ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) – As the high school football season begins to wrap up in Minnesota, the future of the sport seems anything but clear.
For years, football gained its popularity through its violent style of play, but participation numbers have slowly been dwindling over the past decade.
“We lost 9 seniors and we have no freshman coming into the program, so we’re down a total of 10 players from what we had last year. So right off the bat, what’s going to be difficult for us is numbers and depth,” said Spring Grove Head Coach, Zach Hauser.
The brutality of the sport has drawn spectators and players for decades, but with fewer kids coming out to play, coaches are searching for answers on roster depth.
“We’ve seen some numbers issues especially at our junior high program that are our lowest we’ve ever had,” added Lourdes Head Coach, Mike Kesler.
While football remains tops in participation numbers, teams across Southeastern Minnesota and the United States are seeing fewer players lining up on the sidelines.
“There are times and there are cycles where we’re high or we’re low and yeah it can be a struggle sometimes,” said St. Charles Athletic Director and former MSHSL President, Scott McCready.
It’s a problem that exists for schools, no matter the size.
“We see that the numbers are dropping across the country in this great sport of football and we want to save it,” continued Kesler.
According to data released by the National Federation of State High School Associations, football participation is down 6.6% over the past decade, including 20,000 fewer athletes between 2016 and 2017.
“Nothing is perfectly safe, certainly any sport has its injuries. Football has its issues with that, but I think the high school league and the coaches associations are doing a fantastic job of educating people and teaching the fundamentals better,” stated McCready.
Injuries are a big factor for parents and the athletes themselves when considering strapping on the pads and putting their bodies on the line.
“The statistics are only statistics until it’s your family that is affected, then the statistics go out the window of x-number of people get hurt. Well if my kid got hurt, well it doesn’t matter, it’s 100%,” continued McCready.
The Colorado School of Public Health monitors player injuries each year and estimates there are more than 500,000 injuries of some kind for high school football players annually.
About 68% of those injuries sustained while tackling, and about 28% of the injuries occurring to the head, neck or face.
“We’re a Heads Up certified school program, through the USA football, so I’m proud of that, but yeah we do coach differently,” stated Kesler.
Part of the initiative to make the game safer for football leagues around the country, is changing the rules.
Working to try and reduce the number of severe injuries, placing a lot of responsibility on the referees.
Marshall: “There’s rules in place now, you know obviously to minimize risk. Penalties are called when they’re using the helmet to initiate contact, blind side blocks, where we’re blocking somebody with force when they’re not looking at the blocker, some of those things that can cause these head injuries. What we would have said five years ago ‘oh that’s a great hit’ is now a penalty,” said Marshall Behrens, a Referee at the high school and college level.
The numbers get compounded in Minnesota with some teams playing as many as four games in 15 days for a shot at the state tournament.
Meaning nobody wants out of the game, resulting in less time for players to get healthy between games, sorely affecting those teams hurting for depth.