PEORIA — The kid was born to be a lineman. But despite his size, he wanted to run the ball. Every practice, every game, he would nag JFL coach Mike Burns for a chance.
"Finally, I gave in, and we designed a play and called it 'Elephant Right'," Burns said. "He took the ball around the right end and ran 75 yards for a touchdown. It got called back on a penalty, and boy he was mad.
"So we called Elephant Right again, and darn if that kid didn't run it for a touchdown again. Funniest thing ever."
That kid was East Peoria native Tim Simpson. And he grew up to be an offensive lineman in the NFL for the Browns and Steelers.
Many years after that, he played arena football for the Peoria Pirates, too, still flashing a passion for the game.
Over the years, Simpson and thousands of other kids have developed that passion for football in the JFL program.
The JFL of Central Illinois is celebrating its 50th season this fall, with 28 teams from Bloomington to North Fulton, Washington to Manual, Metamora to Stark County and a pile of places in between.
There are teams in Canton, Brimfield, Chillicothe, Dee Mack, Dunlap, East Peoria, Farmington, Lewistown, Limestone, Manual, Morton, Notre Dame, Pekin, Richwoods, Woodruff and more.
"We started the program in 1967 with five teams, probably not more than 60 kids total," said Burns, who coached from 1972-89 and in 1989 became the JFL's eighth president. "It struggled back then to get kids, especially in the heavyweight division (eighth-graders).
"We slowly progressed, though, and in the 2017 season we have 3,000 kids and 127 teams in the tackle part of the program. There's another 1,200 kids in the flag football program."
The JFL offers five divisions of tackle football, including Squirts (ages 8-9), Pee Wee (ages 8-10), J.V. (ages 9-12, with weight limits for each age), Varsity (ages 10-13, with weight limits) and Seniors (ages 12-14).
Flag football is available for kids aged 5-7, and there is a cheerleader program in place as well.
ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
The JFL peaked in its tackle football program about five years ago, with 173 teams and 4,500 kids.
Those numbers have been declining, and Burns thinks there are two reasons why.
"One of the things is baseball," Burns said. "Junior High has expanded into fall baseball teams, plus there are wood bat leagues that play almost year round. It definitely draws kids away from us, and those kids start their season before school even starts."
The biggest reason, of course, is the ongoing concerns over concussions in football.
"I think some of those concussion numbers are exaggerated to show more than is really there, but there is no doubt concussions are an issue and have grown in presence," Burns said. "We do a concussion evaluation and accident report on every kid in the program. Last season, we had a total of three diagnosed concussions.
SCIENCE AND EQUIPMENT
OSF has done baseline testing on JFL players for the last few seasons as a contribution to the program. And Burns long ago designed a coaching accreditation clinic, with background checks and coaching skills that all coaches in the program must pass.
That program now includes teaching coaches to recognize concussion symptoms. If a kid is spotted with symptoms, he is sent to a doctor for examination. He can't return and play again until he gets medical clearance.
The helmets have changed, too.
"Some of the newer designs have so much padding in them that we've had to order record numbers in larger sizes to fit the kids' heads," Burns said. "We closely monitor those helmets, too. We'll buy 200-400 new helmets every year. Helmets get re-conditioned, and no helmet can be in the program after 10 years of service."
The JFL has an annual operating budget now of about $1 million.
But there won't be any flashy ceremonies or special decals or T-shirts to celebrate its half-century of existence.
"With the decline of team numbers, we have to be financially careful," said Burns, noting the program is in good hands with current president Mike Hieber. "It's not a little recreation league anymore. It's become a big business."
There are 850 coaches in JFL of Central Illinois, taking part in a season that runs 8 weeks.
No standings are kept. No stats. About 8 teams will travel to Indianapolis to play a game on the Colts' Lucas Oil Stadium.
"We get no grants, no government money, no NFL money," Burns said. "We just play football."
Dave Eminian covers the Rivermen and Chiefs for the Journal Star. Reach him at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Watch his videos on Youtube.com/pjstarcom and news items on Twitter @icetimecleve.