Glenbard East High School’s junior varsity football team was supposed to host St. Charles East High School in Lombard for an early-season game — but St. Charles East didn’t have enough players.
So D’Wayne Bates — the former Bears wide receiver who’s assistant principal for athletics at Glenbard East — scrambled to find another opponent. His Rams ended up playing, and beating, Morton High School 38-6.
That’s a scenario that’s been replayed often this fall across the Chicago area, as young teams — from junior varsity to youth leagues — feel the biggest pinch yet after a decade of declining participation in football programs that many trace to fears about concussions.
“It’s funny, just a couple of years ago, the coaches and ADs really thought it was a pretty good overall picture for football,” Barrington High School Athletic Director Mike Obsuszt said. “But the landscape is changing. And I feel like more changes might be on the way.”
Fewer Chicago high schools are even fielding football teams, and the number of athletes taking part in football at 87 suburban high schools fell 18.7 percent since 2008, according to a Daily Herald and Chicago Sun-Times survey published Sunday.
Participation is down even more on sophomore teams, the survey found — by 29 percent for freshman teams and 42.5 percent in that period at the 41 suburban high schools that broke down participation by program level.
At some schools, sophomore teams have been eliminated entirely, leaving other schools with fewer teams to play.
“You never used to see emails looking for sophomore games,” said Jeff Bral, athletic director at Bartlett High School. “Now, you see them every week.”
But there are some signs of a turnaround in youth leagues, which feed players to high school systems.
The Bill George Youth Football League had 156 teams this year, versus about 190 in 2012, according to Jerry Miller, president of the board of the tackle league, which has teams in suburbs including Arlington Heights, Bartlett, Hanover Park, Carol Stream, Palatine, Wheaton and Glen Ellyn.
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The Chicagoland Youth Football League peaked at about 9,800 players in 2008 and is down to roughly 6,700 this season, according to Geoff Meyer, president of the league, which has players from 38 communities in the Chicago area and southeastern Wisconsin.
Football coaches, athletic directors and parents blame the declines they’re seeing on factors including competition from other sports such as soccer, increased pressure for young athletes to specialize rather than take part in multiple sports and even the time demands of online activities.
“It’s ‘Generation Me,’ ” Meyer said. “It’s a lazier society. Kids get their competitiveness by being on their computers and cellphones.”
More than anything, though, coaches say, the biggest reason is parents’ concerns about the long-term effects of blows to the head.
“‘Concussion’ is a big word out there, a big medical term right now, and it’s probably scaring families away,” Bates said.
Some coaches say safety measures and improved training have made the game safer than ever.
“The risks are some of the same you face on a bicycle, at the jungle gym or on a skateboard,” Meyer said.
|FRIDAY NIGHT FLIGHT: See what suburban high school football programs lost players over the decade. Click here to view our searchable, sortable list.|
Yet a recent study at Boston University — a leader in studying brain injuries and sport — found that former football players who started playing tackle before age 12 were more likely to have emotional, behavioral and cognitive problems later in life. The study’s authors said there’s not enough data to be definitive about the risks.
Still, Obsuszt said: “You have all that information, and parents start making decisions about not letting their kids play football. And that’s when the youth numbers really start to go lower.”
This fall, Highland Park’s park district tackle football program for fifth- to eighth-graders was canceled after just 11 boys turned out. Liza McElroy, executive director of the north suburb’s park district, said flag football is flourishing, though, with about 100 kids in grades one through eight.
In Evanston, a flag football program for sixth- and seventh-graders attracted about 150 kids this season.
But the 5-year-old Northwest Flag Football League in Palatine canceled play this year because there weren’t enough players.
Denise Smith and her husband Scott, of Crystal Lake, have decided they won’t allow their 6-year-old son Cameron to play tackle football. Denise Smith, a physical therapist who works with a concussion specialist, said she sees the effects of head injuries every day at work.
“Maybe we’ll allow him to play flag football,” Smith said. “He wants to do that. We don’t want to take away from his youth. But are we opening Pandora’s box by allowing him to play flag football?”
At the high school level, West Chicago’s freshman team had just six bench players when it played East Aurora early this season. West Chicago has 69 players on all teams this season, compared to 153 a decade ago.
“Our Friday nights are still packed houses and excitement all around school that day,” said Doug Mullaney, West Chicago’s athletic director. But he added: “It’s tough to play the West Auroras and Wheatons because they have higher concentrations of football players, and we don’t.”
Bates said it’s hard for him to watch the drop in participation.
“We need to come up with some game plan to motivate our kids to come back to football,” he said. “America, this is the one country that thrives on football. This is our sport. And we want to make sure we do our part to have it continue to grow.”
Bob Susnjara and Jake Griffin are reporters for the Daily Herald. Mitch Dudek is a Sun-Times reporter.
Contributing: Daily Herald staff writers John Radtke, Aaron Gabriel and Orrin Schwarz