The Junior Wildkits take on Schaumburg on Sunday, Oct. 23, at Lazier Field In Evanston. Credit: Emma Urdangen

“That’s all right, keep your eye on the ball,” yells a tall, brawny man wearing an army veteran’s hat as a flock of boys, looking like bobblehead dolls in their helmets, works to hold off Schaumburg’s highly ranked team at the goal line.

Evanston native Seth Himrod, executive director and head coach of the Junior Wildkits, continues to shout encouragement to the seventh and eighth graders as they gain possession and drive back down the field as the end of the second half nears.

Parents cheer from the sidelines, and younger siblings nearly topple over the fence hoping for a better view. With the playoffs approaching, the pressure is on the Junior Wildkits to secure a win. Yet despite the stakes and the opponent’s lead of 12-0 in the fourth quarter, the players on the sidelines whoop and holler, running up and down the field in time with their teammates on the field.

The Junior Kits eventually lose the Oct. 23 game, but spirits run high as the team gathers for Himrod’s postgame debrief. This loss doesn’t define them, he says, but rather “the effort you put in, the way you held them at the goal line, your support for one another.” That, Himrod says, “is what you should remember, leaving the season.”

Coach Seth Himrod began helping out with the Junior Wildkits in 2000 when his son played on the sixth grade team. Credit: Courtesy Seth Himrod

Despite the loss, the Kits land a spot in the playoffs. Still, Himrod says, there’s a lot more to youth football than championships.

“Football is just the vehicle of providing mentorship and life lessons to these players,” says Himrod. He begins each season by telling parents, “If the only thing your children learn from me and my staff is football, then we are failing.”

For Himrod, a win is watching “that young kid who is afraid of his shadow make a big play” or “that kid who didn’t know what to do, make a key block and become a part of the team.” Himrod smiles. “That’s what I hang my hat on.”

How Army vet began coaching

If you ask, the 51-year-old Army veteran will tell you he never planned on being the director of Junior Wildkits for a single season, let alone for more than a decade. He began in 2000, helping out periodically while his son played on the sixth grade team. However, Himrod quickly immersed himself in the program, and soon became the “No. 2 guy” to head coach Craig Thompson. Together, the two successfully built up the program, focusing on the core values of academics, character and teamwork.

Then, in 2011, Thompson died of a heart attack at age 49, leaving Himrod in the role of head coach and director of operations. “I didn’t want the job,” Himrod says with a laugh, “but I felt obligated to the community; they really needed our program.” 

Himrod addresses the Junior Wildkits. He has been involved with the program for more than 20 years. Credit: Courtesy Seth Himrod

There are 19 volunteer coaches in the program, working with kids from kindergarten through eighth grade; about 100 players in all. Academics, character and teamwork – ACT – is the Junior Wildkits dictum, and players must honor it to stay in the program.

Leonard English, who’s been coaching for the Junior Wildkits for 10 years, recalls Himrod’s advice early on, urging him to prioritize character development over the team’s record.

“‘It’s youth football; everything that can go wrong will,’” he remembers Himrod telling him. What coaches can control are the lessons in humanity, respect and teamwork instilled along the way, which Himrod emphasizes as the Junior Wildkits method.

“He’s an Evanston pillar,” says Aubrey Murray, a past ETHS football coach. “His
patience is saintly.” 

Inspiring for generations

More than 3,000 boys have gone through the program since Himrod’s start. Today, three former players are themselves Junior Wildkits coaches, and Himrod is gratified to see them grow into “good dads, working hard and supporting their community – just like we talked about when they were teenagers.”

One of Himrod’s current teens, eighth grade varsity player Ray Owens-Fomond, is
surprised yet confident when approached by a reporter as he unwraps his orange and blue ankle tape. Owens-Fomond credits the Kits with shaping him into a dedicated student.

“Having the Junior Wildkit grade sheet check-in helped a lot,” he says. As for football, he’ll try to hold onto Himrod’s teachings when he joins the ETHS freshman team. “Even if we lose, if I try my best and give it my all, I can be proud of myself.”

“I take those ACT pillars with me in everything I do,” says program alum Charlie
Krause, a class of 2021 linebacker at Washington University in St. Louis. “[They’ve been] the most important guiding light throughout my entire football career.” 

Himrod credits much of his coaching style to his father, David Himrod. As a minister and head reference librarian, he was a teacher at the core. “My father didn’t play sports himself,” Himrod says. “But he taught me to look at the sport from an analytical perspective” – to not make decisions strictly based on talent and strength.

Himrod’s own childhood coaches are also inspirations. “I was a good player, not a great one,” he says. But his Little League coach, Michael DeVaul, valued effort over outcome, and Himrod has adopted his philosophy. “If you show up, work hard, and make your grades, you’ll play – that’s what matters.”

Though Himrod occasionally receives pushback from parents regarding the competitive effectiveness of his mandated playing time for all athletes, most admire and respect him.

“I am constantly impressed by their behavior,” says one Junior Wildkit featherweight
team parent. “As a teacher, it’s not easy to get 20 kids to listen, let alone 100.” 

ETHS assistant football coach Sean Hopson, whose son plays on the varsity Junior Wildkit team, says the “confidence he has maintained in the past five years is in direct correlation to Coach Himrod and his philosophy.”

Still, this is football, and winning is better than losing. “I want to win all of the time,”
says Himrod. “I’m very competitive, but not at the expense of developing people.”
Himrod’s practices have a “set-in-stone structure, ” with equal time dedicated to offense, defense and cleaning up mistakes from the week prior. The strict routine, he says, comes from his time serving for a decade in the military.

Himrod entered the Army at 17 after the birth of his first child. He served for 10 years in the 101st Division, fighting in Desert Storm during the Gulf War, then working as an instructor in the Reserves. He finished his military service in 1999, decorated with combat jump wings, combat infantryman medals and Army achievement badges.

Five kids and two decades later, Himrod still has a soldier’s instincts. His “20 minutes of hell” are infamous. Derived from his drill sergeant in Fort Benning, these 20 minutes involve “various levels of calisthenics” used as a “team building” or “punitive” techniques at practice.

“My players will tell you I have pushed them to a level they’ve never been pushed
before,” Himrod says, laughing. “After that, making your bed and being respectful to your mother is easy.”

English notes that while it is hard work for players, “when they come out on the other side they have more respect for each other and a kind of closeness.”

Krause remembers one particular “20 minutes” when he and a teammate began to bicker. Himrod sentenced them to 10 minutes of running laps – while holding hands. “You can’t be mad at someone after that,” Krause says. “We’ve been best friends ever since.” 

‘You’re welcome here’

This sense of community is a crucial lesson Himrod strives to teach his players. “I don’t
care what you look like, who you love, who you pray to, you’re welcome here,” he tells them each season.

Himrod grew up in Evanston as a transracial adoptee to white parents, surrounded by family, friends and neighbors from a variety of backgrounds. He says there’s no way to “generalize a person’s personality based on their identity. Our true diversity is what makes this program special, and we wouldn’t trade our melting pot for the world.”

Himrod admits that, with deep investment in his players, comes “soul-crushing losses” that “rip your heart out.” In the more than 20 years Himrod has been with the Junior Wildkits, he says the program has lost players as young as 10 to gun violence, the justice system and “bad luck.”

Just this past August, gunshots were fired across the street from where the team was
practicing on the field behind the Fleetwood-Jourdain Center. Himrod and his coaches rushed the children to shelter and stayed inside until the scene was clear.

Right away, Himrod “put in calls to families to check in, and to the alderman for extra
support” says English. “We were worried parents would pull their children from the program after this, but the next night, every player came back.”

This year, for the first time in their current division, all four Junior Wildkits teams qualified for the playoffs. Although the varsity team fell to Kenosha in the first round, the season wasn’t over for Himrod until Sunday, Nov. 6, when the last Junior Wildkits in contention, the featherweight team, lost to Stevenson.

“Hard fight, but came up short. Great job by all,” the coach texted after the game.

During the offseason, Himrod looks forward to spending time with his grandchildren, working as a massage therapist at Evanston Wellness Revolution and, above all, “finding a new, affordable place to practice next season.” After 25 years, the team will be moving to a new field to make room for what Himrod calls the “very exciting” new Fifth Ward school that District 65 plans to build on the site.

As for the team? Himrod is not worried. “Each year we have a lot of talent going out and coming in,” and he looks forward to sending his eighth graders off to “be good human beings in their next chapter – whether that involves football or not.”

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  1. Coach Himrod is an Evanston star–every kid that I know, including my own, who has played for the Junior Wildkits has had an amazing, positive experience. Character is valued just as much as football talent. This season, my ETHS player left after his 2.5 hour practice several times a week to rush to help the Junior Wildkits at their practice–he wanted to mentor and “give back” to the team, just as his Junior Wildkits coaches helped him. EJWK is a fantastic program, and we are so lucky to have it in our community!