High school athletes filled football fields across Louisiana this week, gearing up for another season full of intense competition, triumph and disappointment.
Fair Park coach Mike Greene couldn’t quite find enough helmets for all of his players, and Parkway’s David Feaster said the six-year-old locker rooms long ago failed to meet the ever-increasing demand for use.
Even as participation in football has declined across the country, Louisiana continues growth unmatched by any other state.
“I think in the South, football is just a dominant sport people love,” said Minden coach Spencer Heard, who has seen a lot more players since he began an impressive turnaround three years ago. “People are really passionate about it.”
Any trip out to a stadium on Friday night confirms that sentiment and begins to explain why Louisiana hasn’t reflected the national drop in participation.
According to state surveys compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations, nationwide participation in football dropped 2.3 percent as of the 2014 season, from a peak of 1.139 boys in 2008. During that time the number of girls playing football more than doubled from 822 to 1,698, but none were from Louisiana.
But no coach, or anyone else, could provide a clear answer as to why Louisiana’s increase of nearly 40 percent over the past seven seasons dwarfs that of even its closest neighbors.
The vast majority of that increase came from 2008 to 2011, but after two small decreases, participation numbers continued to climb in 2014 and reached an all-time high of 20,546 last season.
Even longtime Bossier coach Mike Concilio said his numbers have remained consistent despite four wins over the last three years, and Captain Shreve’s Bryant Sepulvado reported 21 more varsity players this fall after a 3-7 season.
Mississippi and Georgia have seen only modest increases, while Texas actually has seen a steady decrease since the 2010 season and California announced its lowest numbers in 11 years earlier this week.
Even in football-crazed Alabama, the association said an increase of nearly 9,000 in 2014 could be attributed to a software program calculating exact participation rather than the educated guesses used in previous years.
Concussion concerns spark changes
Around the same time Louisiana football’s impressive growth began, more people started expressing concerns about the safety of America’s most popular sport.
Other factors such as one-sport specialization — an idea condemned by virtually all area coaches — and tragic heat-related deaths may play a role in decreasing participation.
But new NFHS football rules committee chairman Todd Tharp understands justifiable fears of long-term problems from head injuries continues to be the driving factor.
A 2009 study commissioned by the NFL confirmed a link between its players and Alzheimer’s or similar memory-related diseases and, later that year, the league publicly acknowledged head trauma in football could lead to long-term problems.
President Barack Obama and several former pros, including Shreveport native and Pittsburgh legend Terry Bradshaw, publicly said they wouldn’t let their — in some cases, hypothetical — sons play football.
Tharp emphasized the importance of proper education for everyone involved, noting his home state of Iowa sent a DVD showing proper tackling and blocking techniques to all of its schools.
Renowned neurosurgeon Julian Bailes advocates changes to make the game safer, including Pop Warner’s decision to eliminate kickoffs for lower age groups.
Bailes’ research and teaching efforts have been instrumental in forcing the game to evolve through rule changes and better protocol for recognizing and treating head trauma.
The former All-State linebacker from Natchitoches serves as a consultant at every level trying to grow the sport in a safe way, but he was surprised to hear about the sizable participation increases in his home state.
Several area coaches said they don’t hear much from players or parents about concussions, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a concern.
The LHSAA offers plenty of resources with its new protocol, and Greene said his players take a concussion test before the season begins.
Concilio and Benton coach Reynolds Moore both said they’ve shown videos from Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll to demonstrate how to avoid head contact with rugby-style or “Hawk” tackling.
Veteran Byrd coach Mike Suggs said he’s done the same, although the Jackets haven’t done much else to change their practice protocols.
Airline coach Bo Meeks praised the work of staff trainers provided by Willis Knighton for the past six years to ensure head injuries are treated with caution. Moore made several changes to his practices to minimize contact and attends Bossier Parks and Recreation practices to ensure the safety of younger players.
“We also educate our guys on when to take the hit, when not to take the hit,” Moore said. “We try to be the aggressor and not be defenseless.”
Others, such as Calvary’s John Bachman, Sr., acknowledge more of an “old-school” approach. He makes sure his players are educated and said they’ve never been known as a physical team, but it’s understood some collisions will be unavoidable.
Like Bachman, Parkway coach David Feaster said concussions haven’t been a major issue in his 35 years of coaching. He called the safety concerns surrounding head trauma “overblown at all levels.”
“Just about everybody I know got a concussion when we were in high school, too,” Feaster said. “It’s part of it. It happens and it goes away, and we don’t have serious injuries.”
Still, he makes sure his players wear the safest helmets and go through all the proper protocols for an increasing number of concussions, thanks largely to rising awareness.
Feaster recalled teaching kids 30 years ago to tackle with shoulder pads rather than the crown of their helmet, though he’s concerned the trend towards tackling lower will lead to more neck injuries.
Bailes’ extensive research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy showed the degenerative disease to be quite common for professionals, and a study released in April of 40 retired NFL players showed more than 40 percent had signs of traumatic brain injury.
But Bailes said CTE is “very rare” for those who play only through high school, and the primary concerns revolve around one massive hit or improper treatment.
“The biggest thing is that we don’t want a player to go back and play if he or she is still having symptoms,” Bailes said. “We believe that if you get a second concussion on top of one that has not completely healed, it can lead to long-lasting problems.”
A game everyone can love
Even in places that don’t share Louisiana’s passion for football, efforts to grow the sport and make it safer can go hand-in-hand.
Moore said some aspects may become harder to watch, and it might mean giving up the excitement of a bone-jarring hit.
But his children play and he believes in the game’s evolution, which takes many different forms at the various levels.
Tharp said some states this year will try out rules to eliminate “decleater blocks” to stop players from lowering their shoulder into a defenseless opponent.
Although there haven’t been serious discussions to eliminate the game’s most dangerous play, the kickoff, Tharp said Minnesota will mandate spacing to prevent “bunch kicks.”
Rule changes haven’t lessened the importance of Friday nights in Louisiana, events Tharp said other sports can’t match in part because football plays only one game each week and 10 during the regular season.
Green Oaks coach Curtis Evans said social media made it even easier for kids to see the opportunities football offers, including more college scholarships than basketball.
He also agrees with Fair Park coach Mike Greene, who said two to three hours a day on the football field easily beats the alternative for many of his student-athletes. They get plenty of value from the bond they form in such a hard, physical team sport.
“I think if they find that the numbers are down because people are scared physically, I think that is terrible because we’re so much more on the ball than we were,” Greene said. “Now, if it’s any other reason, I don’t know, but it shouldn’t be because of concussions or us not taking care of the kids.”
Football remains far and away the leader for head injuries, but concussions can still happen in any sport.
An NCAA study released in 2015 even showed athletes in men’s wrestling and men’s ice hockey suffered concussions at a higher frequency than football players.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said in 2013 he wouldn’t let his kids play football until they’re teenagers, a trend others appear to be following. Youth football participation dropped 27.7 percent to 2.128 million from 2010 to 2014, although it saw a slight increase last year.
Shreveport’s Parks and Recreation reported a steady decrease of nearly 14 percent overall from 2011 to 2015. BPAR director Clay Bohanan didn’t have older numbers, but said they have 60 more kids playing this upcoming season.
Tharp believes the decline began when information on concussions hit a high point and scared the public, which had previously been told by the NFL brain disease couldn’t be linked to playing football. If everyone fully understands the risks, along with efforts to prevent and treat serious injuries, Tharp thinks football participation will begin to rise again nationwide.
Unlike his famous colleague Bennet Omalu, Bailes still doesn’t see anything wrong with youth football, so long as proper safety guidelines are followed. Both of his sons played the game in middle school, despite the risks he helped discover.
“I love football and I played 10 years,” Bailes said. “You learn a lot of lessons when you play. It’s the only sport where you get knocked down in the dirt and you have to get up every time.”
By the numbers
High school football participation numbers:
Season Louisiana National
2008 12,520 1,139,202
2009 14,830 1,135,052
2010 18,229 1,134,377
2011 20,293 1,121,754
2012 20,193 1,115,208
2013 20,087 1,122,024
2014 20,418 1,112,555
2015 20,546 1,112,251