Current Stories:

Castle Bank Spirit Challenge: Love Thy Rival

By Danielle Catalano, a writer for

Rival towns work together to raise money for their sports programs.

The communities of Sycamore and DeKalb, IL, are approximately 65 miles west of Chicago. Six miles of Route 23 separate the towns. Fifty-five years ago, it would have been six miles too close. Both communities were stereotypical midwest towns, landscaped with cornfields and windmills, and football ruled. Neither town was particularly fond of one another, and the tension culminated each year in the fall when the schools met in football games.

"It wasn't the players fault," says DeKalb High School Athletic Director and Head Football Coach Dan Jones. "They were okay on the field. It was the fans beating each other up in the stands that ruined it."

After the 1950 season, officials banned the schools from playing each other. It wasn't until 26 years later that the ban was dropped.

Fast-forward 30 years, and the towns are now more bosom buddies than bitter enemies, and the teams are back on the field helping to raise more than $60,000 for their booster clubs in the Sixth Annual Castle Bank Spirit Challange.

Economy and education have been the important factors in bridging the communities. Northern Illinois University (NIU) is located in DeKalb. Couple that with the towns' proximity to Chicago, and one finds a robust business and industrial center.

"The people and businesses are just so intertwined with each other, you'd hardly know such a rivalry even existed," says Gary Evans, Castle Bank Director of Development and Co-Chair of the Castle Bank Spirit Challange.

But the rivalry does, and it's alive and well.

On August 26, the two schools will open the 2005 football season playing in the Castle Bank Spirit Challenge. The evening extravaganza begins with a two-hour tailgate party featuring a professionally catered pork barbecue; face paintings and festival games for kids; dunk booths seated by "principals and other local dignitaries;" celebrity signing sessions; a "battle of the bands"; and live pregame interviews with members of the football teams by the local radio station.

The football game starts Olympic-style with members of the cross-country team running three miles, carrying the game ball along the way and into NIU's Huskies Stadium amid the clamor of 8,000 fans. Next, fall-sports athletes parade around the field honoring all student-athletes at the schools. During the halftime show, elementary students will be crowned punt-and-toss winners, and one lucky fan will win at least $1,300 from a 50/50 drawing. The game will be broadcast live on radio, and the winning team will receive the coveted American National Bank trophy.

The four-month preparation for this event began six years ago with Evans. Evans became a member of the Sycamore Sports Booster Club after his children started participating in the school's sports program. Shortly after joining, fundraising became an immediate concern.

"I work in DeKalb and knew that a lack of money had caused DeKalb to cut its swimming program and forced it to reduce some coaching positions," recalls Evans.

Not wanting Sycamore to suffer the same consequences, Evans devised a plan to use the schools' rivalry as a means to fund each school's sports programs.

It's simple: Local businesses from the rival towns are challenged to donate at least $500 to the football game between DeKalb and Sycamore. Sponsoring companies, in turn, will receive a multitude of publicity. Their names will scroll across the scoreboard throughout the night and be posted on all signage, banners, tickets, and advertising materials leading up to the game. Each school will have a banner placed in its gymnasium recognizing the event sponsors, and each sponsor will receive a plaque and mini-helmet as a thank-you gesture in a ceremony later in the school year.

Castle Bank takes the responsibility soliciting the businesses and managing all marketing projects. In return, it retains the name of the Challenge and increases its public awareness campaign.

The booster clubs have it easy. They split the proceeds in half and accrue over $30,000 for their treasuries.

Evans shared his concept with fellow coworker and booster club member, Ron Bemis. They approached the CEO of their bank with the idea, who liked it so much that he donated $1,000 in the bank's name. The two then contacted each school's booster club, athletic director, football coaches, and school board. By the time the business plan was approved, Evans and Bemis had four weeks to gather donations before the rival game took place.

"In less than a month Ron and I collected $20,000 from 12 sponsors and sold more than 2,000 tickets," says Evans.

Now in its sixth year, the Challenge has 138 corporate sponsors donating more than $64,000 and selling 4,000 tickets.

The prep work for the Challenge usually begins in late April and continues through August. Evans and Bemis meet with the booster clubs and their athletic directors in joint meetings to discuss financial goals, committee breakdowns, tickets, tailgate events, food, event programming, media and marketing plans, and supplies. About 300 people volunteer to help during the event.

"The rivalry is only on the field. After the game, we leave it there," says Jones. "The community and both booster clubs work so hard and so cooperatively together to keep this thing going. It's just outstanding"

Since DeKalb does not have a football facility, the school signs a contract with NIU each year to use part of the university's football stadium, parking lots, and security for all of its home games. This contract relieves the stress of finding a venue large enough to accommodate fans.

With the location settled, the first task is finding donors. "This is actually the easiest part of the whole fundraiser," notes Evans.

Evans and Bemis depend on 10-30 bank employees who volunteer their time to mail letters to 1,200 businesses in the DeKalb-Sycamore community explaining the Castle Spirit Challenge. Shortly after the mailings, the two start contacting companies, often times taking business owners out to lunch to discuss their charity.

For the most part, companies that previously sponsoring the Challenge will do so the following year; about 100 companies are returning sponsors for this year's event. Most companies donate $500, but each year an anonymous company donates $2,500-the highest amount ever received on the record. Off the record, the bank will end up donating roughly $5,000 when its contribution, staff hours, dining expenditures, and mailing costs are tallied.

The next task is forming a 30-member ticket committee, referred to as "captains". Since all tickets sold are from pre-game sales, the bank and the captains will work closelymduring a two-week selling timeframe in early August. The captains will ask fall sport athletes from each school to sell 10 tickets a piece. The athletes are not required to sell the tickets, but most do. The captains collect money every two days and must account for the breakdown of the types of tickets—adult or student/child—sold or unsold at the time of deposit.

Neither the athletic directors nor Evans has run into major problems of theft or missing tickets. The only complaint voiced has been the price of student/child tickets—$5—which some in the community feel is too high. Last year's ticket sales equaled $15,000 and covered all expenses. The same is expected this year.

Since Castle Bank's marketing director runs the media and marketing committee, she creates flyers for volunteers and coaches to pass out, and distributes press releases for the media and local government outlets. She works with the local paper, the DeKalb Daily Chronicle, on designing advertisements and a special pullout section that recognizes all sponsors. Her job also requires hiring a professional photographer to take pictures and aerial shots throughout the evening for next year's media project.

With the exception of the radio coverage, the athletic directors and their assistants are responsible for planning the tailgate party and event program, all of which is free to the public, including parking.

Tim Carlson has been the Athletic Director at Sycamore for three years and has been working closely with Evans and Bemis since the Challenge started. Since Jones will be on the sidelines coaching, his athletic director's assistant, Dave Pettengell, works with Carlson.

According to Carlson, work during the night of the Challenge is divided between the two high schools. Equal numbers of committees and volunteers help set up and take down the barbecue area as well as distribute food and run the festival games.

DeKalb's Jones sums up the behind-the-scenes-tasks of the school officials: "High school administrators and staff man the party and stands, along with the extra security. Tim Carlson and Pettengell are constantly running around, checking the food, working with the tailgating committee heads, and checking in with everyone to make sure that everything is running smoothly. If there's a problem, Gary Evans or someone from Castle Bank and the administrators are notified. Usually there isn't."

During the early summer, the programming and other coordination plans are set. Each committee knows its responsibilities and the time schedule of the game's events.

The final item the ADs have to deal with is food.

A lot of pork chops are needed to feed 8,000 fanatics, which is why the booster clubs agreed to have the barbecue professionally catered. A catering company from DeKalb provides all food items, paper products and cups, and with the help of community and booster club volunteers, will serve two tons of pork chops over a two-hour period.

"Gift-in-Kind Sponsors" ease out-of-pocket costs by donating beverages, tables, chairs, and advertising space. Twelve companies are such donors this year, including the local radio station. Tents, other tables and chairs, and refrigerated trucks needed to store meat and drinks are borrowed from the schools.

Carlson and Jones agree that pregame organization is key to running a successful fundraiser. "Making sure that you have good people heading the committees, networking, and working together is important. They help run the show," says Jones.

With the committees, security, and program set, it's time to focus on the game.

After the opening ceremony and first half of the game played, the halftime show will feature elementary students from the rival towns competing against each other in a "Punt, Pass, and Toss Challenge." This mini-challenge is the booster clubs' way of making sure the younger students are not forgotten during the excitementm helping to build community spirit and team pride in the next generation of athletes.

A 50/50 drawing also takes place. The winner not only receives half the money raised frin the drawing, but the winner also gets the game ball. From there, the game resumes. At the end of the evening, the winning team is awarded the American National Bank trophy. This trophy was donated 10 years ago to keep the spirits and rivalry going strong between Sycamore and DeKalb. Sycamore has won it four out of the last five years.

About two weeks after the Challenge, Evans, Bemis, and the schools' treasurers and athletic directors pay expenses, leaving anywhere from $30,000 to $64,000 to be split between the clubs. The bank writes two checks to each booster club, making sure that no money is left in the joint account.

All in all, the Castle Bank Spirit Challenges raise about 75 percent of the booster clubs' budgets. The remaining 25 percent is collected through concession sales, golf tournaments, spirit sales, and other projects.

For the 2005-06 school year, the Sycamore Sports Booster Club plans on purchasing new uniforms and protective gear and equipment for most of its teams, as well as, starting a capital improvement fund for a facility construction project. The DeKalb Barbs Boosters ask coaches from each sport to request their purchasing needs. Jones would like the football program to receive new sideline and video editing equipment.

Carlson is happy to see that time has healed most wounds. "Many values and lessons that are taught by coaches are demonstrated by the cooperative effort of these events," he says. "Lessons such as goal-setting, cooperation, the idea that the team is more important than the individual, sacrifice, and hard work are all demonstrated by adults in the two communities."

For more information on the Castle Bank Spirit Challenge, please contact Challenge Co-Chair Gary Evans at: is brought to you by a recognized and established name in the school athletics arena, MomentumMedia—publisher of Athletic Management, Coaching Management and Training & Conditioning magazines.