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Young’s football cancellation a sign of CPS struggles to find players

Head football coach Tim Franken in the weight room at Whitney Young Magnet High School, which cancelled its football season because it didn't have enough players to field a team. | Max Herman / Sun-Times

Like high school football programs throughout the suburbs struggling to fill their rosters, the Chicago Public League is hurting.

The latest sign: Whitney Young Magnet High School’s announcement late last month that it was cancelling the rest of its season because it didn’t have enough players.

The selective-enrollment high school, which draws students citywide to its Near West Side campus, had gone 9-0 in the regular season and made the Illinois High School Association’s Class 8A state playoffs just two years ago.

As recently as 2012, it had 66 football players. But it began this season with only 26 players, even after consolidating the program to eliminate separate freshman and sophomore teams, then got hit by injuries and academic eligibility issues that left the school with just 19 players.

“We didn’t have a lower-level program this year for the first time ever, so we had a number of freshmen and sophomores playing up,” said head coach Tim Franken, who has been coaching football at Young for 24 years. “The team was made up of mostly freshmen and sophomores. And when you have 14- and 15-year-olds playing against 17-year-olds, there’s a big difference physically that’s very apparent, and it wasn’t safe.”

Whitney Young football coach Tim Franken keeps a collage in his office of former players who went on to play in college. | Max Herman / Sun-Times

Beyond that, Franken said, “it’s a question of older kids not wanting to be part of the program or doing other things. There’s a lot of different options these days.”

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The Chicago Public Schools provided only incomplete data in response to a public records request seeking figures on the number of students playing football at individual high schools and how that’s changed. But the figures provided and rosters show Lane Tech College Prep went from 136 players in  2012 to 82 this season. Taft High School went from 84 players to 51.

Overall, according to CPS spokesman Michael Passman, 73 neighborhood high schools and 27 charter high schools in Chicago fielded football teams last year. This season, the numbers have fallen to 64 neighborhood high schools and 25 charter high schools with football teams.

“The decline in schools offering football is due to a decline in student interest,” Passman said. “A team can only be fielded if there are at least 22 student participants. And the schools that no longer offer teams were not able to meet that requirement.”

“That’s the life of CPS football right now for many programs,” said Troy McAllister, head coach of Phillips Academy High School in Bronzeville — one of the few bright stars in the Public League.

Phillips head coach Troy McAllister on the sidelines as his players took on Simeon in September. | Patrick Gleason / Sun-Times

Phillips is a Public League anomaly: a powerhouse team with no roster deficiencies that claimed a state title last year — a feat no previous Chicago Public Schools team had ever accomplished by a CPS team.

Still, McAllister said it’s clear that the game he loves is struggling to attract enough high school players in Chicago.

Catholic League high schools also have seen a decline in football participation, officials said, but they did not provide details.

Several obstacles face CPS coaches trying to produce a thriving football program.

One is the school year. Chicago schools don’t begin their school year until early September, which puts them in the position of needing to get students who want to play to be available weeks before the start of classes for practices and even their season-opening games.

That’s especially difficult with incoming freshmen, coaches say. The result is that many freshman teams at Chicago schools end up forfeiting their first couple of games as they struggle to get up to speed.

“And when you’ve got freshman filling in gaps on varsity teams, the problem is even worse,” McAllister said.

Meanwhile, most suburban schools, many of which play Chicago Public League teams, typically begin their school year weeks earlier.

In addition, many of the Public League’s neighborhood high schools have seen big decreases in enrollment over the past five years.

Whitney Young High School cancelled its football season because it didn’t have enough players to field a team. | Facebook

Another issue is the number of coaches. Each Chicago school with two football teams is allotted stipends to pay five coaches. Suburban schools routinely have more than a dozen coaches who are paid and often better-paid.

“It makes it hard to get quality coaches,” said McAllister, who said Phillips is lucky to have capable volunteers helping the team.

Head injuries are an issue, too, according to McAllister and Franken, who said that fear of concussions has likely kept kids from playing.

“Eventually, there will have to be some sort of summit with coaches and principals and athletic directors to figure out a solution to the problem and maximize what we have in CPS,” McAllister said.

One option is to combine players from different schools that can’t field their own teams, he said: “We’re trying to save the game of football and provide CPS students the opportunity to play a game that has serious correlations with life: ‘You get knocked down. You get back up.’ ”