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Even no-contact football league canceled season for lack of interest

Jim Schwantz. | Village of Palatine

In 2012, Jim Schwantz — a former Bear who also played in the NFL with teams including the Super Bowl XXX-champion Dallas Cowboys — hatched an idea for a no-contact, flag football league.

The aim was to appeal to parents concerned about their young kids being at risk for concussions in tackle games.

But even without the physical contact, Schwantz’s Northwest Flag Football League, based in Palatine, where he’s now the mayor, had to cancel its season this year because there weren’t enough players — the result, Schwantz believes, of more parents keeping their kids out of football.

Schwantz created the league for boys in kindergarten through eighth grade. It got off to a robust start with about 90 players in 2012. The league distinguished itself from similar programs by mandating equal playing time, allowing boys to try every position regardless of size, eliminating weekend commitments and using paid professionals instead of volunteers.

Still, mirroring a trend also being seen in Illinois high school football, the number of flag players dipped to roughly 60 in 2016. This year, Harper College asked that registrations be finalized by early August for the Palatine school to continue its role as a partner with the Northwest Flag Football League.

Back in his playing days, Jim Schwantz (left, No. 59) faces off against the Green Bay Packers’ Jonathon Brown in 1998. | Tom Cruze / Sun-Times files

“We just weren’t getting there,” Schwantz said. “There just didn’t seem to be the traction. So we made a tough decision to cancel the league this year.”

But he’s hoping to bring back league play again: “It’s not anything that we think is done forever.”

He pointed out that his organization collaborated with Harper’s InZone program for a summer football skills camp that had solid participation this year.

Schwantz, who’s now an analyst on pregame and postgame Bears broadcasts for WBBM radio, said, “Football is under assault,” and even the flag version’s not immune from a growing negative perception of the sport.

“Inherently, it’s a dangerous game — there’s no doubt about it,” Schwantz said. “And I don’t know that people were able to separate flag from the tackle. I think there’s a natural progression in the minds of parents that, if you play flag, eventually you will end up playing tackle. I think there were decisions being made that: We just don’t want our kids involved in the sport of football.”