Ever since first grade, 14-year-old Henry Wagner had spent his autumn afternoons practicing and playing football.
But 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, his mother, who’s 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 past decade from a sport that long has been part of the American high school experience and holds marching band, cheerleading and homecoming in its orbit.
The decline in participation is true in Chicago, where school officials would not provide complete figures on individual schools but say the number of schools offering football has fallen.
In late September, Whitney Young Magnet High School — the selective-enrollment school on the city’s Near West Side — canceled the remainder of its varsity football season because it couldn’t field enough players.
There also are fewer kids playing in suburban high schools. A Daily Herald / Chicago Sun-Times survey of 87 public schools found an 18.7 percent drop since 2008 in the number of students playing high school football. At some schools, the survey found, the number of students playing football plummeted by 40 percent or more.
The survey found the decline has grown steeper in the past two years and has been especially pronounced among freshman, sophomore and junior varsity teams.
Statewide, football participation declined by nearly 17 percent from 2007 to 2016, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Coaches and parents give many reasons — among those a broader array of fall sports and activities now offered, as well as a trend toward specializing in a single sport that’s seeing fewer multisport athletes than in the past.
But much of the decline has resulted from concerns about safety, according to coaches, athletic directors, doctors and parents.
“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, a sports medicine specialist at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.
The 87 high schools surveyed have a total of 2,549 fewer football players than in 2008, according to documents obtained through public records requests.
And the biggest drop, a total of 903 players compared to the previous season, came in 2016 — eight months after the movie “Concussion” hit theaters.
Barrington High School’s 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 deterioration caused by repeated blows to the head and linked it to football.
“You have all that information, and parents start making decisions about not letting their kids play football,” Obsuszt said.
Even traditional powerhouses have seen precipitous drops. Wheaton-Warrenville South High School 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, the number has fallen from 145 in 2008 to 101 this year — down 30 percent.
Lake Zurich sophomore quarterback Don Volante has had four concussions, three of them caused by football, since he started playing in first grade, according to his mother. Several years ago, he skipped football for a year after suffering two concussions in a single season and is currently sidelined, limited to only non-contact drills.
Cathi Volante said she didn’t stop her son from going back to football. But Volante, who plans to take him to a specialist for another opinion, 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.”
Among the 87 high schools surveyed, only nine reported having more football players this year than they had in 2008. Most, such as Huntley and Hampshire, saw big enrollment spurts during that time.
Despite safety concerns, football isn’t short of advocates.
J.R. Niklos played fullback in the National Football League and in Germany with NFL Europa. Now, he’s the offensive coordinator at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville.
“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 Niklos. “The good football brings most certainly outweighs the bad.”
Neuqua Valley is part of Indian Prairie Unit District 204 in Naperville and Aurora, which had two high schools in 2008 and 501 kids playing football. It added a third high school in 2010. Still, the number of players district-wide is down 22 percent, to 391.
Luke Mertens, the head football coach at Lake Zurich High School, said: “I get the concern. I get why people are afraid. I don’t see numbers going up right now.”
But Mertens said he thinks those concerns can be dealt with: “I think football coaches, football players and parents who support [the sport] need to think outside the box and say, ‘What do we need to do to generate interest and save the sport?’ ”
Proponents like Jeff Bral, Bartlett High School’s athletic director, say the game is safer than ever because of an increased emphasis on proper tackling techniques and curbs on contact during practices. Also, they say athletic trainers are more adept at identifying and assessing potential concussion signs.
Still, Bral said, “I’m not going to say concussions aren’t an issue. It absolutely is.”
“I think people are just scared of it,” said Michele Kleeman, president of the Bartlett High School football boosters, whose son Myles Kleeman, a senior, plays on the offensive line. “You see the NFL players, and obviously they hit a lot harder than youth football and high school. But there are still some pretty big kids out there playing high school football.”
Dr. Erik Beltran, a neurologist with NorthShore University HealthSystem, gives concussion-awareness seminars at suburban high schools that typically are attended by parents. Beltran said some fears about football are a result of “sensational” news coverage about CTE.
Former NFL players Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, who killed themselves — former Bear Duerson in 2011 and Seau in 2012 — are among high-profile former stars whose CTE was confirmed after their deaths. Duerson, a safety for the Super Bowl XX-champion Bears, left a note asking that his brain be studied for research.
Former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez killed himself in prison after being convicted of murder. After his death, CTE experts found Hernandez had what was 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.”
Concussions represent 5.5 percent to 8.9 percent of all injuries resulting from high school athletics, according to studies Beltran compiled.
Beltran sees nothing wrong with teenagers playing football or other contact sports as long as proper precautions are taken and said a young athlete can continue in a contact sport such as football even after several concussions if he or she is recovering and neurological exams don’t show any problems.
Dr. Hossam AbdelSalam, an Amita Health pediatric neurologist, has a different view.
“If a kid has three concussions in a two-year period, they should not be allowed to play contact sports again,” AbdelSalam said. “It’s the consensus of experts, though it hasn’t been officially laid out as a guideline.”
Jones, the Loyola doctor, said more studies are needed on concussions and CTE.
“I never tell patients you can’t play anymore,” Jones said. “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.”
Still, for young athletes, he said, “If you’ve had two or three concussions, you should strongly consider retiring from contact sports.”
Elizabeth Pieroth is a neuropsychologist and associate director of NorthShore’s sports concussion program. And her own seventh-grader plays defensive tackle — which draws a lot of surprised reactions that she lets her son play football.
“I get that all the time,” Pieroth said. “I say to people, ‘I know my own son, and I know the research very well, and I know that the coaches and the league are doing what they should be doing.’ ”
Jake Griffin and Bob Susnjara are Daily Herald staff writers, and Mitch Dudek is a Sun-Times staff reporter.
Contributing: Daily Herald staff writers Aaron Gabriel, David Oberhelman and John Radtke
|FRIDAY NIGHT FLIGHT: See what suburban high school football programs lost players over the decade. Click here to view our searchable, sortable list.|