Has violence turned off Friday night lights?

Has violence turned off Friday night lights?

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The Champaign Central football team trickled into Tommy Stewart Fieldhouse at McKinley Field three Saturdays ago, hours before the sun rose to the smell of breakfast burritos.

Most of the athletes, coach Tim Turner knew, hadn't had time to eat by their 5 a.m. required arrival before their 8 a.m. game against Centennial, so the coaching staff made a spread of burritos and bananas before their walkthrough in the dark.

It was a genuinely bizarre experience in a sport that normally warms up under Friday night lights rather than moonlight, but one that Turner made the most of.

"It's all about the memories that we make throughout the course of the season, and this is one of those memories," he said. "A lot of kids won't have this experience. Now, it was for a negative reason."

For the time being at least, these Saturday games are a reality for the Central football team.

After one-time Central student David Sankey was shot and killed in the Garden Hills neighborhood on Aug. 28 — four days before the Maroons were set to take on crosstown rival Centennial — the game was moved to Saturday out of what the district called an "abundance of caution." That forced a last-minute audible for many parties, from concession stand volunteers to band members to the officiating crew.

The change was made even though Unit 4 and the Champaign Police Department say they have no reason to believe there was any threat that any sort of retaliation for the murder would take place at the game.

Last week, the district moved Central's game against Urbana to 10 a.m. Saturday. The school district had already scheduled the Maroons' Week 6 bout with Danville for a Saturday after a shooting took place after a basketball game between the schools last December.

"I just think the recent violence added to people's worry" after the Central-Danville basketball game, said Central Athletic Director Jane Stillman, who played no role in the decision to move the games.

Unit 4 Superintendent Susan Zola and Deputy Superintendent Laura Taylor, who were integral in the decision, were not available for comment aside from a statement that read: "Although Champaign Unit 4 School District has no information to suggest that there is a threat to our high schools or school-related activities, in an abundance of caution, the upcoming Central vs. Urbana football game was moved from Friday, September 14 at 7 p.m. to Saturday September 15 at 10 a.m. Moving the game is consistent with our early season change for the Central vs. Centennial game."

The News-Gazette also received a statement from Champaign police spokesman Thomas Yelich, which gave full credit for the decision to Unit 4.

"The decision to move football games to Saturday is one made by the Champaign Unit 4 School District," Yelich said in an email. "Staffing high school football games is not something new for our department, regardless if it falls on a Friday or Saturday. There is no information to suggest any threat, and my understanding is Unit 4 made this decision in an abundance of caution."

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In central Illinois, this type of move is unprecedented for cities similar in size to Champaign, at least in recent memory. A survey of journalists from Springfield, Peoria, Decatur and Bloomington turned up no similar decisions to reschedule games in this fashion.

Joliet West Athletic Director Steve Millsaps has plenty of experience monitoring both Friday and Saturday games. His district used to play games exclusively on Saturdays, although in the last several years they've eased in more Friday night games. While Millsaps said kids tend to create the same amount of trouble on Fridays and Saturdays, the type of crowd is different on a Saturday.

Many students who would normally come to games, after all, are gone at their own sporting events, while many families who might not attend Friday night games replace them.

"There's really no other events on Friday nights for schools," Millsaps said.

If something nefarious does happen, it's quite simply easier to spot during daylight hours.

"When daylight hours are around, it's just easier to see things," Urbana Athletic Director Steve Waller said, "and it seems like as the night progresses and the night time with no daylight, sometimes other things can happen that sometimes can be out of your control."

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The local schools are finding positives in earlier games. All three athletic directors at the Champaign-Urbana public schools said scheduling games earlier in the day may be something they look at going forward because of the convenience of earlier games, with long commutes to and from Big 12 schools.

The move does have negative ripple effects. Central booster club president Tim McMahon estimated that the organization, which pays for equipment for the team, would lose around $750 in revenue from concessions for each Saturday game.

The players also miss out on the cachet of playing in a Friday night game.

Former Danville athletic director and football coach BJ Luke said simply motivating players is tougher during the daytime.

"It's a different feel for a game if it's not a playoff game," said Luke, who coached multiple Saturday games a year when he was in charge at Waubonsie Valley. "It's not near the excitement of a Friday night varsity game, and especially if you're playing at 8 or 9 o'clock in the morning. That's a tough go there."

Luke, who retired from his athletic director role over the summer, said that after the shooting outside of the Danville-Central basketball game, the school beefed up security for the rest of its games and was strict about not allowing kids on social probation through the gates.

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For his part, Turner hopes games move back to Friday nights sooner rather than later. But while he didn't get the feeling violence was a threat at the Central-Centennial or Urbana-Central games, he understands the decision.

"I don't think the school district thought it was an atmosphere where something could happen," Turner said. "I think it's just for the safety in general.

"If I'm being honest, what I say is that most people who are in the foolishness aren't coming to football games, they aren't going to the extracurricular activities. Whether or not this is something that was a real threat — personally, and this is just me personally, I don't think there was a real threat — but any time that there's any kind of threat, if we're to keep people safe, then let's err on the side of safety and let's move on to the next thing."