Our Favorite Sport is in Trouble
This may come as a surprise to no one, but I wanted to address it for off-season reading and discussion purposes.
First, I have no numerical statistics either Pennsylvania, or nationally, to emphatically prove that participation is down in high school football; but I believe it is from what I have observed from a local perspective.
First and foremost, high school football is not as important as it once was. When I first discovered the sport in 1951 it seemed to be the driving force in pulling school classes and even communities together. It was the first sport of the new school year, in those days beginning two or three weeks after school started, kicking off in late September. But, “making the football team” was a big deal especially to underclassmen and first-time tryouts. “I got cut”, was usually not even mentioned unless about mid-season someone was asked why they were not at practice, and then you heard the dreaded words.
Not only was it the first sport of the school year, but the biggest sport in number of participants needed for a team, as it still is. My program from my first game ever seen in 1951 had a home team 28 players. Most players played on both sides of the ball in those days of simplistic offenses and defenses, and primarily run-oriented schemes. Our opponent’s roster was 32 men.
Football was basically an August (schools usually had two-week summer camps) to Thanksgiving game period. Most of the football athletes played other sports – basketball, baseball, and track. A few may have lifted weights or ran off season on their own, but year-around-training and sports specialization to a single sport was a thing of the future.
The community turned out for the games and the stands and fence around the track outside the field was filled week-to-week. It seemed important, especially to beat your rival school and community who also appeared in good numbers on the visitor’s side of the field.
When I say “our favorite sport is in trouble”; I am addressing those that post on high school websites for the many reasons that they take the time to do so. These include the former athletes that played in many games for various teams, the parents of players now, or in the recent past; and people that have issues with certain tenets of high school football, or certain games they have seen.
Then there is myself, who never played a down of football outside of midget league practice before all my front teeth were damaged by a helmet to the mouth in the days of single-bar face guards. That was four years after I first saw, and became totally awed by the game, crowd, bands, cheers, and field action my first night out. That, “something” about the game has never left me through now, 66 years of viewing. I digress, but I needed to address that I never played.
Many reasons contribute to the decline of importance for our favorite sport.
The eventual development of other additional sports is one reason. The basic male sports in the 1950’s were football, basketball, baseball, and track. Some larger schools had gymnastics teams, which I do not think took away much from football. Swimming for large schools with pools did not detract that much from football. Both gymnastics and swimming attracted athletes with different abilities than the brute strength and running speed of football. An agile strength and overall agility was needed. There was no wrestling at my school, and I never took the slightest interest in that sport and know nothing about it.
Two other sports gaining greater popularity since the 1950s, soccer and lacrosse have become big sports taking former football players away from the pigskin. The prominence in soccer in college began in 1959 with the NCAA sanction of a national championship in the sport. The high schools followed suit. By 1984 more colleges were playing soccer (532) than football (505). Participation trickles down from professional to college to high school to youth leagues.
Safe to say that ice hockey, that was only played in the upper Midwest high schools in the 1950’s has also made inroads in local schools today. The United States is second only to Canada with registered ice hockey players by country with 543,239 to the Dominion’s 639,500. This is male, female, and junior players and whether it does, or does not include high school players; it is still a barometer of participation numbers.
Of course, other sports are not the only source of defection from high school football today. The fact that competitive pressure has dictated year-round training and conditioning may indeed be a turn off to some youngsters. Is it important enough to the individual to train hard all year long to sit the bench if he is an underclassman or not a starter?
That is a factor of desire. What is the, “want” factor in the average young man for football today? I admit to getting old, there is a big generation gap; I cannot pretend to understand today’s youth. I have no offspring, no nephews or nieces under 25, and no children in my neighborhood. But, I do see a lack of outdoor activity in the lots and ball courts as I ride through different areas and neighborhoods. Indoor gaming via electronics seems to prevail. Are many possible “athletes” grounded in less strenuous activities?
Yet the popular soccer and softball fields in the Morrisville-Yardley-Fairless Hills areas seem to bustle with activity at times. Of course, this represents many children active in sports other than football; and includes softball on the female side of the coin.
There is no need to try to expand on the concussion issue in high school football. An NFL-funded study in 2013 revealed that it is twice as likely for a high school athlete to sustain a concession as a college athlete. As it was an NFL study, we have to assume it was focused on football. Caring parents rightfully are concerned, and I am sure there are potential football players sidelined as a result; or playing soccer, lacrosse, or hockey as an alternative. While still contact sports, the concussion issue does not seem to be as publically acclaimed with these.
The week before Thanksgiving an article on Philly.com by Jonathan Tannenwald told of a judge in Lawrence County, PA opening the way for a lawsuit against the PIAA by two high school football players who were injured by concussions. Details notwithstanding; it is not good news for high school football.
That brings us to other present year events of negative degree for high school football.
It started in the summer when District One’s Calvary Christian Academy announced it would not field a team for the 2016 season due to lack of numbers. CCA recently celebrated its 20th year of existence. It is a small school, Class A, with about 120 boys by the PIAA classifications for the 2014 – 2015 seasons. It was larger than Delco Christian and Jenkintown at that time. The Head Coach was Mike Reichenbach, former Philadelphia Eagle, and an 8-year career in the NFL.
As the announcement was made before the 2016 PIAA classification numbers came out it is impossible to determine if the enrollment was that far down; or the boys just did not come out. Sadly, a team was lost, but the matter was handled properly with advance notice and no forfeit issues inherited. Of course schedules were affected and teams scrambled to find a replacement game for the 2016 season.
Next it was Springfield Montco. The Spartans played a game out at Octorara (4A) on August 26 and lost 20-47. On August 30 it was announced that the Spartans were forced to cancel the remainder of the season due to lack of participation. The decision was made late due to the hopes that as school began additional players would join the team.
The Spartans were the only 3A team playing in a league against four 5A schools and three 6A schools. Highly courageous; and in 2015 they were good enough to play in the District One (then class 2A) Championship game, losing narrowly to New Hope-Solebury 7-14. It seems perfectly ratable to cancel the season with the health of the students the chief concern.
But here was a 3A school with a pretty good tradition not being able to field a football team. I hope it is for only THIS season?! (Appears to be as they are seeking a game or two for 2017).
Next is the situation regarding big 6A George Washington High School of D12. They recently lost their long time highly successful coach Ron Cohen. GW is the second largest PIAA classification ranking high school in the city with 944 the number. It was reported that at one game this season they played with a total of 23 players. The Eagles did continue their season and finished 0-10, so numbers could still have been the problem although it is not known for sure. But 23 players at a huge 6A school must be considered a significant event.
A mystery for a while was the dropping of a George School – New Hope-Solebury game for the weekend of October 21-22. The only notice I saw of it was an ad on easternPAfootball.com that NH-Solebury needed a game for this week when George School was on the original schedule. George is a non-PIAA Independent listed at 4A, but team sizes there are more 1A historically. They were 2-4 before the scheduled game. The Lions of NH-Solebury were rolling at 6-1, and it left you wondering before news about the non-cancellation became known. After a while news did come forth, and George was also suffering the numbers/injuries problem, but the game was played, likely very courageously by George. NH-Solebury won 59-12.
Originally officials at Neumann-Goretti must not have had their thinking-caps on when they announced cancellation of their next two LEAGUE games, but maintained they were going to play a non-league and a Thanksgiving Day contest.
The Saints were 0-7 at the time, and by their losing scores were not “in” any of the games. Next scheduled were Cardinal O’Hara 7-0, and Conwell-Egan 5-2. These were cancelled and forfeited, but the Saints would play Columbia (0-6 at the time) and Thanksgiving against I believe, South Philadelphia. The Saints had 29 roster players at the beginning of the season, and attrition could certainly have made it a risk to continue. But announcing the cancellation of two strong teams and the continuation against two weaker games did not look good publically.
Someone of higher authority in the School, League, or Archdiocese set it straight by stating Neumann-Goretti must cancel all four remaining games. End of season, end of story; but hopefully the Saints regroup. In 2014 they went deep in the 2A state playoffs.
Also in D12, it was decided that the final regular season game between Del Val Charter and Imhotep would not be played and declared “no contest”. (If the game were played it also would likely have been “no contest”); nevertheless the reason given was that, “prior scheduled school events precluded playing as scheduled; and a new date could not be agreed upon.” How a “prior scheduled event” affects a scheduled game from last July or August is a mystery to me.
In District 6, Blairsville suffered a forfeit due to tragedy; and it is a tragedy that is happening much too often in modern times. I understand only from scarce sources that two young men took their own lives, one of them a football player; and a young lady attempted the same. My heart sank with this news and many, many words of sympathy were voiced to the families, community, and team from all over the area; especially touching from various opponents.
Out in Washington State, a team won its first three games 73-0, 59-0, and 38-0 and their next three opponents cancelled their scheduled games with the school. They had 6 players 250 pounds or over, and three over 300. None of the next three they were to play had more than one over or at 250. The school was a private with open enrollment and opportunity to recruit all over their area. Naturally, player safety is the issue for the cancelling schools. Sound familiar?
The Philadelphia City class 2A Championship between West Catholic and Strawberry Mansion was played and Mansion dressed 16 players for the game. It was 65-8 West Catholic. A series of many photos of the game on Ted Silary’s website shows not one person in the stands on one side of the field. How sad is that? The 1942 West Catholic versus West Philadelphia City Championship Game drew 43,000 fans to Franklin Field per Frank Fitzpatrick, Philly.com.
Jenkintown is the smallest single-A school in District One with 73 the football classification number; and it is the tenth smallest football-playing school in the state. Nevertheless, the Drakes usually hold their own in the small-school BAL, and only once that I can remember, years ago, had trouble fielding a team. They list 23 for a recent game, likely “normal” for the school. Following a good 7-3 year in 2016, the question is how many were seniors?
In the Inter-Ac, Germantown Academy played a middle school contest versus Penn Charter with GA dressing 14 players. This is my only example of middle school participation, but is it a barometer of future high school participation?
Several news accounts this year mentioned, “Shortage of officials.” I can make no comment on this as I am totally unaware of football official data, but it does not sound good.
When Jon Craig stepped down as Harry S. Truman’s head coach in mid-November 2016, it prompted an article in the Bucks County Courier Times. The reporter asked Jon about the fact that more guys his age (35) seemed to be leaving the coaching game. There was no hesitation in his response. “—- It has become a year-round commitment. You have weight rooms, seven-on-seven drills, and then you get to training camp. It’s become really tough on families.” The article continued to mention that the days of the 30-year coach at the high school level are fading fast. And despite coaches being teachers of life lessons, if wins and losses do not balance, today’s society calls for a new coach. I will get into that more after the next paragraph.
It is not only the smallest schools that are having problems fielding teams. I mentioned GW 6A (10th largest in state), Springfield Montco 3A, and Neumann-Goretti 2A. While it is certainly the smallest schools that are most vulnerable to possibly not being able to field a team or finish a season if interest continues to drop; but we also may not see enough interest at big schools if the winning chances are not improved for the squad. Pride of playing is no longer a tonic for losing.
This has developed into what I call, “State Champs or nothing”, an attitude that has developed over the years since the beginning of on-field championships in 1988. It is most evident on posts I read on various high school websites. Certainly and realistically it cannot be evident within the school administrations, coaches, and teams that come out and devote their time and efforts. There have to be realistic expectations year-to-year, game-to-game. But what effect does it have on the individual choosing to play football, or his desire on where he can/will play? Just making the football team is not what it was at Neshaminy in 1962; Berwick in the 1980’s; or even Central Bucks West in the 1990’s. There is time and hard work and possible injury to think about versus the reward of – what? Is there still a pride of belonging, a “fun” factor of playing, and an accomplishment in great effort if the outcome in wins and losses is not so great?
I have seen 6A Truman down to 23 players; have seen 6A Bensalem with about 30, and both 6A Council Rock squads seem nowhere near their old numbers. And numbers are the first factor evident to an outsider that does not know the ability of the individual players. As I get to games an hour before kickoff one of the first things I do is count the squads.
After the number count I look to physical size of players; linemen, QB, and that solid stud-look of a player, i.e. big arms, chest, thighs, and calves. You see coaches describe them as “thick kids” sometimes. The winning teams seem to have many of those, the losing squads, few. Speed becomes evident only in the game unless such personal stat elements have been made public beforehand.
How many young players are ready and willing to regiment themselves to developing the stud body it takes to compete? How many have the natural ability traits it takes to be a star athlete? How many have the right mental attitude to weather the good and bad and play as a “team”?
Many teams that I have seen this season looked a little small physically. There are some undersize “hitters” out there, and undersize many times complements speed. But most football positions demand some bulk, and many teams did not seem to have much of it this year. Desire and proper technique, good coaching and solid practice can help, but you have to be able to take punishment in great measure if you play undersize. It takes a lot of commitment to build a “football body”, and I wonder if the greater percentage of high school football players desire to commit to it among all of the other things available or necessary in today’s society.
It takes a lot to be a football player and it seems to me that less and less want to do it. I have covered some ground, but likely there is much I did not cover and I would love to hear about your take on the matter.
I reached the three-quarter century age mark in October 2016, and 75 years have seemed to breeze by in no time flat. I can visualize memories back about 70 years as if they were yesterday. It is the autumn of my life under “normal” circumstances and I know that my future seasons will be in much more modest numbers. I plan to go to games until I can no more; or I am no more. I can’t see the sport disappearing in my limited time remaining, and I hope it never does; but I see it as a troubled sport right now.
Phila.com – Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News website
Ted Silary.com – Ted’s great site for Phila sports news.
Wikipedia.com – the free encyclopedia that truly is a free source of wonder.
Bucks County Courier Times.
Follow EasternPAFootball.com on Twitter @EPAFootball
Share This Post: