Glendale Ironwood head coach Ian Curtis talks about participation numbers in Arizona high school football.
There have been studies, concerns, deaths, and the discovery of CTE since 2010.
Football has taken more hits than any sport in the last seven years with new studies and revelations on what concussions can cause.
But in Arizona, the high school numbers don’t indicate that families are being frightened away by the hard-hitting sport.
Participation numbers provided by the National Federation of High Schools show that there were 12,337 Arizona Interscholastic Association athletes in 2011 among all of the schools at every level (freshman, junior varsity and varsity). Last year, there were 17,761 participants in Arizona.
Arizona is one of only nine states that have seen an increase in participation from 2011 to 2016, according to the NFHS. California, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas — long considered high school football hotbeds — are among states that had fewer participants in 2016 compared to 2011, according to the NFHS data.
The AIA provides the NFHS the numbers based on schools’ reports from insurance. This year’s numbers have not been added yet.
David Hines, the AIA’s executive director, said that there were more schools in the AIA (273) in 2011 than in 2016 (261). He said about 10 of those schools from each of those years don’t have football.
Hines said the number of schools playing football in Arizona decreased over five years because some of the small associate member schools “come and go,” and some schools “didn’t have enough kids” to field football teams and decided to leave the membership.
Regarding concussions, Hines said: “I think that there is much more awareness now. I think the reporting (of head injuries) is better by kids and parents. The recognition by athletic trainers, medical personnel is much improved.”
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Coaches are more cognizant of what is going on in football, seeing the alarms set off every now and then by another study showing how many former NFL players have been left with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, because of repetitive brain trauma.
They are teaching safer blocking and tackling techniques. Many coaches are lessening the weakly blows to the body with reduced tackling in preparation for games.
Players can’t return to games after a hit to the head until they are cleared by certified medical people. There is a concussion protocol they have to follow. Spearing is no longer tolerated by referees.
Numbers vary year to year, school to school. Some schools have found a boom in numbers. Others have seen numbers reduced so much they’ve had to cancel lower-level teams, even an entire program.
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“We had a crazy turnout for football this year,” Vail Cienega coach Pat Nugent said. “We had 192 players start the season, which is the largest we have been for a long time. Our school has grown and the football interest is even bigger.
“I know southern Arizona has really taken a hit in the last couple of years with teams unable to field lower levels, plus small numbers on the varsity. Unfortunately, there is two levels down here in Tucson. The good teams who always have enough numbers and the bad teams that just can’t get the numbers. I think as a whole the state has increased football at a national level and is considered one of the hot spots for recruits.”
Phoenix St. Mary’s coach Tom Brittain greeted 90 players in his first season at the Catholic school last year. This year, he had 70, and didn’t have enough to field a freshman team. His team is currently 0-6, playing in 4A.
In 2014, when his Tempe Prep team made history becoming the first charter school to reach a state football final, Brittain had 63 players in his 2A program. Despite the success, the next season Brittain had a total of 31 players and only four freshmen.
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“Each school faces unique situations, so the trend in one school may be contradicted by the trend in another,” Brittain said. “Generally, however, I suspect that the trend is less participation in high school football for three primary reasons: the concern over concussions, the emphasis on playing one sport in order to compete at the next level and the sheer difficulty of the game.
“I suspect that we are at a peak in our collective fears about concussions but the other two reasons will continue to grow. Club sports and private coaches will only grow, especially in big cities, and these realities will convince even more parents to seek specialization for their children at younger and younger ages.”
But Brittain indicated there may be another reason.
“I think young men are becoming less enamored with the romance of football because they are addicted to technology.”
But football is part of America’s fabric. Coaching keeps getting better and the emphasis on safety, Brittain believes, has fostered sound coaching changes, as well as rule changes that make the game safer.
Carlos Brooks, a former NFL cornerback with the Cardinals, made sure his son, DeCarlos, a junior running back at defending 6A champion Chandler, was fitted with the most sound helmet he could find.
“I did a lot of research as far as helmets and concussions, because I’ve had my own,” Brooks said. “I think I got him one of the best helmets out there. I did probably about a month of research to see which ones were the best. He feels very good about the helmet, especially after the IMG game. I asked, ‘Do you have any headaches?’ He said, ‘Nothing, Dad.’
“It’s a different beast when you’re playing running back. You’re going to take hits from every side. The helmet is doing very well.”
There has not been a reported head-injury related death in Arizona from a high school football game since 2013, when Keams Canyon Hopi receiver Charles Youella died days after suffering a blow to his head in a state playoff game.
Coaches encounter parental concerns.
Florence coach Scott Brown said that four schools had to cancel their JV games against the Gophers this season.
“This year was the first time I started to hear kids, mainly freshmen, say that their parents will not let them play because the safety issue with concussions,” said Brown, who has about 100 players in his program, good numbers for a 3A school. “We lost a handful of incoming freshmen because of that issue.
“I can see where they might limit the contact that we have in practice more than they do now. I try to reduce the amount of time we have contact. It’s watering down the game. I think the game will look different (in 10 years). I can see them getting rid of kickoffs and starting the ball at the 20-yard line. I think we have come a long way from the ‘old school’ football, but I’m worried it might go too far and start looking like 7-on-7.”
The influx of charter schools and the opening of Queen Creek Casteel may have impacted the growing numbers in that part of the Valley. Last year, Queen Creek American Leadership Academy won the 3A title, becoming the first charter school in Arizona to capture an AIA state football championship.
“This is the start of my fifth year here at ALA and we have seen a steady increase each year,” coach and Athletic Director Rich Edwards said. “The program started with 28 kids and currently we have 106 spread across our freshman, JV and varsity teams. I have not experienced to this point anything that would lead me to believe that concussions have played a role in our program. We are very mindful and take every precaution we can but I do not think it has negatively impacted out numbers.”
Despite fears and distractions, Brittain believes football is here to stay.
“It’s still the greatest game in the world and everyone who ever played the game the right way knows it,” he said.
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