When she was a student at Maplewood Richmond Heights High School back in the 70s, Betty Pearson would ring a cowbell every time the Blue Devils made a touchdown. Her high school sweetheart — now her husband — played football, and their oldest son later followed in his footsteps. So when the school board announced they were ending the district's high school football program due to a lack of interest, Pearson was pretty shocked.
“I was first sad! I was like, 'Oh wow.' You know?” Pearson said.
But today, Pearson brings that cowbell to support her younger son, Isaac, on the soccer field.
“As my son reminded me, I’m a soccer mom. Whether he was doing track, volleyball, whatever, I was going to be there,” Pearson said. “It’s about the kids, and what their interests are and what they’re wanting to do.”
The high school has about 300 students, so fielding a football team was a lot harder than it is for larger schools in its league. Though some students were disappointed at the football program ending, the team kept losing players to other fall sports, Isaac said.
“The freshmen coming up weren’t as interested as the seniors that left,” Pearson said. “People are going to try different things. There’s volleyball, field hockey, lacrosse.”
Isaac, a sophomore, plays varsity soccer for the Blue Devils, a team that’s grown to more than 30 students. On Oct. 23, his team will be the main show for the school’s homecoming game, after a volleyball game and band performance.
Those changing interests are mirrored on a national level, to some degree. Football participation declined by about 12,800 players between 2007 and 2014, the most recent numbers available. At the same time, boys soccer and basketball has grown. Bob Gardner, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, disputes that the number is statistically significant.
“The drop is less than 1 percent, and when you look overall at the number of schools playing football, it’s less than 1 student per school,” Mitten said. “As schools have added additional sports, it may indeed just be that certain young men are shifting to other sports.”
Nelson Mitten, board president of the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District, said that last spring, 15 high school players indicated they were interested in playing football. The Missouri State High School Activities Association recommends fielding a team with a minimum of 23 players, he said.
“Using younger students, freshmen and sophomores, made the differential in size really significant in my opinion, which would make those younger students susceptible to injury as a result of that,” Mitten said.
Last year, Mitten watched two students taken off the field for injuries during a single game. Another player had a head injury and had to sit out the rest of the season.
“As the season progressed, they kept suffering injuries to where, one point in time, we actually had to cancel a game because we had insufficient numbers of healthy players to play,” Mitten said. Moving the team to a league with smaller schools would have required a significant amount of travel time for out-of-town games, which wasn’t really an option, he added.
The board voted to cancel the football program for at least one season: Mitten said they can reinstate the program in later years if interest is grows. The news of the school losing its football team drew recent attention from The New York Times, CBS News and NBC.
All the national uproar is frustrating, Mitten said. Fifteen years ago, the school district was on the brink of losing its full accreditation, and has made major gains since.
“This district is basically a small, urban district with a majority poverty population that has had significant increases in its academic performance and is receiving national awards for that,” Mitten said.
“That gets no notice. What gets noticed is the cancelation of a football team.”
When it comes to football, safety concerns abound
Drive down any highway in middle America on a Friday night, and you’ll still see the lights around a football field.
More than a dozen family members sat in the stands at St. Louis University High School on Friday night, cheering for Andrew Clair, a junior running back for the Junior Billikens. His mother, Ann, sat, somewhat apprehensively as she watched the game.
“I worry all the time. Because I know the type of things he does. I don’t want him hurt. You know, they go for him,” she said. “They grab him.”
On the field, running backs tend to take a lot of hits. In Missouri, 6 percent of high school football players reported a concussion during the 2012 season.
But Clair said choosing another sport would be out of the question — her son’s been playing football since he was 5 1/2 years old, and has set his sights on playing college ball.
“This is something he wants to do. You reach your goals by placing your goals, and his goal is to play football. Go into law and play football,” Clair said.
There’s no getting around it: football is a high-contact sport. Three different high schools around the country were rocked last month when players died after injuries sustained during a game.
An increased focus on head injury has pushed coaches and trainers to change the way they coach, said Kitty Newsham, an athletic trainer who teaches at Saint Louis University.
“Where we see it is they’re either getting hit, or their head is hitting the ground. If we teach people how to hit appropriately, we reduce the risk. If we teach them how to fall, we reduce the risk,” Newsham said.
In 2014, the National Federation of State High School Associations released a set of recommendations for teams to reduce concussions by changing their strategy. The biggest component, Newsham says, is getting athletes to report a head injury; something that isn’t easy if a student knows he might be taken out of play. In addition, the presence of an athletic trainer at games and practices can help diagnose concussions and other injuries early.
"I hate to paint football as the bad guy in this picture, because there's a lot of good that comes out of it," Newsham said.
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