Kris Stephens thinks back to his playing days at Belleville East in the 1990s, when the first day of football practice would draw a horde of more than 100 freshmen to campus.
Last week, the Lancers’ coach welcomed just 36 freshmen to the football fold.
Some of those who stick it out through the August heat and their first contact in pads will join a slim class of 19 sophomores on the East junior varsity — there won’t be a sophomore-only team this year.
“Ten years ago we’d have right around 200 kids in the program,” said Stephens. “There’s just a lot of negative talk about the sport in general, and the options are much greater for kids than when we were in high school.”
According to a recently released study by the National Federation of High Schools, participation in prep sports has reached an all-time high. But, while it remains the No. 1 participatory high school sport by a wide margin, football continues to slide.
Nationally, there were 2.5 percent fewer athletes playing football in 2016 compared to the year before, though there were 54 more schools offering the sport. In Illinois, participation in football has fallen nearly 15 percent during the past 10 years — from 51,334 players in 2007 to 42,682 by the end of last year.
Tracking participation in Southern Illinois and the metro-east is less precise. Many area coaches report “typical” participation numbers this fall. Jimmy Warnecke, the seventh-year coach at Highland, and Edwardsville’s Matt Martin even say their turnouts are ahead of last year’s numbers.
But all who spoke to the Belleville News-Democrat identified the broader trend toward lower participation in high school football as both dramatic and troubling.
“And football is getting a bad rap,” said Martin.
The growth of athletic programs and a wealth of sports from which to choose; the advent of club teams and the year-round push to keep players focused on a single sport; a lack of desire among less competitive athletes to put in the required “extras” — all of these factors weigh on area football coaches.
Ten years ago we’d have right around 200 kids in the program. There’s just a lot of negative talk about the sport in general, and the options are much greater for kids than when we were in high school.
Kris Stephens, Belleville East football coach
A more presumptive cause of the trend is fear of injury, fueled by heightened media attention on concussions and the prevalence of a degenerative brain disease in former college and professional players.
Martin and other coaches say the possibility of injury is inherent in any sport, but that evolving rules, equipment technology and better-trained coaches have gone a long way toward minimizing those risks.
“For me to say we have it all figured out would be asinine, but look how far we’ve come toward making the game safer,” he said. “There has been an evolution in football. Many changes have been made over the years that are good for the athletes and good for the game.
“I believe the good that comes from playing high school football far outweighs the risks.”
That doesn’t mean coaches can turn a blind eye to safety concerns or dismiss new research that has connected repeated blows to the head to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is the brain disease brought to light by the deaths of former NFL players Mike Webster and Junior Seau, and the 2015 movie “Concussion,” starring Will Smith. It is known to cause a range of issues from depression to paranoia. It’s not certain, however, how soon those issues may appear in an athlete.
“Some of the concerns are warranted,” Martin said. “Really, they have kept us coaches on our toes because they make us constantly evaluate what we’re doing. That is a good thing, as much as it frustrates me.”
The number of high school football players in Illinois fell 5.3 percent the year after “Concussion” was released, the widest swing one way or the other in 15 years, according to the NFHS survey. Participation fell another 4 percent the year after.
“When CTE reports come out,” Stephens said, “parents recoil.”
Some kids just don’t want to put the work in like they used to. There’s a lot of commitment through the summer, and maybe kids are just different today.
Jim Warnecke, Highland football coach
Coach Dan Rose says he’s seen a steep drop in participation at Waterloo High School, especially during the last 10 years. The program was 100 athletes strong a decade ago, but has fallen to 72 players in 2017. He puts the blame on select basketball, baseball and soccer clubs, which push players toward year-round focus on a single sport.
Mascoutah second-year coach Josh Lee has taken note of the same trend, but in reverse. The year-round training demands on football players coupled with comparatively fewer games just isn’t worth it to some athletes, he says.
“Back in the ’80s and ’90s, you would play baseball in the summer then sign up for football because all their buddies played,” Lee said. “I start (the players) weightlifting in November now, and I’m holding the kids accountable every day.
“There’s going to be a bank of kids who just don’t love it enough to put that kind of time and work into it.”
Highland’s Warnecke agrees with Lee, though is less diplomatic in his explanation.
“Some kids just don’t want to put the work in like they used to,” he said. “There’s a lot of commitment through the summer, and maybe kids are just different today. And there are also often two parents working outside the house and they just don’t want their kids involved in more than one sport.”
A smaller field?
The reason for football’s general decline might also be as simple as demographics.
According Census Bureau statistics, there were 26 million children ages 12 to 17 in the United States in 2007. There are one million fewer in 2017. Could it be that there are fewer high school football players simply because there are fewer high school-aged boys?
Some of the concerns are warranted. Really, they have kept us coaches on our toes because they make us constantly evaluate what we’re doing. That is a good thing, as much as it frustrates me.
Matt Martin, Edwardsville football coach
That makes sense to Columbia coach Scott Horner, who says year-to-year variations in the Eagles’ autumn turnout can usually be tied directly to the number of seniors he loses each spring to graduation vs. the number of incoming freshmen he gains in the fall.
“Incoming freshmen are the ones you don’t know about,” he said. “That’s where we see our numbers go up or down, but that’s just one of those things you can’t predict year to year.”
Like Martin in Edwardsville, Warnecke relies on a junior football program to feed the high school program. Both coaches said that close relationship has helped keep the high school program numbers fairly consistent.
“Our numbers haven’t gone down,” Martin said. “We sometimes see it at the junior high level and it will fluctuate when we bring in the new freshmen. We’ll have classes with low numbers, but it’s more cyclical. Our numbers have been solid through the last year, though. I don’t even have enough lockers in my locker rooms.”
Other sports grow
The high school survey indicated that girls participation is fueling the overall growth of high schools sports, which has reached total a total 7.9 million athletes.
Spirit sports like competitive cheerleading and dance have seen the largest increase, adding 18,712 new athletes just since last school year. There also is significant growth in outdoor track and field (8,508), volleyball (8,470), soccer (6,810) and lacrosse (5,423).
Seven of the top 10 boys sports also saw increases in participation. Soccer led the way with 9,912 new athletes, followed by track and field (9,003), and cross country (8,580).
By sport, basketball is offered by more high schools nationally than any other sport, but football has by far the largest number participants with 1,057,407 athletes. Track is second on that list with 600,136 participants.