neurologist Dr. Erik Beltran to speak at our town hall meetings and provide his professional insights into concussion prevention and management,” Zawilenski says. “At all home games, we provide certified athletic trainers with the ultimate authority to remove a player from competition in order to expedite injury treatment and avoid premature return to play.”

“I am always certain to inform parents of student athletes that there is risk involved with playing youth football,” Beltran says. “When deciding to play parents and athletes have to weigh the {modest} risk versus potential benefits a child may receive from participation. It’s an individualized decision, and for me personally, I do not feel the risk outweighs the benefits and would let my children participate in youth football.”

This year we will hold a community event at Knox Park to commemorate our 45th season. It will be to celebrate the past, present and future of our program. While it’s an opportunity for our current families to come together, it also will be a time for anyone interested to check us out. It’s an event that not only encompasses what a true hometown youth sports program is about, but who we want our children to grow up to be.

Years after leaving the Flames many alumni have shared what youth football meant to them. Jack Sanborn, a player currently at the University of Wisconsin, says: “The Flames is where my passion for football first began. Football has given me opportunities that I never knew were possible and that journey all started with the Flames.”

Regina Hope is a board member with the Lake Zurich Flames. Learn more at lzflames.org. Tackle football camps start this month; registration for flag football closes July 31.

Player Safety is #1

According to Matt Zawilenski, a board member for the Lake Zurich Flames, player health and safety is a top priority that starts with annual certification of all volunteer coaches who are training and tested on the following:

Heads Up

  • Proper tackling and blocking techniques

Equipment Fit

  • Helmets and padding

Heat & Hydration

  • Timing for water breaks

Concussion Awareness

  • Athletic trainers have the ultimate say

“The best part isn’t game day; it’s how my kids built friendships.”