Former Illini playing major role in youth football league

August 01, 2023

The resurgence of Illinois football has provided a significant boost for the Central Illinois Youth Football League.

Just ask Ryan Craig, Patrick Rouse and Justin Harrison.

“All of us have had amazing coaches, whether it be college or high school or even youth football,” Craig said. “I think all of us are just trying to pass that torch on to those next kids to teach them something new and to help them grow and be better.”

The trio of former Illini football players all have prominent roles within the organization these days. Craig and Harrison serve on the board while Rouse — whose wife, Amy, is on the board — has coached youth football for the last seven years.

Morale is high as the organization preps for the new year. It held its first practices of the season on Monday night.

“We want this to be something that players from first grade through eighth grade and continuing to go into high school,” Harrison said, “being proud of what they’re doing on the football field.”

Each played for Illinois during different eras, but all have central Illinois ties.

Craig, a St. Joseph-Ogden graduate, played defensive back from 1994 until 1997 and played in the 1994 Liberty Bowl. Rouse, an offensive lineman and long snapper from Centennial, tenure followed shortly after, from 1998 until 2001, and culminated with a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2002.

Harrison, a standout defensive back from Bloomington, played from 2004 until 2007 and played in the 2008 Rose Bowl.

The bond between the community and the organization isn’t lost on them.

“When you look at the number of people that have increased, there’s probably 50 or 60 more kids than what we’ve had the last two or three years,” Craig said. “Anything that (the community) can throw our way to support this program, to help the youth and especially the younger kids in this community, we’re here for it and willing to take whatever they have to offer.”

Orange and blue is back in style thanks to Illinois football’s upswing. The CIYFL is refreshing the identities of its teams this fall to match the colors folks see at Memorial Stadium. Illinois’ home field will also host the organization’s jamboree, as it did last season.

“I think it’s going to be exciting, the way that we brand and market and communicate,” Harrison said. “We really want to streamline the communication, especially with the Champaign-Urbana programs, making sure that they’re aware of when the high school teams are playing, they wear their jerseys.”

The prominence of the Illini’s best players — including Devon Witherspoon and Quan Martin’s selections in the first two rounds of the 2023 NFL draft — has helped the league, too.

“It’s been so long since we’ve had any sustained (success),” Rouse said. “It hasn’t been a cool thing, whereas Illinois basketball has had Final Four appearances and a lot of success. It was cool that way.

“Now for these kids in their formative years to see these guys winning football games, kind of maybe gives them some second thought that maybe I want to take a look at part of that.”

All-new equipment was purchased before last season as old helmets, pads and jerseys begin to age. The league’s handbook states that all helmets must be NOCSAE-certified or re-certified no later than 2022. Participation numbers are on the rise as the league enters the new season, leaving the league searching for more new digs.

“If a kid wants to play tackle football in our community, we don’t want to tell them no,” Rouse said. “Well, now supply is not able to meet our demand. It would be hugely helpful if anybody has a passion for youth sports, youth football, to reach out and help in any way they can.”

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