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Tackling The Numbers Issue In High School Football

  • Football numbers across many schools in southern Illinois are being affected, where six teams don't have enough players to make a freshmen team. There are many scenarios surrounding the issue, which include, junior high football,  overall school enrollment dropping due to jobs moving out of the area; the revelation of concussions causing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE; boys soccer being introduced as a fall sport; the information technology age that didn't exist years ago; and specialization in one sport.

    Football numbers across many schools in southern Illinois are being affected, where six teams don't have enough players to make a freshmen team. There are many scenarios surrounding the issue, which include, junior high football, overall school enrollment dropping due to jobs moving out of the area; the revelation of concussions causing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE; boys soccer being introduced as a fall sport; the information technology age that didn't exist years ago; and specialization in one sport.
    SPYDER DANN | mdann@dailyregister.com

 
By Spyder Dann mdann@dailyregister.com
updated: 8/23/2018 12:50 PM

It's an October Friday night in the year 2021 and the Harrison-Bruce Sports Complex in Herrin is empty.

The cool autumn breeze is blowing a little stiffer that night, as unmowed grass and fall leaves blow in the night wind across the football field.

A varsity football game should be going on. The field lights are dark. No players are on the field and no fans in the stands.

The concession stand sits dark and no music is blaring from the PA system.

"The Graveyard" as it's known, lives up to its nickname because the game between Herrin and Murphysboro was cancelled because neither team had enough players.

Is this description disturbing? Yes.

Could it become a reality? Ummm...probably not, but yes it could.

Rewind four seasons ago to 2018. Herrin and Murphysboro had to cancel their freshman football schedule of games due to a lack of numbers in both programs, and on this night in the future, there is no prep football between these two towns.

Participation in high school football is down 3.5 percent in the United States, according to a recent study by the Associated Press, and in that same study, it was revealed that 41 states have seen a drop in numbers over the past five years, including Illinois, where football numbers are down 10 percent or more.

There are many reasons for the decline in football numbers -- but not limited to -- overall school enrollment dropping due to jobs moving out of the area; the revelation of concussions causing chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known as CTE; boys soccer being introduced as a fall sport; the information technology age that didn't exist years ago; and specialization in one sport.

Locally, some six high schools, the aforementioned Murphysboro and Herrin, along with Carbondale, West Frankfort, Pinckneyville and Sparta have cancelled the freshman football season due to a lack of numbers and instead have combined freshmen and sophomores into one junior varsity team.

While that is a small sample size, there are concerns.

According to an Associated Press report, the decline in football would be much steeper if not for a handful of states in the South and the West.

Throughout the Northeast, the Midwest and the West Coast, in communities urban and rural, wealthy and working-class, fewer kids are playing football.

Football Under Attack

Coaches are fighting back -- at all levels -- but that doesn't negate the constant reports about concussions and deaths resulting from playing football.

On the flip side, equipment has never safer.

Mike Rude, head coach at Vienna-Goreville High School, said that in his 49 years, "high school players are playing in the best helmets ever developed."

Herrin head coach Jason Karnes said helmets cost anywhere from $250 to $300 each, which makes football the most expensive sport by far.

Safer equipment, however, won't likely persuade some parents to let their children participate in football.

Coaches in Southern Illinois believe football is safer and some take ownership for that, but Marion head coach Kerry Martin knows its still not a sport meant for everyone.

"Football is a tough, rugged sport," Martin said. "It's played in the heat with heavy gear and great physicality. We live in a society that is not as tough. I'm not saying it's worse, it's just not as tough. On a daily basis, people don't have to endure physical hardship. Everything is air conditioned, there are fewer kids that farm or even bail hay. No one push mows their yards anymore and fewer kids play outside and get acclimated to the heat."

On the matter of concussions, football at Marion is third in the school in concussion-related injuries, behind soccer and volleyball.

Benton athletic director Ryan Miller believes the national awareness being brought about with concussions and long-term effects have scared parents from allowing their younger children to play and despite not having it as a school sport, he believes soccer has had a minimal effect.

However, the concept that kids have more to chose from is something that Eldorado head coach Joe Clark says has existed for quite some time now.

"Kids today have had choices like that since they were born," Clark said. "Granted, there's more to do today, technology wise, but there have always been available options, depending on what the interests are.

"In general, a soccer kid and a football kid are two different types of kids. I think Anna-Jonesboro is a good example of a school that has been able to maintain a high level of football and still have a good soccer program. They are a small school, just like us, but they do a good job of balancing the two," Clark said.

Anna-Jonesboro has 20 freshmen this year for football. In years past, A-J has played some seasons with 14 freshmen. This year, the Wildcats have 20 seniors, six juniors, seven sophomores and the above mentioned number of freshmen. By comparison, the soccer team has about 30 kids, freshmen through seniors.

More than anything, computers, Miller said, smartphones, gaming, etc., are becoming more popular. Some kids would rather sit and play video games than work hard at physically competing in a sport.

Numbers Game

There is a 50-50 split between schools where overall numbers have been trending downward the last five years versus the status quo.

Rude pointed out the numbers at Vienna-Goreville High School are the worst they have been since 2007. On the flip side, Benton principal Wade Thomas said, "freshman numbers for football have been outstanding for the past two years."

Herrin Unit 4 School Superintendent Terry Ryker is concerned about the reduction in student-athletes for the sport of football, where this year, the Tigers' number has been reduced dramatically. He believes the numbers will rebound somewhat, but doesn't believe they will return to what they were 10 or even five years ago.

"We have about half as many freshmen this year as in years past," Ryker said. "The number of sophomores is also down about 30 percent. It appears that our numbers will return next year for the freshman class. The starting of soccer has hurt a little, but not much. I attribute the drop in numbers more to tackle football at too young of an age, students losing interest in sweating in the 90-degree heat, and the parents' worry of concussions. In addition, AAU basketball and travel baseball does not help. There is far too much specialization of high school athletes. I believe this eventually leads to burnout and increased injuries due to muscle fatigue on the same muscle groups."

At the center of the controversy -- at least in Herrin -- is junior high football. A program that isn't a school-sponsored sport and one that Herrin head coach Karnes has a problem with because of limitations.

"The youth program, it helps and it hurts," Karnes said. "I'm an proponent of flag football at the junior high level, but Herrin was the first school to really get tackle football going and it goes down to a pretty low level and you see where they have a weight restriction (anything over 150 pounds cannot play a skill position) and I just feel like some kids, a lot of kids, get discouraged."

Karnes also talks about how most junior high kids have to make a decision between junior high football and junior high baseball in the fall.

"Junior high baseball is associated though the school and is a school-sanctioned sport, and I think we encourage kids to go out for one sport and not the other."

When asked why junior high football isn't associated with the school, Karnes didn't know the answer, but felt like it had to do with insurance.

"When junior high football started 10 to 15 years ago, there were only seventh- and eighth-grade teams. Right now, Herrin is the only town in Southern Illinois that has a seventh-grade team. So, the seventh graders are practicing against the eighth graders and every Saturday play against other eighth-grade teams. Tell me how that's not discouraging for a kid. If you have a son that is 5-foot-2 and 120 pounds and a coach sticks him on the line and goes against a kid that is 180, 190, 200 pounds...no wonder a kid gets a sour taste in his mouth about football."

Karnes is a graduate of Du Quoin High School, and athletic director Derek Beard believes that not having a junior high program has helped the high school establish good numbers throughout all three classes.

"Du Quoin is one of the only communities in Southern Illinois that does not have youth tackle football," Beard said. "We have some younger kids that go to other towns and play at younger ages. I believe youth tackle football is detrimental to numbers at the high school level and the football coaches at DHS feel strongly about this issue.

"I do not want our younger students in Du Quoin playing youth tackle football," Beard said. "Football participation numbers nationwide seem to be down. More and more schools are starting youth tackle football. I do not see the evidence that it is beneficial to high school football programs.  At Du Quoin High School, we offer football, cross country, and golf to our students in the fall. We have 450 students at DHS.  253 of those are boys.

"We have 101 out for football, 11 out for cross country, and four out for golf.  Almost 50 percent of our male students compete in a sport.  Adding another sport would have a direct negative impact on one or more of our fall sports. Adding another sport in the fall or spring is something we are not interested in doing at this time."

Pinckneyville High School Superintendent Keith Hagene introduces a different dynamic, pointing the finger in the direction of the parent rather than the child.

"I don't think many family structures encourage kids to play because of the commitment on the parent end of athletics," Hagene said. "A by-product of this trend is a lack of commitment to much of anything by our potential student/athletes.

"From my perspective," Hagene said, "there are several factors in play: National focus on football concussions has been and not all sources are valid nor accurate in presenting data for all sports, football has been the central focus because of the massive popularity of the NFL and its market. Junior programs and all other sports seasons running too long.

"We never leave kids hungry for more," Hagene said. "Every sport, every season (summer, club, AAU, etc.) satiates the desire for general numbers of kids. There are exceptions who can't get enough, but generally those playing for the enjoyment and team experience are burned out. The misleading belief is that student specialization in a single sport insures scholarship opportunities. As a result, a good portion of available athletes are focusing on one sport year 'round and not participating in the variety of seasons."

Benton principal Wade Thomas points to overall enrollments of schools in Southern Illinois as a direct reflection of numbers being down. Many mine closures in this area have driven families away, thus making the numbers game even more of a factor and not just for football.

The debate has become ad nauseam for many, but at the end of the day, there is no smoking gun.

Concussions will continue to be at the center of the controversy, while high school coaches try to find new and unique ways to get kids to come out for football.

Of the many coaches, athletic directors and superintendents questioned and polled, almost all said that a cooperative agreement with another school is challenging and county football wouldn't be an option, aside from those like Hamilton and Massac County.

The IHSA and its Executive Director Craig Anderson noted that football participation is at the core of their mission and so anytime there is a reduction in participation or teams, there needs to be cause for deliberation.

"Ultimately, we don't consider the elimination of freshman football programs to be a major concern for the future," Anderson said. "There is a segment of our football-playing member schools who have not fielded freshman teams for many years, but still have had healthy participation numbers that have allowed for competitive teams at the JV and varsity levels.

"It may simply be that the evolution of the game is for the majority of our schools to field teams at just two levels," Anderson said. That may be in the best interest of student-athletes, and we know our coaches will adapt and excel as they always do."

Regarding cooperative agreements, Anderson says: "We haven't heard recently from any member high schools who have expressed concerns over the Co-op rules as it relates to football participation, but we would certainly be willing to listen if ideas were presented."

Here are a list of people who returned emails regarding this story:

IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson

Du Quoin AD Derek Beard

Massac Co. head coach Jason Roper

Herrin head coach Jason Karnes

Herrin super Terry Ryker

Pinckneyville super Keith Hagene

Benton principle Wade Thomas

Harrisburg head coach Gabe Angelly

Eldorado head coach Joe Clark

Benton basketball coach Ron Winemiller

Former Eldorado head coach Brandon Hampton

Marion head coach Kerry Martin

Benton head coach Justin Groves

Vienna-Goreville head coach Mike Rude

Eldorado AD Greg Goodley

Marion AD Ryan Goodisky

Benton AD Ryan Miller

A-J basketball coach Mike Chamness

Spyder Dann covers prep and college sports for the Southern Illinois Local Media News Group. Follow him on Twitter: @spydieshooter.

 
 
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