More than a game: Coaches stress benefits of football as player participation dwindles

Saturday, September 14, 2019 | 3:45 PM

On Friday nights across the country, thousands of high school football players sprint onto fields to the cheers of students, relatives and — often — entire communities.

Under the lights, the ball is booted high into the air, followed by the sound of cracking pads that echoes throughout the stadium.

It’s all part of a cherished pastime.

For many, the experience of playing high school football can be life-changing. For many, though, that experience has become an after­thought.

“That’s what formed me to how I am today,” said Zack Hayward, football coach at Blackhawk High School in Beaver County. “It’s something that teaches you life lessons not just on the field, but how to be a good teammate and how it’s not just about yourself.

“It’s something that is very hard to describe, but it’s something that can change your life without a doubt.”

Football still thrives at the collegiate and professional levels, and it remains the most popular sport in high schools nationwide. Participation at those schools, however, has been declining for decades.

High school teams across the United States fielded 1,113,062 players in the 2008-09 school year, according to an annual survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS. Although there was a small spike in 2012-13, the total last season dropped to 1,006,013 — including 2,000 girl players.

Although football players still account for a quarter of all boy athletes in high school sports, that’s a 9.6% decline over 10 years, according to the latest NFHS figures. If that rate continues, the number of U.S. high school football players could drop below 1 million in 2019-20, something that hasn’t happened in 20 years, NFHS reports.

The loss of more than 30,000 football players in 2017-18 dropped participation to its lowest level since 1999-2000, according to an NFHS report released in August. It also led to the first decline in the number of boys playing high school sports in the country since 1988-89.

The trend has been no different in Pennsylvania, where last year 167,431 boys and 148,998 girls played high school sports.

In 2008-09, 598 high schools across the Keystone State reported that 26,910 athletes played football. In 2017-18, 569 schools reported 25,605 football players — a decline of nearly 5%.

Since 1969, when the NFHS reported that 70,640 athletes played football in 883 schools throughout Pennsylvania, the sport has suffered a 64% decrease.

“I don’t know if there is more to do now or what,” Kiski Area coach Sam Albert said. “I don’t know what’s causing it.”

Leaving the game

The decrease in football participation could have several causes, but a few reasons often have been tied to the decline: injury concerns, athletes deciding to specialize in one sport, a decline in school enrollment and students deciding to spend time working or participating in other activities.

Whatever the reasons, coaches have begun to brainstorm for ideas aimed at solving the big problem: How does high school football save itself?

Albert, in his 25th season as a head coach, has seen the decline firsthand — though it has never reached the point where he couldn’t field a team.

“We had three or four starters from last year who just decided not to play,” Albert said. “In my entire career, I’ve never had that happen.”

Albert said he respected the players’ decisions. Three wanted to focus on another sport, and the fourth suffered an injury the previous year and decided not to come back. Albert also has had athletes stop playing so they could pick up a job.

When it comes to combating the decline in participation, Albert leans on one principle.

“The most important thing is the culture you build,” Albert said. “If they feel like they are a part of something and they feel safe in that environment, they want to be a part of that. So, I think building that culture helps fight some of that.”

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That strategy has worked at both small and big schools for Albert. When he was at Valley High School from 1991 to 1993, Albert limited his roster to 30 players. The year after he left, the roster more than doubled in size.

“At that time, that was my choice to have 30 kids,” Albert said. “When I left there, they had 70 kids. But I didn’t want those other 40 kids. To be on my team, you had to commit. We were very strict. But that made it special, and the kids wanted to be a part of it.”

While Albert has focused on refining his team’s culture, Hayward has managed the problem in a multitude of ways.

At Blackhawk, Hayward said he has built a great relationship with the basketball and baseball coaches — Brooks Roorback and Bob Amalia, respectively — which has eliminated the problem of losing players to specialization. He’s also started to communicate with parents more efficiently to reduce safety concerns they may have.

“We try to overcommunicate to the parents that we aren’t going to put any players at risk,” Hayward said. “So if their child isn’t ready to be on the field on a Friday night, he’s not going to be — and we’ll explain why. We try to have that open communication.”

Winning formula

Along with open communication and culture building, coaches have tried other ways to combat the problem.

The simplest? Win.

Muzzy Colosimo, coach and athletic director at Valley High School in New Kensington, has coached high school football for 49 years. During his 17 seasons as head coach at Greensburg Central Catholic, Colosimo tallied a 143-46 record, won a WPIAL title and added a PIAA runner-up finish to his resume.

Because of his success at a small school like Greensburg Central Catholic, which this year has about 250 high school students total, Colosimo never had a problem filling his roster.

“I think that when you have a program and you’re winning, it doesn’t seem like you have a hard time getting kids out,” Colosimo said. “But when you start losing, it seems like the kids tend to find jobs and do other things.”

At Valley, where he has gone 20-26 over six seasons, Colosimo said his numbers have been down because players haven’t necessarily wanted to join a program that’s in a building process.

“As I look around the league, last year we only played four junior varsity games because schools don’t have enough people,” Colosimo said. “The smaller schools are the ones who have the problem. The 6A schools don’t. The 5A schools don’t. It’s the single-, double- and triple-A schools, the ones that haven’t won for a while, that do. We’re not getting kids out.”

Because of that, Colosimo has attempted to solve his numbers problems in myriad ways. Allowing players to come late to practice if they are at work and replacing necessary equipment, like helmets, on a consistent basis are just two of the actions he’s taken during his time at Valley.

Over the past decade, several factors have contributed to the declining number of high school football players. No matter the reason, players have begun to move away from a sport that has been a cornerstone in many communities across the country.

High school coaches from around the WPIAL have started to put practices into place to try to protect the future of their sport because of what it can teach at the high school level.

“I never would’ve thought it would get to this point,” Hayward said. “But it’s something where I would still urge families and parents to push their kids to play football. I think it needs to be stressed to parents that football can change your child’s life. Not only could they get scholarships to play in college, but it will teach them about something that’s more than just themselves.”

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at or via Twitter .

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