As a way of compensating for declining numbers in his program, Dunellen High School football coach Dave DeNapoli once used garbage cans as linemen to form a makeshift scout team during practice.
One of the state’s smallest football-playing public schools with approximately 370 students, Dunellen has managed to rebuild its program to 45 players this year, but three other struggling teams across the state have been less fortunate.
West Windsor-Plainsboro North, a Group IV school with an enrollment of more than 1,000 students, on Tuesday followed Group I schools Pitman and Ridgefield in suspending its varsity football program for the upcoming season due to low turnout.
“The varsity football team continues to face significant participation numbers and cannot risk entering the fall season undermanned and undersized,” said West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District Superintendent David Aderhold, whose high school featured a total of just seven junior and senior football players. “As a district, we will not risk the health and safety of our students.”
The suspension of three varsity football programs in the past six weeks — Pitman opted in late June to play a jayvee schedule for the upcoming season and Ridgefield followed suit a month later — has caused followers of the sport to wonder about the state of New Jersey high school football.
A sampling of area football programs reflects a great disparity in the overall health of high school teams competing in the Greater Middlesex and Mid-State 38 conferences.
Group II schools Metuchen and Spotswood are trying to add numbers, as is Group V power South Brunswick, which will feature 45 to 50 players in grades 10 through 12 this season. Comparatively, Group V power Hunterdon Central had as many as 100 players attend summer practice sessions, while two-time North 2 Group V runner-up Bridgewater-Raritan boasts nearly 100 players in grades 10 through 12. Monore, another Group V school, struggled to a 1-9 record last year with 110 players in the program. Manville, a Group I school that endured five consecutive 1-9 seasons before finishing 6-4 last year, has increased its varsity roster from 27 to 43 players.
The Pingry School, one of only four private day schools in the state to offer football, left the Mid-State Conference to compete in an all-prep school league, a maneuver designed to make the team more competitive and increase participation, which head coach Chris Shilts now calls “healthy.”
South River, once a storied program whose graduates include NFL Hall of Famer Alex Wojciechowicz and former NFL stars such as Joe Theismann, Drew Pearson and Kenny Jackson, no longer fields a freshman football team as demographics have shifted the high school from a one-time football juggernaut to a perennial soccer power.
Reflecting a national trend at the scholastic and youth levels, the number of high school football players in New Jersey declined to 24,872 in 2015, the lowest level of participation in the state since 2003 when 24,144 players took the field, according to the National Federation of High School Association’s annual participation survey, which the organization has conducted for the past 45 years.
Pop Warner has seen a drop of 40,000 players in national participation from 265,000 in 2009 to approximately 225,000 annually from 2012 through 2015, according to the nonprofit organization, which views the consistency over the four-year stretch beginning in 2012 as a sign of stability.
Stabilizing the numbers
At the scholastic level, nearly 28,000 fewer student-athletes played football nationwide in 2015 (1.085 million) than in 2008 (1.13 million), but 2015 also marked only the second time in a seven-year span beginning in 2009 that the national federation did not report a decline in participation, which NFHS Executive Director Bob Gardner attributed to an emphasis on safety.
“The NFHS and its member state associations have taken significant steps over the past 10 years to minimize the risk of participation in football and all high school sports, so this report on the continued strong interest and participation in high school football is very encouraging,” Gardner said in reference to his association’s 2015-16 sports participation survey. “With the adoption of state laws and protocols for concussion management in place, we continue to believe that the sport of football at the high school level is as safe as it has been since the first rules were written in 1932, and we believe (the 2015-16) participation report is confirmation of that belief.”
According to the NFHS, NJSIAA, Pop Warner, area coaches, medical experts and state legislators, reasons for the decline in football participation at the state and national levels include:
- Safety concerns
- Sports specialization
- The cyclical nature of high school athletics
- A school’s overall male enrollment
- A school’s sports tradition
- On-field success (or lack thereof)
- Lack of interest
- Stability of feeder programs
Participation numbers fluctuate in other sports for many, if not all, of the same reasons. Despite some sports losing players in recent years, the NFHS reported in 2016 an increase in overall student-athlete participation for the 27th consecutive year with a record 7.869 million boys and girls playing scholastic sports during the 2015-16 academic year.
“According to statistics, high school football in New Jersey has seen fluctuation in numbers, likely caused by a range of issues, but interest statewide remains strong,” said Michael Cherenson, a spokesman for the NJSIAA. “As an advocate for interscholastic athletics, NJSIAA works with national, local, and sports-specific partners to help increase overall participation.”
MyCentralJersey.com football analyst Marcus Borden, past president of the state football coaches association and a member of the NJSIAA Hall of Fame with more than 30 years of head coaching experience, does not believe the recent decisions of three New Jersey high schools to suspend their varsity programs or 2015’s declining statewide participation numbers reflects a trend.
Borden said New Jersey had fewer high school football players annually for an 11-year stretch beginning in 1993 than it had in 2015, and that he doesn’t recall anyone clamoring at that time that the sport’s future was in jeopardy, although he noted the recent concerns regarding concussions did not exist during the decade-long downswing.
“I don’t believe football is in trouble,” said Borden, who has been involved with the game as a player or coach for nearly five decades and who as a collegian was a member of Lehigh University’s 1977 Division II national championship team. “I think football is one of the most popular sports out there.”
More than 1.085 million boys played high school football nationwide in 2015, making it the most popular sport in the country among that gender. Outdoor track was a distant runner-up with more than 591,000 male participants.
According to NCAA statistics, college football has benefited from a steady rise in participation from 2006 (62,459 players) through 2015 (73,660 players), with an increase of more than 11,200 participants during that span. Additionally, a total of 47 new college football teams have been added at the Division I, Division II and Division III levels over the past decade.
The increase of college programs reflects more scholarship opportunities for high school players, who may view scholastic competition as an avenue toward higher education at a top-notch university that might not otherwise be attainable.
Some others, along with their parents, may be reluctant to play the sport despite that incentive because of its inherent risks.
The Public Religion Research Institute reported last year that nearly one third of the 1,000 Americans it surveyed would not allow their child to play competitive football, an increase of nearly 10 percent from a survey it conducted the previous year. The survey found that women are more likely than men to prohibit their sons from playing football, as are graduates of four-year colleges compared to those with a high school diploma.