What fate awaits high school football's future?

What fate awaits high school football's future?

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What fate awaits high school football's future?

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De La Salle's Antoine Custer, No. 28, runs with the ball in game in September. De La Salle has been a national football powerhouse for many years. (Photo: Jose Carlos Fajardo, Bay Area News Group)

De La Salle’s Antoine Custer, No. 28, runs with the ball in game in September. De La Salle has been a national football powerhouse for many years. (Photo: Jose Carlos Fajardo, Bay Area News Group)

The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest, wrote poet William Blake. He wasn’t talking about football, but administrator Roger Blake very much is when he says the game is at a critical juncture: Someday, without changes, it could run out of receivers.

This Blake is executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees athletics at 1,576 high schools. He raised eyebrows recently when he told reporters on a conference call that the next two to three years will be crucial for the future of the nation’s most popular sport.

Eight high school football players have died since this season began, five from head or neck injuries. Three more died during preseason practice from heat-related causes or sickle cell tied to exertion. And concussion concerns continue apace, as they have for several seasons.

If so, it’s hard to tell by the numbers. Roughly 1.1 million high school students play 11-man football in grades 9-12, more than any other sport. That’s down slightly — about 10,000 — for 2014, the most recent season for which a count is available from theNational Federation of State High School Associations. There was a small rise in 2013 after several seasons of small declines.

Blake notes California saw a slight rise recently “but — and I say this with a big, bold but — we are hearing anecdotally from our schools across the state that this year they have seen some significant reductions.”

RELATED: Football is at a ‘critical juncture’

Four Los Angeles area high schools forfeited games in one week last month because their small rosters were depleted by injury. Cathedral Catholic, a traditional power in San Diego, used to get about 120 to come out for freshman football each year, enough for two teams. This school year Cathedral found around 60 freshmen who wanted to play, part of a steady erosion over the last several years, according to athletics director Dave Smolla.

He says he has long suggested football to parents of Cathedral freshmen as a way for their kids to find ready-made friends as they kick off their high school lives. But these days he often finds openly skeptical parents. “They say, ‘I don’t think so,’ or ‘We’ll find another sport,’ ” Smolla says. “We’re seeing numbers drop across our county.”

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