Mike Connor’s team was beat up and he knew it.
Connor, the head football coach at Crescent Valley High, was missing two of his starting offensive linemen as well as a host of other players due to injury entering a mid-September matchup with rival Corvallis. There were no reinforcements to replace the injured, so Connor rolled with the 24 healthy, experienced players he had left and did what he could to maintain a feeling of normalcy.
“We looked bigger today because we brought our JV guys with us,” Connor said after the 28-6 loss on September 20. “They didn't play, but just to give us some numbers on the sideline to cheer.”
It was a makeshift solution to a growing problem that Connor is far from alone in facing: What are coaches to do when they no longer have enough players to field a functional, competitive team?
As high school football participation continues a decade-long freefall, coaches in the area are looking for solutions to the complex issue. For a number of reasons, far fewer high schoolers are playing football than they did in the past.
In 2008, 13,992 high school students across 196 schools in Oregon played 11-man football, according to an annual survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations. At the start of the 2018-19 school year, that number had dropped to 11,140 — a decrease of 20 percent. For 8-man football, a version of the sport which many smaller schools across the state play, the decrease was nearly 28 percent.
During that same time frame, high school sports participation as a whole has increased by 1 percent, while other boys fall sports across the state are also rising in participation; cross-country is up 28 percent, while soccer has increased by 7 percent.
The football participation decline has altered the way many schools are able to compete, and for others it has changed the way they play the sport entirely. Coaches around Benton and Linn counties are all dealing with the issue.
Large and small schools taking hits
Rosters listed on the Oregon School Activities Association website show almost every school in the two counties has either experienced a sharp decline in player turnout since the 2013-14 school year, or remained steady. Only a few have gained players.
Even the area’s largest schools have not been immune to the trend; South Albany, the eighth-largest school in the 5A classification, dropped from 118 players to 87 players in the time frame, while Corvallis fell from 89 players to just 62 at the start of this season.
West Albany, which is undefeated entering Saturday's 5 p.m. 5A state semifinal game against Crater at Autzen Stadium, has maintained a steady turnout over the past half-decade and entered this season with 125 players to fill out three teams — varsity, junior varsity and freshman. But last season, even West fell victim to dwindling participation and only fielded two teams, in large part because two of their four classes had a low turnout.
“I believe at a school our size, a little over 1,200, we will always have a good chance of having three programs,” West coach Brian Mehl, in his sixth season, said. “A lot of it is how we latch onto the incoming freshman. You need to have a great freshman staff that makes kids want to be a part of that. If I can retain a freshman as a sophomore, then I’ve got them for four years. I really feel that way. It’s that freshman-sophomore year — whatever the challenge is that year — sometimes that’s an issue. But if I get them as a sophomore, I’m going to get them for four years.”
Crescent Valley, draws from one of the smallest student pools in 5A, but has been competitive recently nonetheless. The Raiders reached the state playoffs last season and were expected to compete for a postseason berth again this year, but a flurry of injuries chipped away at a roster that was small to begin with. The Raiders began the year with just 56 players, and splitting that total among varsity and JV teams can become tricky when the majority of those players are not prototypical offensive or defensive linemen.
“I wanna say I have 16, maybe 17 freshmen,” Connor said at the start of the season. “Out of those 16 there’s only like five linemen and some are brand new to the game. We can’t safely put you out there for a whole game.”
For smaller schools such as Alsea, just one or two players can be the difference between fielding, or not fielding, a team.
The Wolverines have a rich 8-man football history, but have been hit hard by declining participation as well over the past decade. They did not have a team in 2018, and this season, took part in OSAA’s 6-man football pilot program, which was designed to give smaller schools that don’t have the numbers to field an 8-man team the chance to continue offering the sport.
“I think when I had done that math, there were 1.8 players fewer on these team rosters than there were last year,” OSAA assistant executive director Brad Garrett said. “That might not have the immediate type of impact to Corvallis, but that affects those smaller schools where one or two kids makes the difference between playing 11-player football and not playing at all.
“As those numbers continue to decrease and that average team size is impacted, that’s what caused us to start having a conversation around: Are we in the right structure to support our member schools?”
The 6-man program has given new life to small schools around the state and brought a new brand of football to Oregon. But in the case of Alsea, even a modified version of the sport has not been enough to help sustain a program. The Wolverines won their first game of the season in blowout fashion, but a few players quit the team shortly after and the ones who were left often played the majority of games without rest. Injuries began to pile up, and Alsea was no longer able to safely play four quarters. The school forfeited its Oct. 11 matchup at McKenzie and canceled its last game of the season.
“I don’t want them to ever think that I care about winning more than them,” Alsea coach Joe Martinez said after the Wolverines were forced to forfeit their Oct. 4 game at halftime due to injuries. “I ultimately care way more about their future. I want them to experience what I experienced — playing this game was a great part of my life. … I’m proud of their effort and proud of their commitment.”
A major driver of the decline in participation is concerns for player safety, which has moved to the forefront of conversations around tackle football nationally over the past 20 years.
With more data-driven research about long-term risks of concussions becoming available in recent years, many players and parents have decided that the benefits of the sport are no longer worth the risks that accompany them.
Because of this, OSAA has worked to create a safer version of football through a series of rule changes.
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“This is not a new problem for us,” Garrett said. “We’ve been aware of it and we’ve been trying to address it.”
Oregon was one of the first states in the country to require every coach to be certified through USA Football’s Heads Up Football program, Garrett said. The program teaches courses on concussion recognition and response; heat preparedness and hydration; sudden cardiac arrest; proper equipment fitting; and shoulder tackling and blocking.
“We led the curve there when other states weren’t willing to go there,” he said. “We’re one of the only states in the country that require every school to have a player safety coach. We’ve changed our practice restrictions. We’ve limited double days on consecutive days. We require certain levels of the practice schedule — you can only have so much contact during practice. Those are all things that the OSAA started six years ago to try to minimize risk for kids.”
While the OSAA has more rigid guidelines in place than it did in the past, many coaches have taken it upon themselves to make sure players are learning the game properly and forming good habits.
“I look at it now, the training that we go through and the techniques that we’re teaching — we do a tackling circuit that is all about keeping your head out of the way,” Corvallis coach Chris McGowan, in his 18th season, said. “The rule changes, I think, have definitely made it safer.”
For many, that means ditching that hard-nosed fashion in which they were taught the sport.
“We’re cautious on that,” West Albany’s Mehl said. “Football is a tough game — we’re always going to have that toughness in how we develop a program. But I think you can develop toughness without absolutely banging into the dirt all day. That’s what I did when I was in sixth grade. Did it make me tougher? You bet it did. But I still think you can create toughness on a team without full-speed tackling into the ground.”
Last February, the NFHS stated there was a notable decrease of players incurring repeat concussions as a main factor in the sporting being much safer than it was in the past.
But no matter how many rule changes or safety improvements come to pass, some parents will ultimately feel that allowing their child to spend their Friday nights repeatedly colliding at full speed with other children will never be a safe endeavor.
“We know and understand that we don’t control every variable,” Garrett said. “There are parents who have certainly been influenced by the things that they have heard, read or seen that are not positively supporting the sport. We have a group of kids who were never going to play football anyway and there’s nothing wrong with that. Their parents have the option to make that decision.
“What I would hope is that they understand it’s not from lack of effort on the part of the OSAA trying to minimize as much risk as possible for these kids when they are participating,” he continued. “We are never going to get away from the fact that football is a collision sport. There are going to be injuries and there is an inherent risk in participating in it. But we try to focus on the fact that we're going to minimize that as much as possible.”
Youth participation boosts numbers
The lone school in Linn and Benton counties that has experienced a notable increase in high school football participation as of late is Lebanon. The Warriors listed 87 players on their roster in 2013, but at the start of this season boasted 121 across three teams — nearly twice as many as Corvallis, which draws from a larger student population.
The reason, according to those who oversee the program, is the re-implementation of middle school football, which Lebanon brought back three years ago after a long hiatus.
“(Middle school sports) started going away in the early 90’s when the economy turned,” Lebanon athletic director Kraig Hoene said. “A lot of districts still haven't put it back in. We’ve been fortunate here with our previous and current superintendents. They’ve been very supportive of it and they’ve allowed us to re-emphasize that and get the kids playing again. It’s a pretty common trend in school districts not to fund athletics at the middle school level because of the costs.”
Hoene said the Warriors had a freshman class of 35 players this season and he expects that number will top 40 next season. A large reason the school district chose to add football, as well as other sports, was to create a sense of cohesiveness and camaraderie in the school and help students get used to the responsibilities that come with playing school sports, such as grade checks and showing up for practice on time.
“We need to be getting kids involved early — getting them exposed to the sport when it’s not so competitive and they don’t feel so much pressure,” Hoene said. “The biggest thing is, they don’t want to try it for the first time in high school because kids don’t like to fail. Some of these sports are cut sports. Football not so much that, but then again it's also intimidating for a kid who has never played tackle football before to start for the first time in high school. He gets out there and there’s kids who have played since the sixth, seventh, eighth grade and they’re hitting people. That’s kind of intimidating, too.”
Bringing back football did come at a cost, though. Lebanon School District increased its transfer from the general fund in 2016-17 by $40,000 to implement middle school football and volleyball teams during the following school year. According to district budget documents, the overall general fund budget for 2016-17 was just over $41.4 million. The district also transferred $31,000 at the start of 2018-19 for the addition of middle school basketball and increased staffing costs.
Budget restrictions are primarily what has kept other school districts from adding middle school football. Corvallis School District and Greater Albany Public Schools are without middle school football programs, while track and field and cross-country are the sole sports provided by each district at the middle school level.
Those sports require relatively little cost and, Corvallis administrators believe, can provide students with lifetime fitness skills that will benefit them beyond high school.
“When we think about where we put our money as a district and when we budget, we’re talking about where are we going to get a return on investment that is going to help our kids graduate high school and graduate healthy and be ready to go out into the world and join the workforce,” Corvallis assistant superintendent Melissa Harder said. “I think we have to lay that against those kind of desires. Right now we’re focused, especially in our middle schools, of providing tons of electives for kids that show them what it’s like to be in the real world. … We’re finding that so many kids are touched by that and are connected to their school, which leads to higher graduation rates in the end and that is where we are focusing our time and attention.”
The only alternative for middle school-aged kids who want to play football in Corvallis or Albany are youth leagues such as Pop Warner. But expensive registration fees can be a deterrent for parents, and safety guidelines are often much less rigid than those of OSAA or NFHS.
Garrett said that most of OSAA’s member schools are in support of an overhaul throughout the state that would change the age at which young football players are allowed to start tackling.
“The bottom line is, youth football needs to change as well,” Garrett said. “Don’t even start 11-man football until the seventh grade. Their season should be shorter. We have certain youth programs who actually start earlier than high school programs and finish after we do. Why would you do that?"
The lack of middle school football has left many coaches in the area feeling like they have relatively little influence on the way young players are taught to play the game. Some are concerned that overly-competitive youth coaches and parents can take the joy of the game away from kids before they ever reach high school.
“This is a hard dilemma, right?” Mehl said. “We need better coaching. We need better coaching at our youth levels. There are consequences of maybe not having the type of coaching we need to sustain football at the youth level. I think if we teach and coach football the right way and we have certain policies in place that allow us to do it right, with good men leading kids, we’re gonna keep kids playing football. Because football is never going to go away — it’s always going to be here. We’re just going to tweak the game like we’ve always done.”