Demonstrators gathered at the "Let Us Play" rally in support of a return to high school sports on Saturday at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago.
Demonstrators gathered at the "Let Us Play" rally in support of a return to high school sports on Saturday at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago. — Tony Gadomski for Shaw Media

CHICAGO – Marian Central quarterback Brendan Hernon was eager to try and make a difference to get high school football played in Illinois this fall.

Hernon and his mother, Amy, traveled from Woodstock to Chicago on Saturday morning to participate in the “Let Us Play” rally at the James R. Thompson Center. About 500 people, mostly players, coaches and parents, showed up wearing their school colors and hoping their voices will be heard all the way to Springfield.

“I’ve always been hopeful. We have to keep hoping something happens, that’s why we’re out here,” Brendan Hernon said. “We were able to come out and show that we can make a difference with decisions and try to take control of our own future playing sports this fall.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the IHSA to adjust its normal schedule from three seasons to four. Three high-risk fall sports – football, volleyball and boys soccer – were moved to their own season from February to May, between the winter and spring sports.

However, with all the states bordering Illinois playing football this fall, football teams and supporters feel left out.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has remained steadfast in not allowing the higher risk sports to return this fall. Pritzker recently said, “Look, I’m not willing to sacrifice people’s lives or their health. We’re being careful about it, but I am relying upon doctors and researchers to give us the information. I know there are people who would like me simply to make a political decision to allow people to endanger themselves.”

IHSA executive director Craig Anderson told Bloomington radio station WJBC-AM 1230 on Friday that Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health had made one phone call to Dr. Cynthia LaBella, who heads the IHSA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.

Anderson gave no indication that the governor and the IDPH were going to leave a decision to return for football, volleyball and boys soccer up to the IHSA any time soon.

Ten speakers addressed the crowd at the rally, most of whom are high school athletes. The first speaker was Tim O’Halloran, publisher of the football website Former Bears center Olin Kreutz was the final speaker.

After each speaker, a DJ for the event whipped up the crowd with chants of “Let us play! Let us play!” Many of those in the crowd had signs that read “LET US PLAY.”

A similar rally was held in Springfield at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Many of the speakers addressed the issues of mental health and how athletes are more depressed without their sports this fall.

Amy Hernon has noticed that with some of the Marian football players.

“I’ve noticed that with Brendan’s friends and their mental health,” she said. “If it’s about the kids being healthy, they should be playing because their mental health is suffering because of them not being able to play. It breaks my heart that he’s not able to play right now.”

The last two Class 8A state champions, Lincoln-Way East (2019) and Loyola (2018), were well-represented at the rally. Two other state heavyweights, Brother Rice and Batavia, also had several players and coaches show up in school colors.

Batavia coach Dennis Piron thinks Illinois can make it work as other states have.

“When we really take a hard look at what occurred with an outbreak about athletics, it never was the sports or the practices themselves, it was something outside of those,” Piron said. “What’s happening is sports are gatekeepers, if you will. We are gatekeeping every single day. Parents and families know they don’t want to get each other sick. We temp check, we sanitize, we’re doing all the little things. Trust your families, trust your communities, trust these people to improve the situations even more, and we think that they will.”

If any return could be made, it would have to be soon as time is running short.

“There’s states coming online every day,” Piron said. “There are states that flipped (back to football) in the last week. There are states that are continuing to press forward. Why? Because it makes sense. We have data to show no one’s having problems with it. We’re not talking about bars or college parties and things like that. We’re talking about practices, playing games, all those things that are so important.”

Hernon was headed to Oak Brook after the rally to work out with quarterback guru Jeff Christensen at his Throw It Deep Academy. He still hopes he can put some of Christensen’s knowledge to use this fall.

“I hope there’s still time,” Hernon said. “I’m just trying to see that at least we might be able to play in the spring and make the best out of the situation we have. I want to prepare and continue to work hard and hope to inspire my teammates to prepare for the spring. Or even the fall, if something happens. Whenever we can play next.”