Why high school football programs are losing players
Since first grade, 14-year-old Henry Wagner has spent autumn afternoons practicing and playing football.
This year, the Naperville teen traded in his helmet and shoulder pads for running shoes and shorts.
"The day before school registration he told me he was switching to cross-country," said Wendy Wagner, Henry's mom and a pediatric physical therapist. "I danced like a schoolgirl. He's the one who made the decision, but he knew I felt very strongly about the potential risks and I probably had a big outside influence on that decision."
Henry is part of a wave of defections over the decade from a sport that is part of the American high school experience and that holds marching band and cheerleading and homecoming in its orbit.
The number of students participating in football across the suburbs has dropped 18.7 percent since 2008, with some programs plummeting 40 percent or more, a Daily Herald/Chicago Sun-Times analysis of teams at 87 suburban public high schools shows.
The decline is even more pronounced on freshman, sophomore and junior varsity teams, the analysis shows.
Coaches and parents give many reasons, including a broader array of fall sports and activities now offered and a push for athletes to specialize rather than go out for several sports.
|FRIDAY NIGHT FLIGHT: See what suburban high school football programs lost players over the decade. Click here to view our searchable, sortable list.|
But much of the decline, which has grown steeper over the past two seasons, arises from concerns about safety, according to coaches, athletic directors, doctors and parents.
"I'm not going to say concussions aren't an issue. It absolutely is," said Bartlett High School Athletic Director Jeff Bral, who considers the game safer than it's ever been.
But many parents aren't convinced.
"I've had more parents who weren't super excited about it in the first place, and then the kid suffers a concussion and the parents will say, 'Don't worry, Doc, he's not playing anymore,'" said Dr. Nathaniel Jones, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine expert at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.
The 87 suburban high schools have 2,549 fewer football players than in 2008, according to the analysis of documents obtained through open-records requests.
The biggest drop came in 2016, eight months after the movie "Concussion" hit theaters. The suburban schools combined to lose 903 players from the previous season.
Barrington High School Athletic Director Mike Obsuszt saw the effect of the movie, which starred Will Smith as the pathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the brain damage caused by blows to the head that has been linked to football.
"You have all that information, and parents start making decisions about not letting their kids play football," he said. Last month, prestigious Chicago magnet high school Whitney Young canceled the rest of its varsity football season because it couldn't field enough players.
Even traditional powerhouses have seen precipitous drops. Wheaton Warrenville South High School, which calls Red Grange Field its home, has gone from 257 players in 2008 to 149 this year -- a 42 percent slide. Fremd High School in Palatine had 194 players in 2008, but only 133 this year, a 31 percent drop. At Lakes Community High School in Lake Villa, gridiron participants have gone from 145 in 2008 to 101 this year, down 30 percent.
Lake Zurich sophomore quarterback Don Volante has had four concussions since he started playing in first grade, three caused by football, according to his mother, Cathi. He sat out a year after having two concussions during one season several years ago, and is currently sidelined and only participating in noncontact drills.
While she didn't stop his return to football, she also hasn't stopped worrying about his safety.
"I'm a parent before I'm a football mom," she said. "No sport is worth your health. Every doctor he has seen ... says that if your brain heals, then there is no long-term damage. Now I'm just trying to learn everything I can. I'd be happy if he were the kicker and no one hit him."
In a few days, she's taking her son to see another specialist.
Among the 87 suburban high schools, only nine reported more football players this year than in 2008. Most, such as Huntley and Hampshire, saw big enrollment spurts during that time.
The suburban decline mirrors state and national trends. Football participation in Illinois schools declined nearly 17 percent from 2007 to 2016, the National Federation of State High School Associations reported. Meanwhile, the National Sporting Goods Association says participation dropped 14.8 percent nationwide during those years.
Football has company in the decline, according to the Aspen Institute's Project Play 2020, which seeks to boost athletic participation. Interest in most youth sports fell from 2008 to 2016, with gymnastics, lacrosse and hockey being exceptions.
Despite safety concerns, football is not short of advocates.
"I love what football develops in a person beyond the sport, starting with how a group of individuals with one goal can achieve amazing things with sacrifice, focus and discipline," said Neuqua Valley High School offensive coordinator and former NFL fullback J.R. Niklos. "The good football brings most certainly outweighs the bad."
Neuqua Valley is one of three high schools in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 in Naperville and Aurora. In 2008, there were two high schools with 501 football players. Even after the addition of a third high school in 2010 brought more opportunity to play, the number of football players in the district is down 22 percent to 391.
Proponents say the game is safer today than ever before because of increased emphasis on proper tackling techniques and less contact during practices. Athletic trainers are more adept at identifying and assessing concussion signs.
Dr. Erik Beltran, a neurologist from Northshore University HealthSystem, travels to suburban high schools to give concussion seminars typically attended by parents. He said some fears about football are a result of "sensational" media coverage of CTE.
Former NFL players Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, who killed themselves in 2011 and 2012 respectively, are among former stars of the sport who were diagnosed with CTE after their deaths. Duerson, who played safety for the Super Bowl XX-champion Bears, left a note asking that his brain be studied for research.
Most recently, former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who killed himself in prison at age 27 after being convicted of murder, was determined to be suffering from what CTE researchers described as "the most severe case they had ever seen in someone of Aaron's age," according to his former lawyer.
Beltran said the CTE research is "limited in its scope on what kind of conclusions you can draw from it clinically." He said there is nothing wrong with teenagers playing football or other contact sports if precautions are taken. Concussions represent 5.5 percent to 8.9 percent of all high school athletic injuries, according to research Beltran presented for a recent seminar at Fremd.
Medical experts said the research is so new that there are no guidelines for neurologists to follow when determining if a player should give up contact sports.
"I never tell patients you can't play anymore," said Jones, the Loyola physician. "We do discuss the risk, but there's more. There are the social benefits, the team benefits; I present info and try to be fair about it. Removing something a child or teenager loves can be problematic as well."
• Daily Herald staff writers Aaron Gabriel, David Oberhelman and John Radtke contributed to this report.
Part Two: Young teams, from junior varsity down to youth leagues, are feeling the biggest pinch after a decade of declining participation in suburban football programs. Coaches and fans worry that portends an even cloudier future for the sport.