What's the future for football?
Brad Garrett, assistant executive director of the Oregon Schools Activities Association, is a football guy. He's a Baker High Bulldog, class of '91, who was an offensive lineman at Montana State and Western Oregon. Garrett was a grad assistant at Western as well as an assistant coach at Woodburn and Barlow before joining the OSAA.
Garrett is a member of the board of directors for USA Football, the national governing body for amateur football in the United States. He served four years (2012-15) as football rules committee chairman for the National Federation of State High School Associations.
"I know what the game has done for me as a person," says Garrett, whose 11-year-old son plays youth football. "It's a lot of who I am."
So Garrett wants the game to continue to thrive at the high school level. But the sport's stability in the state of Oregon is being challenged.
A total of 12,469 boys and girls played prep football in Oregon this fall, a 17 percent drop from the numbers nine years ago. There are several factors in that decrease, but the biggest is concern about injuries, most notably concussions, which can lead to brain damage.
The OSAA executive board recently put together an ad hoc committee composed of athletic directors and head football coaches to discuss the state of prep football in the state.
"We all realize we cannot be passive with declining participation numbers in football," Garrett says. "A vast majority of the news our parents and children get about football isn't about the positive things the game does.
"We want to make sure every mom and dad knows we're minimizing as much risk as possible, knowing the game does have some risk. The benefits of participation in the game far outweigh the inherent risk of injury."
Oregon deals with issue
Among the reasons fewer students are playing high school football in Oregon: Competition from other sports. More athletes are specializing in one sport. Participation costs have risen. In some cases, interest isn't there because of the couch potato syndrome and popularity of video gaming.
The major reason, though, is the growing awareness of the dangers of suffering concussions and head injuries, accentuated with the 2015 film "Concussion," starring Will Smith.
Oregon has dealt with the issue better than most.
It is one of only two states — Washington is the other — that requires certification of every high school football coach, paid or volunteer, through USA Football's "Heads-Up" program. The program instructs coaches on blocking and tackling techniques, equipment fitting and response to concussion, sudden cardiac arrest and heat and hydration emergencies.
Longtime Barlow coach Terry Summerfield is in his fifth year as a regional master trainer for the Heads-Up program. He says nearly 70 percent of high school coaches throughout the country are now certified.
"It's the right thing to do," Summerfield says. "I have an athletic trainer with my program, but a lot of the smaller schools and communities do not.
"The game of football is amazing and has been a huge part of my life. The benefits outweigh the risks if you have the coaches doing the right thing. The game has evolved, and it has to change if we want to keep it."
Participation is up and down
Not all of the state's high schools are hurting for football players.
Sherwood, with an enrollment of 1,569, had 130 students (freshmen through seniors) out for football.
"We try to have two (junior varsity) teams and have had a heck of a time finding opponents," coach Greg Lawrence says. "We had 43 freshmen out this year, and we want to give them and our other underclassmen as much game experience as possible."
One of the reasons for the interest — besides perennially successful teams — is the strength of youth football in the Sherwood area.
"We're lucky that the young kids go out for football and then stay out in high school," Lawrence says. "But youth football costs so doggone much to play. Some kids don't go out, and then after awhile, they haven't played the sport and decide not to come out in high school."
Defending Class 6A champion West Linn had 125 players out for football.
"My first year (2014), we had 94 kids," coach Chris Miller says. "In 2015, we were at 108. Last year, right at 125. Our youth program — third through eighth grades — has about 200 players."
Other schools are just beginning to see a tail-off.
Central Catholic had 117 players this year, not many fewer than the number in 2008 (126). But the Rams started the season with only 19 freshmen, though that number grew to 24.
"It's the smallest freshman group since I've been here," says coach Steve Pyne, in his 15th year. "It's normally about 35. About 10 years ago, we were as high as 65 freshmen."
Franklin's numbers are solid at 102 — well ahead of the 75 figure in 2008 — though the freshman class is only 23 in a school that has seen its overall enrollment climb.
"We're usually at between 30 and 35 freshmen," says sixth-year coach Tom McCarthy. "But I'm pleased with the turnout."
Tigard had one of the state's largest participation figures — 144 — about in line with the turnout in 2008 (142).
"But we had 161 last year, and 163 the year before that," says coach Craig Ruecker, in his ninth year. "We typically have about 50 freshmen; this year, it was 33. So we're down about 20 kids after maintaining until this year."
Other programs have suffered heavier losses.
Lake Oswego has been in gradual decline in recent years. In 2008, the Lakers had 115 players in their program. This year there were 75.
"Five or six years ago, we had 83 sophomores through seniors," says Steve Coury, in his 26th year as Lake Oswego coach. "This year, we have 52. We had 23 freshmen this year. That's up from the 15 we had last year, when we didn't have a freshman team. We had a freshman team this year, but it's been a struggle to field a team."
Centennial had 74 football players in its program this year. In 2008, the number was 99.
"In the last few years, we've dropped from 130 to 110 to 90 to less than 80 this year," says Chris Knudsen, in his 32nd year as the Eagles' head coach. "We had only 25 freshmen out. We've usually had 30 to 35 freshmen."
Benson had 34 players out for football — less than half of the turnout in 2008 (77) — with six freshmen. Coach Devarieous Sly-Clay has seen a drop from 52 to 46 to 34 in his three years as head coach.
"It's been hard to spark the kids' interest in football," Sly-Clay says.
Parents of players fear injuries
Football people can't do much to counteract the loss of players to other sports, specialization or apathy due to video gaming and, in a few cases, demographics.
"There are a growing numbers of nationalities in our enrollment, and a good percentage of kids who have English as a second language," Knudsen says. "They're not too knowledgeable about the game of football, and are more interested in other sports."
The football folks can address, however, the issue of head injuries and concussions, which have made a growing number of parents concerned about their children playing tackle football.
The film "Concussion" highlighted the studies showing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease found through autopsies of former NFL players.
All of the coaches — plus the OSAA's Garrett — acknowledge the risks connected to a physical sport such as football.
But many of them cite other studies that say the risks for head injury are much greater in the professional and college ranks than in high school or youth football. And they say other sports are just as dangerous in terms of head trauma.
"I believe there are legitimate concerns," Ruecker says. "But statistically, it's safer to play football than to ride your bicycle or ride in a car."
"It's a collision sport, so things are going to happen," Pyne says. "Any kid who falls off a skateboard could get hurt. Life isn't always safe."
"Some of the reports show cheerleading per capita has more concussions," Knudsen says. "A few other sports have more injuries per capita than football, but football is the sport everyone talks about (in regard to) injuries and concussions."
Sly-Clay says he spoke with a parent who was interested in having her son play, "but I'm a Mama Bear," she told him.
"She said she was scared about concussions," the Benson coach says. "I told her the CTE studies were done on college and NFL players, and that there were some studies that show the chances of having long-term damage through youth or high school football is low. She said, 'I've never had a coach tell me that. All I know is what I see in the news.'"
Concussions curtailed Miller's 10-year NFL career. The former Oregon quarterback suffered five concussions in just more than a year before retiring in 1995, then came back for three games with Denver in 1999 before absorbing another one, finally deciding to call it quits for good.
"There are risks in everything we do," Miller says. "Sometimes you have to weigh the good with the bad.
"At West Linn last year, we had the same amount of concussions in girls soccer and cheerleading as in football — each had 12. Through our entire youth and high school programs last year, there were no repeat concussions."
Miller wrote a college paper on the effect of concussions and head injuries in youth and high school sports.
"What we've found is that those injuries aren't translating to issues later in life," Miller says. "First of all, the velocity and the impact of a hit in youth football isn't near what it is as you move up the ladder (toward the NFL). If kids stop playing after high school, they don't have the cumulative effect as if they continue on to college and the NFL. If you play just in high school, there's a very good chance you're not going to have CTE issues."
The cumulative effect — even at low levels — is what most concerns the OSAA's Garrett.
"With CTE testing, we're finding it's the number of sub-concussive impacts that are accumulated over time doing the damage," he says. "It's the interior players — the linemen, the linebackers — sustaining the most impact. If you start experiencing that as a fourth-grader, the cumulative effect is greater.
"We need to limit that effect. We need to develop a continuum of football by redefining the game at the youth level. Why do we have third- and fourth-graders in full gear playing tackle football?"
Most local youth and Pop Warner programs begin tackle football in third grade. Garrett and Summerfield, under the direction of USA Football, espouse the idea of playing either flag football or a "modified" game at that age. Garrett says Oregon is one of 11 pilot states testing the latter, and it is being used in some youth programs in the Portland area.
"It's a short-field game with six, seven or eight players, and you rotate the kids at all positions," Garrett says. "There are no players in a three-point stance. There is no kicking, no blitzing. It's like flag football with gear.
"We're trying to accomplish two things: Make it fun for the kids, and to teach correct fundamentals of blocking and tackling."
In Central Oregon this fall, teams from Culver, Madras and Warm Springs were part of a brand new youth tackle football league for fifth- and sixth-graders. League organizers opted to eliminate special teams plays and have 8-man teams rather than 11. The league also adheres to USA football's "rookie tackle" pilot program, meant to bridge the gap between flag and 11-man tackle rules.
Says Summerfield: "There needs to be a way to bridge different levels of contact. Flag football is a great thing. Eleven states have adopted a 'rookie tackle' or 'modified' game. The perfect world for me is flag for third and fourth grade, 'modified' or 'rookie tackle' in fifth and sixth, then initiate 11-man tackle in seventh."
That sounds good to Pyne.
"Kids start playing tackle football way too young," the Central Catholic coach says. "God bless the fathers of this world who are coaching. But for some of them, it's not about developing players and love for the game, it's about winning and playoffs in third- and fourth-grade level.
"I'm encouraged by USA Football's approach to youth football. Seventh grade is about the right time for kids to start playing tackle."
Ruecker is in agreement with Pyne about the youth football hardware hunts.
"The youth leagues in our area do a million great things, but the one big thing they do not do well at all is focus too much on winning championships," Ruecker says. "A lot of times they'll stack a team, instead of having two teams of relatively equal skill. And the kids on the 'B' team are in effect being told they're not good enough. No one, including me, is smart enough to look at an eighth-grader and say whether he's going to be a really good player as a junior or senior in high school."
Safety appears to be improving
There are other reasons to be encouraged about the trajectory of player safety in youth and high school football.
"We as coaches need to get the word out about the safety in high school football," Knudsen says. "It's getting way better. We had more injuries 20 years ago.
"We do much less hitting in practice now. No daily doubles on consecutive days. The rule changes have no leading with the head and no contact about the shoulders, so coaches are teaching blocking and tackling differently. Equipment is better. There are a lot of factors that add up."
"Equipment is a lot better than it's ever been, and it keeps getting better," Coury says. "The suspension helmets protect better than before. They're making better mouthpieces. Rule changes have helped. Crackback blocking and chop blocking are illegal. (For head injuries) We're doing baseline testing now at the start of each season. Limiting the hitting we do at practice helps, too.
"It's still a hard-nosed game, but there are good rules that are making the game safer."
Says Ruecker: "A lot of us have gone to a new, rugby-style of tackling. We used to put our head in front; now we put our head behind. We tackle with our shoulder more than with our head — a much safer way to tackle. At the high school level, we have diminished the number of concussions by 70 percent."
Garrett feels the rule changes are the key.
"Equipment has evolved, but I don't think they'll ever produce a helmet that stops concussions," he says. "Technology is improving, but if we're going to attribute improvement in technology to reducing injuries — I don't know if I can validate that."
But Summerfield is encouraged after participating in the USA Football program for five years.
"I've seen a much greater awareness in how we deal with concussions," he says. "We're coaching smarter. We're practicing smarter.
"Kids want to be physical when they play football on Friday nights, and we don't want to take that away from the game, because it's an important piece. We're doing a good job making it safer."
Football teaches life lessons
All of the coaches, and the OSAA's Garrett, want the sport of football to continue, and to thrive, at the high school level in Oregon. Most believe there is no sport that better teaches a commitment to teamwork and the suppressing of individual goals for the good of the whole, which helps prepare a youngster for the challenges of life after football.
"It's a sport to which young people turn simply to have a good time, be a part of something bigger and more important than themselves, be with their friends, have a great experience and learn some wonderful lessons along the way," Ruecker says.
Knudsen, like Ruecker, is one of the deans of prep football coaching in the state.
"When I get together with ex-players at various functions, they all talk about the lessons learned and the camaraderie gained in football," Knudsen says. "There's a special bond between people who have played the game together. Kids learn how to work hard to earn a spot, and it helps provide a recipe for success in life.
"Football is the ultimate team game. You have to have all 11 players doing their assignments every play or you're not going to be successful. Each guy has a responsibility to the others. There's a feeling of camaraderie that is second to none. We call it 'success skills,' but they're life lessons, and they help development character qualities that carry over to being husbands and fathers and people who contribute to society."
Says Miller: "The life lessons you learn from working together and going to battle on a football field — you can't get those in a classroom."
Adds Summerfield: "I always look forward to meeting parents who don't want their kids to play football, and letting them know what they're missing out on."
Former NFL defensive back Steve Preece has a 12-year-old grandson playing his third year of organized tackle football.
"I'm glad he is playing," says Preece, the former Oregon State quarterback. "A study by the (NFL Players Association) showed that most of the former players would want their kids or grandkids to make their own choice, but 98 percent say they would play (themselves) if given the choice again.
"I love the team concept. I love that in football, like in life, you get knocked down and you have to get back up. There's no sports where the people you are dealing with are more varied in background. In high school, you're representing your school and your community, and it's a happening every Friday night in the fall."
But the onus is on the powers-that-be and the coaches to make the game safe enough that parents will feel comfortable with their children playing it.
Garrett says concussions figures have gone down in recent years in high school football nationwide.
"There were 16 deaths in high school football in 1964," he says. That figure was 11 in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
"The game is much the same as it has ever been," Garrett says. "We know there are dangers, and we know serious injuries will occur. But we've taken steps to make the game safer, no doubt. And we'll continue to work at it, because we love the game of football."