Local youth football organization gives “safety”
in football a whole new meaning

By Anna Hughes | Photos by Victor Hilitski

It started with four dads and a dream: a dream of safe football, a dream of camaraderie and teamwork for young kids around Elmhurst, and a dream of something bigger than themselves and their families.
So, they formed the Elmhurst Bears.

In 2019, Jason Judycki and Bob Gollias called up Mark Galasso and Justin Allen with an idea to revitalize a declining sport: youth football. With so much in the media about concussions and the dangers of contact sports, fewer parents were allowing their kids to play. They knew safety had to be a big piece of their organization to ensure its growth in town, so they pursued partnerships with coaches and equipment companies to make this dream a reality.

They decided to invest in the top-of-the-line equipment and technology. Through Riddell, they adopted the use of special helmets with “InSite Analytics.” These helmets have six different sensors that allow the coaches to understand if a child is taking a hard hit or to get them to tackle properly.

“Those were things that we didn’t see in other organizations. And why we wanted to develop those partnerships to bring football back to being a sport that people that parents want their kids to be a part of,” Allen said.
It started with nine kids.

Then it grew to 60 in the first season. Now, there are over 300 athletes in the Pop Warner program, including football and cheer teams for a variety of age groups, making the Bears the fastest-growing youth football program in the Midwest. But it’s not only about youth football here in Elmhurst; they want to change how it’s done everywhere. Beyond safety, they focus on top-tier coaching, fair opportunities for all kids, and education.

“I think what helps us grow is that everyone knows that if you’re coming here, there is no preferential treatment whether you’re on the board, or whether you’re a volunteer, whether you’re a parent coach, we as a board operate to also ensure that everything is fair,” Galasso said.


“But it’s more about the future of these kids. And that’s that’s why we started it. That’s why we’re here. And that’s why we’re hoping it continues.”

– Mark Galasso on starting the Elmhurst Bears program


“We wanted to get away from organizations that we call ‘daddy ball,’and [players’] dads were a heavy influence on whether they started, how they played, or anything else; maybe they got coached more directly because it was their kid,” Allen added.

To ensure this fairness and achieve their goals of developing skilled football players, they had to call in the pros. Judycki called on Immaculate Conception College Prep head football coach Bill Krefft, asking if he’d be interested in partnering with their new program. With six state championships under his belt, he and his team were the perfect fit for this undertaking. Along with NFL veteran Matt Bowen and a gaggle of other skilled assistant coaches, Krefft set the standard for what player growth and development would look like for the Bears.

Thanks to this top-tier coaching staff and structure, they’re on track to have over 500 kids enrolled in the various programs in 2024. While it’s fun for the kids, especially as the program grows, it’s been no easy task for the dads.

“With Justin, Bob, Jason, and myself, we all have four separate personalities, and we all bring something to the table,” Galasso said. “We’ve all probably put in 60 hours a week for the last five years on top of our jobs, especially during the season.”

After five years of hard work and dedication to this team, Galasso and Allen are retiring as board members. They feel the organization is in a great spot to let the next generation of leaders take over. To them, it’s never been about creating Division I athletes (though that would be a bonus), but it’s about making every player and cheerleader feel like they’re part of the community.

“We obviously want to win. Obviously, we want to do well; we want the kids to win in their sports and have winning seasons, which we do. But it’s more about the future of these kids. And that’s that’s why we started it. That’s why we’re here. And that’s why we’re hoping it continues,” Galasso said.

President Gollias and Vice President Judycki are sad to see them go and thankful for everything they did to make this organization what it is. They know that Galasso and Allen leave a legacy not only for the next group of parent leaders but also for the kids who have grown up playing football with the Bears. Through tough conversations, hard decision-making, and differing opinions, the founders have stayed driven on their mission. They’ve also stayed friends.

“Sometimes the conversations got heated, but it was a good way,” Judycki said. “I mean, it was always about the kids and about the program.”

Five years in, it’s exciting to see the positive impact that the program has had on the kids involved. They hope this feeling isn’t fleeting.

“[We hope] that they have this just extra special experience so that when they look back on it, and five years from now, or ten years from now, they remember, ‘Hey, the Elmhurst Bears gave me more than just a trophy. They gave me some that I’ll remember forever,” Gollias said.

For the players, it’s always about more than just football. It’s about friendship.

“Through everything, like all the wins and losses, at the end of the day, my friends and I are still having fun,” 14-year-old Hilton McAdoo said.

McAdoo has been playing with the Bears since their first year, and he’s formed close bonds with the boys with whom he shares the field. Friendship, security, teamwork – these are all things the founders hoped would be at the core of their program.

“I feel like it’s better to play with your friends because you have more of a sense of trust with your friends, and trust is a big thing in football,” McAdoo said.

Trust is important in cheerleading, too. It’s what ensures perfect stunts and team success. The trust and teamwork exemplified by the Bears cheerleaders led to two teams taking trophies home from Pop Warner 2023 nationals in Florida.

“Florida was definitely a lot to take in,” 13-year-old team member Nora Decker said. “It was the first time the Bears ever went, and it’s only the third year of the competition team. So it was really fun. We were the first Bears to ever step on the mat. I mean, I don’t think we expected to win because we knew there were a lot of good teams out there. But we did beat our rivals, which was very important.”

Decker, a seventh grader at Sandburg Middle School, is the oldest on the cheer team, but that doesn’t bother her. She said it’s a great opportunity to be a leader to the younger girls, which is a skill she’s hoping to cultivate going into high school.

“I think it’s really fun [being the oldest] because they all look up to me a lot. And they’re like, my little children. I love it,” Decker said.

These students embody the mission set by the founders five years ago. From their viewpoint, everything is going exactly as they dreamt it – maybe even better. Gollias knows it’s all thanks to the Elmhurst community, which rallied behind them and showered them with support and assistance where needed. It’s the community that will keep the legacy of the Bears going for generations.

“One of Mark’s things he always says is, “In 20 years, I want to go to the bar and, you know, see an Elmhurst Bears plaque or a helmet at the bar, and point at it, like, you know, I did that. I was part of that,’”Judycki said.
For more information on the Elmhurst Bears and how you or your kids can get involved, visit www.elmhurstbears.com. ■