Building a safer game

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WINNEBAGO COUNTY, Ill. (WIFR) STATELINE (WIFR) -- "It's not the old school where their grabbing kids and shaking helmets," says Jason Pontnack. He is all about safety when it comes to his seven-year-old Payton.

Despite seeing constant headlines of life after football for former players, he belives education is key.

"It's a big concern because you see it in the media, you see the professional athletes and you see the head trauma, but if we do it right and we teach these kids at a young age, I don't think we lose anything on the field and I'm not as concerned," Pontnack says.

Payton is playing for the Roscoe-Rockton Chiefs, a member of the Northern Illinois conference. It's where Pontnack believes the sport is being taught the correct way. Since 2013 the NIFC has seen a 130 percent increase in turnout.

"I think it has a lot to do with the philosophy of the NIFC and the intent of how we play the game," says Dennis Kentner. He is the conference's commissioner and says they can easily put a parents concerns to rest.

"People want to know that you're looking out for their kids. What are you doing to protect us? How do we know that our kids are safe? They all know that we go through USA certification," Kentner says.

Besides having coaches versed in the techniques of USA football, safety in the NIFC is addressed through its different divisions where players are separated by age and weight. Before each game, players are even put on a scale to make sure they are playing with kids their own size.

"It puts the kids with the same mentality, the same moxy playing against the same-sized kids and that makes it a little more even playing field," Kentner says.

While one league is flourishing, another may be falling apart. Patriots Gateway could not field a team in Rock Valley Junior Tackle this past season. Many of its parents were very worried about safety.

"Safety is a real issue and more and more as the research comes out, it becomes an increasing concern of not just the parents but also community centers and coaches," says executive director Penny Billman. Billman says field conditions and a lack of coaches lead the Patriots to withdraw from Rock Valley, a league which is down from eight teams in 2016 to just five.

The NIFC is open to growth and any teams looking for a new league. Starting with just five member organizations in 2007, it is now up to 15. Pontnack says they have it all.

"I think you've got a lot of committed coaches, a lot of committed family members and it starts there," Pontnack says. "If they send out the message and they allow us to get engaged with it, I think we're OK."