DeKALB – After surpassing $1 million in donated funds last year to Sycamore and DeKalb athletics since the First National Challenge fundraiser’s inception in 2000, this year’s event is expected to raise about $50,000 more for the two programs during the rivalries between the two schools’ football and basketball programs this school year.
Event co-founder Gary Evans said there were 83 sponsors signed up for this year’s First National Challenge ahead of the DeKalb vs. Sycamore sophomore and varsity football games Friday night at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium off Lincoln Highway. He said there usually are 4,000 to 5,000 people who take part in the tailgate, and the reported amount of funds raised comes from game sponsorships and food and drink purchases during the tailgate.
Although the fundraiser kicks off with the football games and includes the basketball teams in the winter season, Evans said, the event is a good way to honor all school athletes, not only football players.
“It’s a great way to get the whole community together,” Evans said.
Evans said the highest logged number of sponsors and funds raised during the fundraising event – 150 and $89,000, respectively – was in 2008 before the economy tanked. He said those numbers were cut in half the next year and then stayed relatively steady over the following years.
Pete Johnson, former Sycamore High School football coach and principal, was honorary coach for Sycamore during the game. Mark Rolfing, DeKalb native and NBC Golf Channel announcer, was named honorary coach for DeKalb during the Friday varsity game.
Johnson, whose legacy as Sycamore principal includes establishing the school’s Diversified Occupation program, said the Sycamore-DeKalb rivalry always has been a fun one to be a part of, even when the two teams weren’t in the same conference and only would play each other on Veterans Day before he graduated Sycamore High School in 1940. He said he was looking forward to seeing a lot of people show up for the varsity game Friday night to support the kids in both athletic programs.
“The area’s been good to me and has always been a good area for families to live and people to have kids here,” Johnson said.
The First National Challenge has collected more than $2 million in total and has benefited not only athletic programs in DeKalb and Sycamore, but also Kaneland, Sandwich, Yorkville, Plano, Belvidere, Woodstock, Harvard and Marengo.
DeKalb High School senior and wrestler Austin Johnson said it’s great to have a community that supports fundraising for school athletics. He and teammate Blah Dahnweih said they came to cheer on their fellow athletes during the Friday football game.
“We come to support our team and show Barb pride,” Austin Johnson said. “It’s all about pride at DeKalb.”
Sycamore junior Desiree Hill, who plays tennis for the school, said it’s important to her to attend other sporting events to show school spirit and support for other people.
“It shows that you have emotion and you believe in something when you are part of the community,” Hill said.
When asked what his advice to current students would be ahead of the Friday varsity game, Rolfing, who graduated from DeKalb in 1967, said he wanted to tell them to enjoy every bit of the “Friday Night Lights” experience while they still can.
“There’s no experience like this in their entire lives,” Rolfing said. “Soak in every minute, and don’t take anything for granted.”