As are many of its former players, Kishwaukee Youth Football League is all grown up.
And like some 19-year-olds, it's going through an identity crisis.
Increased competition from other youth leagues coupled with the ever-growing attention focused on the safety of football has cut the league's numbers from about 265 in its heyday to struggling with 50 for its upcoming season.
But there's still optimism surrounding the league that began in 1996. Scott Gayden said he was the first volunteer to sign up with the league that year, and his son, Adam Gayden, was the first player to enroll. The elder Gayden has been coaching with the league ever since, assisted by his son.
Both were at a Sycamore storage locker Wednesday night, lugging out old equipment for the new season, which starts with training camps in early August.
"We do a good job teaching kids how to play football safely," Scott Gayden said. "That's a huge reason [for the participation dropoff]. There's a lot of concerned moms, and when you are talking about a 10-year-old, I guess it's a little different argument then when you are talking to a 15-year-old. I think that has hurt our numbers, but we've been doing some things to combat it."
As are more and more leagues, the coaches are trained through USA Football's Heads Up program. And while the league doesn't split into different weight classes like Pop Warner, there are still safety regulations in place. No one more than 120 pounds can carry the ball and no one over 198 can play defense.
"Our league is very unique," Scott Gayden said. "I've had kids from 54 pounds to 260 pounds. We do have some specific safety rules that I can look anybody in the eyes and say they work."
When the league began, it was the only option for fifth- and sixth-graders in DeKalb County interested in playing tackle football ahead of when the middle schools start in seventh grade. Both Sycamore and DeKalb now have youth football leagues affiliated with USA Football out of the Northern Illinois Football Conference.
So while the numbers are down dramatically from its 12-team peak in 2002, plans are in place for a league this year if the numbers don't go up.
Scott Gayden said one plan is to break the league into two teams with separate practices.
"The problem is what do you do on Thursday nights, because kids expect a game," Scott Gayden said. "Do you just play each other seven weeks in a row? That gets a little old. Hopefully what we'll do, if it gets to that, will divide into teams, maybe 12 or 13 players to a team. And that way we can d a little crisscross – it's not like you're playing the same team every time."
Scott Gayden also mentioned the strong family atmosphere as a plus of the league. As a chef in his day job, he said he has catered the weddings of former players. He's stayed in touch with Sycamore grad and KYFL alumnus Jason Schepler, who recently signed with the Tennessee Titans.
Adam Gayden can attest to that family atmosphere.
"I was always drug along," Adam Gayden said. "I played fifth and sixth grade, then seventh and eighth. After those games, I'd always come to practices. In high school, I would always come be a ball boy, hold the cone. Then when I got out of high school, they actually let me get into it and have more responsibilities."
While he didn't play football in high school, playing baseball instead, Adam Gayden eventually went back to coaching in the KYFL.
"I've been coaching long enough they're coming up to me saying 'Coach,' " Adam Gayden said. "I'm sitting at the bar saying there's no way you are old enough to be in here. I coached you seven years ago."
Scott Gayden said the league will do what it can to make sure it, like those players Adam Gayden mentioned, reaches its 21st birthday and beyond.
"It's sad to see our numbers down. That concerns us," Scott Gayden said. "We're trying to reach out, but it is what it is."