By Mark Gregory
In the today’s hypersensitive landscape, the game of football is getting a bad rap – especially at the youth level as talks of concussions and other serious injuries threaten the very existence of the sport.
There is at least one local organization and coaching staff that is working to teach the game of football the right way – and so far it seems to be working.
The Patriots Youth Travel Football team has been winning championships, sending players to the top of the high school game and beyond and doing it all with an All-Star class of coaches – all of whom make teaching the right way to play their first priority.
Leading the way in terms of coaching pedigree is former Benedictine All-American and Arena League Hall of Famer Bob McMillen.
McMillen is the only member of the current 12U Patriots staff that has a son on the team – a team that recently won the Pop Warner Super Bowl at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla.
Prior to taking the Patriots to titles, he was a three-time All-American for what was then Illinois Benedictine College, a fullback and linebacker from 1995-2008 in the Arena Football League where he retired as the league’s second all-time leading rusher. He then coached with the Chicago Rush as an assistant and was named head coach in 2010, earning Coach of the Year honors in 2013 before coaching two seasons with the LA KISS, owned by legendary rock stars Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley. He was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in 2013.
“It is relieving,” McMillen said of coaching with the Patriots. “There is a lot less stress than when you are dealing with professional athletes and having the pressure of winning games for fans and stuff. Being able to come home and teach the game of football to kids is exciting and fun and a breath of fresh air to watch kids develop and get better as the season goes on.
“We tell the parents that we are not a babysitting service. We are here to teach the game of football and for the kids to get better as the season goes on and if they want to play in high school or even beyond, it has to start at this level.”
Two of those players on the championship team are Downers Grove residents Sal DeLuca and Zach Bluder.
Bluder, the starting center, said the experience of playing for the title was one he will never forget.
“It was a great experience,” Bluder said. “Our coaches told us it was going to be real hard in Florida and the first game was a wakeup call for us and we pushed through it. We have a lot of special players on this team and we work really hard.”
DeLuca agreed that the team had a once in a lifetime experience.
“It was really fun to spend the week in Florida with the team,” DeLuca said. “It was great when we faced the teams because they were a big challenge, but we were the team that won. We train really hard and we had our minds on the games and we were going to be the opponent. We used to goof around a lot and the coaches taught us to make it first that we want to win a championship and not just goof around and it paid off.”
For DeLuca, an offensive and defensive lineman, his play is not all about himself when he is on the field. He said every time he steps on the field, he is playing for the memory of his uncle Salvatore DeLuca – who Sal is named for.
Salvatore was a member of the Downers Grove South football team and was killed in an accident at age 17 in 2001 on the way home from football practice. The Mustangs won the Class 8A state title that season.
“I am trying to be the best I can just like him,” DeLuca said. “When I first tried on his helmet and jersey, it was inspiring to know he was so good at football and I want to be just like him. It makes me and my family proud. We lost him at such a young age, that it’s like a younger him is inside me playing football.”
As DeLuca and the other Patriots try and play to their best – they know they are doing so with the best coaches around.
“The kids all know where I came from and what I have done, but this was my seventh national championship I won with the Patriots organization. We don’t go out and recruit kids, the kids that come out are the kids that we are going to try to be successful with,” McMillen said. “Being able to play for 13 years and then coach (in the Arena League) may give me a leg up on some coaches, but it is all about teaching the game the right way. That decreases injury and helps kids become better football players.
“A lot of credit has to go to the parents. They know that when you are being taught by a guy who has been there and done that in college and professionally and being successful in the youth programs as a coach, it helps. The kids that sign up, they know who they want to play for. I stress to parents to do your homework before you sign your kid up for a football league and make sure the coaches that you are trusting your son to play for know what they are talking about. I am not bad mouth any program – but they have to see who will be coaching their son. Is it an armchair dad who has never played the game or is it someone who knows what they are talking about that has been around the game and been around youth football and can teach the proper techniques. We teach proper tackling techniques and a lot of programs just want to see who can hit harder and that is the wrong way to do it. That is how you get your injuries. In the 12 years I have been around youth football, we have only had three concussions and two of them were from a kid hitting the ground.”
McMillen is not the only highly acclaimed coach in the organization as Doug DiFusco, former Nazareth Academy assistant coach and current offensive coordinator at Bolingbrook High School, is the longest tenured Patriots’ coach at 11 years in the organization and hasn’t had a son playing since 2009.
“We are all just coaches who love to develop kids and make sure they are prepared for high school, but we want ours to jump off the page when they get to high school,” DiFusco said. “That means kids who are freshmen, who if they are needed to or given the opportunity, can compete at the varsity level. We have had a lot of them over the years.”
DiFusco said the program’s success in turning out quality athletes has been the reason for the growth of the program to communities outside its Naperville base.
“I think the most important thing that we see are coaches not doing it the right way and what we are seeing now because of the success of the program is we have kids from all over,” he said. “We have kids from Bolingbrook, Romeoville, Joliet, Oswego, Aurora, Plainfield, Chicago, Wheaton, you name it. We have kids coming from all over to play Patriots football because the see that we develop kids the right way. We teach the fundamentals the same from when they are six-years-old.”
That influx of other communities makes playing for the Patriots more fun for the athletes.
“It is real fun to have people from everywhere,” Bluder said. “Every year I make a lot of new friends on the team and that makes it an even better experience.”
Both DiFusco and McMillen know that influx of players is because parents are seeing the kids being taught the right way and while they are successful, it is not all about the wins and losses.
“They go hand in hand. If you are winning, you are teaching the kids the right way to play football and if you are teaching kids the right way to play football, you are winning,” McMillen said. “It is not just the 12U team that won nationals, we are all successful.
“It is awesome for us to see kids that we coached for years have success in high school or get a college scholarship. It is great to know that something I did early in that kid’s life allowed him to not only go out and be a great football player, but a great human being.”