Parents, players rethinking youth football nationwide
Kevin Donalson has an enviable football pedigree. The high school sophomore’s father played college ball at Morehouse in Atlanta and worked as an assistant high school coach in football-crazed Louisiana.
But the younger Donalson, a defensive back at the District of Columbia’s Gonzaga College High School, joined a growing American narrative last season when he suffered a concussion at practice.
Donalson’s mother, Kimberly, said the school did a good job caring for Kevin and communicating with the family, and she knows how much her son loves the game. But if the teenager suffers another head injury, she said, that’s it for football.
“I have always said if he gets another concussion, we are done,” Mrs. Donalson said. “He is cognizant of what CTE is. He understands the consequences of an injury.”
Mrs. Donalson is hardly the only parent wrestling with football’s risks. Participation numbers in high school football are down nationally and in the Washington region as fear of concussions and other injuries take a toll on America’s Friday night pastime.
High school football enrollment has dropped 6.6 percent in the past 10 years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, and the total number of players decreased by 20,320 from 2016 to 2017. But football is still the most popular sport at the high school level, with 1,036,842 boys playing last year.
Football participation in the District has increased 4.4 percent from 2013 to 2017, but numbers are down in Maryland and Virginia. Participation in Maryland has fallen a full 10 percent since 2013, and Virginia has reported a 7.4 percent decline.
Some schools have canceled seasons altogether because of a lack of interest. Among local high schools to drop varsity football this fall were Manassas Park and Park View in Northern Virginia and Bladensburg in suburban Maryland.
In football-crazy Texas, statistics for the 2017 season look almost identical to those of 2013. But a small East Texas high school canceled its football season this year after several players were injured early on and the team didn’t have enough replacements.
The high school numbers reflect an even more drastic shift at the lower youth football level, where children first learn the sport.
According to the Sports Fitness Industry Association, tackle football participation among all players 17 or younger dropped 30 percent in the U.S. over the past decade. In Maryland, Anne Arundel County’s youth football association lost 33 percent of its participation from 2011 to 2016. The Virginian-Pilot reported that numbers for the under-10 and ages 10-14 leagues in Virginia Beach dwindled from 1,376 players in 2012 to 516 in 2017.
For years, many players at the youth level have left football when they reach high school because of a lack of interest or pressure to specialize in another sport at which they are more adept.
But football is still America’s favorite sport by far, whether judged by TV ratings or high school participation. When the sport disappears, as it did at one school near Baltimore last year, people notice.
The Centennial High School Eagles were down big to Mount Hebron on Sept. 28. The final score that night was 47-0. In fact, Centennial didn’t score a point all season.
But some Centennial fans and families were happy just to have a team at all.
The Ellicott City, Maryland, high school did not field a varsity football team last year because of a lack of players and concerns about player safety, but it brought the game back this fall.
Centennial’s athletic director and some students said the team helped boost school spirit even without a lot of success on the field. The mother of a wrestler said it was embarrassing for Centennial to be the only school in Howard County without a football program.
John Davis, the coordinator of athletics for Howard County Public Schools, is a former football coach in the county who played in high school and college. He called the sport “pretty resilient.”
“Coaches are not dumb,” Mr. Davis said. “They are coming up with [tackling] techniques that are better. They will find a way [to keep the sport viable], especially since the NFL is so big. There is going to be a place for it. There will be football.”
Centennial fan Drew Carlson stood on an incline near the bleachers at Centennial during the Mount Hebron game. His son Tom was a backup quarterback at Centennial earlier this decade. Mr. Carlson doesn’t have any children at Centennial now, but his wife works at the school and helps out under the Friday night lights.
“They did not have enough kids [last year]. It is a pretty academic place. Football is not high on the list,” he said.
Centennial forfeited its Oct. 12 game against Howard but vowed to finish the season. Mr. Davis, the head of Howard County athletics, said Centennial had just 13 players available to face Howard. “We did not feel that was safe,” he said.
The Eagles had 20 available players for its game the following week against Reservoir and lost 50-0. The team has also lost 47-0, 37-0, 45-0 and 56-0 this season.
The beatings have fueled concerns of parents watching anxiously from the stands.
Doug Shea, whose son Flynn is a freshman at the school and is in the Centennial marching band, was also on the sidelines for the game against Mount Hebron in September.
“They have three times the number of players,” said Mr. Shea, pointing to the Mount Hebron bench.
Elizabeth Murphy, the mother of a Mount Hebron player, said she would not let her son play if he attended Centennial.
“I think when you talk about making it safer, there’s safety in numbers,” Mrs. Murphy said. “When you have more kids that are interested in the sport, then that generates more interest in creating a safer environment.”
“My father was a former high school coach,” the parent of a Centennial sophomore said. “He had a kid break his neck. The kid died a couple days later. So, no contact sports. I was never allowed to play contact sports after that.”
Colt McCoy grew up in West Texas, and his life revolved around football. So did the lives of most everyone around him.
On Friday nights in the fall, towns would practically shut down during high school games, the Washington Redskins’ backup quarterback said. Traffic lights would stay green because no one would be on the road. Convenience stores and local shops would close early.
“I lived in a town of 700 people, but there was 3,500 people at our Friday night football game,” said McCoy, who played high school ball in Tuscola. “So it was like, ‘Where’d these people come from?’”
McCoy understands why some schools in Virginia have eliminated football. He realizes that parents are concerned about the safety of the sport.
At the same time, McCoy said, he feels that the new emphasis on players’ health has made the game safer.
“The league is aware, and there’s lots of talk about it and there’s rule changes being put in place to protect them,” he said. “I think it’s getting better from that standpoint.”
Redskins linebacker Mason Foster was surprised to learn that some programs had shuttered because of a lack of participation. He called the schools’ decisions “messed up.”
Foster, a native of Seaside, California, recounted the lifelong friendships he has made from football and the places he otherwise would not have traveled.
“I grew up with a lot of kids who couldn’t make weight to play Pop Warner, so they had to wait until high school to play,” Foster said. “So I think if you cut out high school football programs, that’s kind of sad.
“But at the end of the day, it is a dangerous game and people are finding out people have all these head things and people going crazy and all that. I completely understand because nobody wants to shorten your life.”
Foster and McCoy said they would let their children play football regardless of the risks.
McCoy, a father of three, and his wife had their first son in July. The quarterback said he won’t let his son participate in tackle football until he has developed physically and can understand coaching.
Foster’s two sons, ages 5 and 3, have expressed interest in the game. He said they play recreationally at school and often play the “Madden” football video game.
Foster, like McCoy, said he will wait until his children are older before he allows them to play tackle but added that it’s ultimately the child’s decision.
“Every parent has a different mindset about it, but as far as the way that my family, the way me and my wife handle it, [it’s] whatever they want to do, they can do it,” Foster said.
McCoy said he might not be so passionate about football if he had been born somewhere other than Texas. Maybe, he said, he would be playing lacrosse instead.
As it turns out, McCoy can’t imagine a world without football.
“I like football from a team standpoint because you learn so many things about yourself than just, ‘I can throw a football,’” McCoy said. “You learn discipline, how to be a teammate. ... I can go down the list outside of drawing up a play and being a part of it.”
What the future holds
Football coaches at nearly all levels have been forced to defend their sport or at least promote it.
Towson football coach Rob Ambrose, who grew up near Frederick, Maryland, has a tangible way of explaining how the game is safer than in the past.
“I remember looking at the helmet that my father wore,” Ambrose said. “How is he not injured for the rest of his life? We are smarter than we were before.”
Ambrose, 48, takes pride in what he calls “espousing the greatness of the game” while pointing out that it has changed for the better.
“I remember when they told us water [breaks] made us soft,” Ambrose said. “We are constantly evolving. That should never change.”
Elijah Brooks is coach of the high school powerhouse DeMatha Catholic High School in the Washington suburb of Hyattsville, Maryland. He also is a coach and board member at USA Football, the sport’s national governing body at the amateur level.
Brooks is familiar with the challenges facing the sport but said USA Football is addressing safety issues. He sees that happening at DeMatha.
“Over the past few years, our kids have had to undergo three different baseline concussion tests so our training staff can identify head injuries sooner,” Brooks said. “Our staff has to sit through several courses at the beginning of the year to identify concussion symptoms and when kids are dehydrated. We are very confident in our training staff and the procedures put in to keep kids safe.”
Brooks said parents sometimes decide to start their children in football at a later age or choose flag football, but “we still see many kids playing the game.”
Greg Gattuso, the University of Albany’s head coach, said he sees similarities to his time coaching at the high school level.
“Back in 1989 to 1993, we were talking about the same thing back then,” Gattuso said. “JV teams were disbanding. I think it is a trend in society. I think the concussion thing has had an impact on that. I think the changes football is making will save the game.”
Meanwhile, the numbers of those worried about football safety seem destined to grow with every multimillion-dollar lawsuit or troubling new brain study.
Mrs. Donalson, holding her breath in the stands on a chilly fall Friday night in Landover, Maryland, said she can’t help but worry.
Watching as her son and his Gonzaga teammates took on powerhouse DeMatha, she said, “He is one of the smaller kids on his team. He has never allowed that to stop him.”
⦁ Washington Times sports intern Owen Dunn contributed to this report.