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From Concussion to COVID to Attendance Concerns, Football on Comeback Trail

By Nate Perry on December 20, 2021 hst Print

Whether it’s during a pregame interview, postgame press conference or a sweaty “two-a-day” practice in the summer swelter, football coaches at every level can be heard stressing the importance of “the process” of preparation. There are countless variations of the process, but most are founded on a dedication to a set of ideals – minimizing mistakes, attention to detail, controlling the “controllables” within the game, etc. They are pillars that don’t just serve as the roadmap to on-field success; they define the way coaches and players tackle their responsibilities. They forge the identity of the program.

These big-picture elements are meshed with ever-changing intricacies tailored to specific daily and weekly goals. After the first few weeks of summer practice, the regimen might include fewer conditioning exercises. One week of the season may call for a tweak to the coverage scheme for the defensive backs. Another week could bring a change for the linebackers or the offensive line. Though its core remains the same, the process is constantly evolving, subtly, based on the time of year, the opponent and any number of adverse circumstances such as injuries. And it’s no coincidence that the teams that stay the course are typically the same ones hoisting trophies at season’s end.

Football’s decision makers and flag bearers have taken a similar ‘follow-the-process’ approach to maintaining the sport’s overall health, particularly at the high school and youth levels. While keeping its essence intact, many aspects of the game have been adjusted, grown or reimagined to counteract the myriad of concerns – opponents, in the analogical sense – that have presented themselves in recent years. Concussions, declining participation numbers, a shortage of officials, a host of pandemic-induced difficulties and other obstacles are all threats to varying degrees, but much like coaches moving Xs and Os around on a dry-erase board, a collective game plan is being drawn up, and early returns have been positive.

“I think we have seen yeoman’s efforts on the parts of school administrators, athletic directors and coaches, as well as players and their families to play the game in a healthy way,” said Dr. Karissa Niehoff, NFHS executive director. “The super-majority of stories are success stories, and we’re really looking at a deep level of commitment on the part of everybody involved to keep the game going.” A discussion of the greatest football rivalries would include iconic series such as the Green Bay Packers versus the Chicago Bears, the University of Alabama versus Auburn University, and Canton (Ohio) McKinley High School versus Massillon (Ohio) Washington High School. These storied matchups date to the late- 19th and early-20th centuries and epitomize the phrase “familiarity breeds contempt.” Generally, the fan bases are constantly at odds with each other, and the teams have a knack for spoiling one another’s progress toward major accomplishments.

Although it isn’t waged in the same manner, there are parallels between these rivalries and football’s long-running battle with concussions. While evidence of undiagnosed concussions has surfaced throughout the sport’s 150-plus-year history, it wasn’t until the latter half of the 2000s that gruesome reports of the effects of concussions and brain injuries began to capture the national eye. And as negative media coverage grew from a ripple to a tidal wave, yearly high school football participation trended downward, from 1,110,597 players in 2009 to 1,088,158 in 2012 to 1,008,417 in 2018. To be fair, that decline – especially the steeper drops in 2016, 2017 and 2018 – cannot be solely attributed to concussion paranoia, but it’s believed to be one of the factors.

As the panic subsided, a blueprint for mitigating head trauma began to take shape. It started with increased awareness, and not just for coaches and administrators, but for officials, teammates and parents, too. And while better recognition of warning signs and an emphasis on reporting resulted in an initial bump in concussion cases, the numbers eventually plateaued, setting the stage for the work to begin.

The truth is that concussions and other serious injuries will always be a part of the game – there is no way to truly “defeat” this opponent. However, through programs such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) HEADS UP to Youth Sports and USA Football’s Football Development Model, and online courses like “Concussion in Sports,” and “Concussion for Students” on the NFHS Learning Center, information on prevention and after-concussion care is more readily available than ever before.

“We’ve seen better technique, we’ve seen more awareness, we’ve seen less people ‘shrugging things off’ – and we’d like to continue to see to those things improve,” said Dr. Greg Elkins, chief medical officer for Lincoln Primary Care Center/Southern West Virginia Health System and chair of the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. “I do think we’ve made some inroads. I think we need to continue to work (on it) like anything else, because you’re either going to move forward or you’re going to move backward – you’re probably not going to stay the same. So, we need to continue to improve so that we don’t backslide into some of the old things that we did years ago.”

“Coaches are a lot smarter,” said Doug Goltz, athletic director and head football coach at Falls City (Nebraska) Sacred Heart High School. “There are so many things we’re trying to do to keep the head out of football with concussion testing; we’re required to take a concussion course in Nebraska. I just think the way I coach, and the way other coaches coach compared to how they did even 10 to 15 years ago, it’s safer because of what we’re doing. The (Nebraska School Activities Association) limits us on the amount of contact and the kind of contact that we can have each week. I think everybody is trying to keep the game as safe as it can be.”

Elkins’ and Goltz’s claims are supported by the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Survey (more commonly known as High School RIO), a report powered by injury data from high school athletic trainers nationwide. Obviously, the effects of the pandemic must be weighed in interpreting recent High School RIO results, but across the nine sports measured by the survey, which includes football, there were 160,587 recorded concussions in 2020- 21. That number marks a sixth consecutive year that the overall total has been reduced and equates to a drop of more than 206,000 since the first year of that span (367,306 in 2015-16).

It’s impossible to say for sure, but it appears that after two seasons unlike any others in history, football may be getting ready to line up in victory formation in its duel with the COVID-19 pandemic. That statement isn’t meant to suggest that the virus will be eradicated by July or August 2022. Rather, it salutes the completion of state championships across all 51 state associations in the fall of 2021 – bookended by Hawaii’s title games on December 30 – contrasting a “2020” season that saw 11 states play football the following spring, 22 states conclude without crowning state champions, and five states not playing at all under state association governance.

While truly bizarre events unfolded all over the country during the fall 2020/spring 2021 split season, it arguably felt the most peculiar on the West Coast, as California, Oregon and Washington all played truncated schedules to fit fall, winter and spring sports into a five- to six-month timeframe.

In California, athletes at Bishop O’Dowd High School (BOD) in Oakland could gather in pods for strength and conditioning workouts starting in November, as they anxiously awaited an early-January start date for fall sports. Early January became late January, then February, and finally March before practices were permitted.

Protocols included weekly COVID tests for players and coaches, individual transportation and a two-guest limit per team member for games, but those measures ultimately paid off, as the Dragons hadn’t experienced any major issues heading into the home stretch of their six-game season.

And then, Senior Day happened.

Around noon on game day, BOD athletic director Carlos Reed received a phone call informing him that someone affiliated with the opposing team had turned in a positive test, and that Reed would now need to find a different opponent to play that evening. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a huge deal, as Reed had rearranged his football schedule on a few occasions earlier in the season, but never this close to kickoff. He quickly reached out to a coach who had previously requested a date with Bishop O’Dowd and although that team was unavailable that night, the coach referred Reed to the commissioner of the Oakland Athletic League, who had some fortunate news.

“There happened to be a team right down the street from us who had a bye, and I knew the coach because he had coached with my younger brother a few years ago,” Reed said. “’He said, ‘man, I’m headed to Sacramento, and I was going to give my kids the day off, but because I know you and I want these kids to have this game, I’ll turn around.’”

Charlottesville (Virginia) High School athletic director Rodney Redd can relate to many of Reed’s challenges, as the Virginia High School League conducted its six-game regular season from February 22 to April 7.

Accounting for the weather patterns in an unfamiliar season provided some unexpected tumult for Redd during the spring. Twice, athletics staff members had to clear snow off of Charlottesville’s turf field to hold a practice or a game, but the most surreal instances occurred when Redd found himself lending his facility to another school needing a place to play.

“There was a local school that had a grass field, and in Virginia, in March and April, some grass fields just aren’t ready to be played on once they get wet or torn up,” said Redd. “So, there were several nights where they were not able to play on their field and they would inquire about using our turf for their games. So that was one of those things that made it interesting.”

COVID policies prevented Redd from providing the standard laundry services offered to Charlottesville athletes, and bus trips featured a mask mandate, extra space between passengers and open windows, even when it was cold. HEPA filters were required to be installed in locker rooms – where athletes couldn’t even store their equipment – and makeshift weight rooms had to be constructed outside.

Nevertheless, Redd, like Reed, and every high school athletic director and football coach in the country, made it work. Their anecdotes describing how they overcame situational difficulties are among the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of examples of how the traditional process was adjusted to allow football to survive the pandemic, and to provide the richest participation experiences possible for kids who desperately needed them.

Shortened seasons were a common theme for those who played in the fall of 2020 as well, leading many states to utilize atypical methods of extending the season for all. The Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA), Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA) and the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA) were among the state entities to waive playoff qualification requirements, allowing access to any school that chose to opt-in.

In Ohio, this meant the field was expanded from its standard 224-team format (eight squads from each of the state’s 28 competitive regions) to a wide-open group of 648 teams that required two additional weeks of postseason play.

“I thought it was awesome,” said Brad Burchfield, assistant athletic director and head football coach at Bishop Hartley High School in Columbus, Ohio. “I thought it gave everybody everything they could ask for. If a team didn’t feel comfortable playing in the playoffs, they could opt out. If somebody wanted to have their first time ever being in there and have that excitement, they had it. And the same teams that are (usually in the championship games) were there in the end again, so it didn’t really affect that, but I think it gave everybody a lot. Look, we do this to have memories and create relationships and have great experiences, and it did all that.”

Burchfield’s Bishop Hartley Hawks chose to take part in what turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, as the OHSAA reverted to using computer rankings to determine its playoff qualifiers for 2021. Among the highlights was a first-ever meeting with fellow state power Sheridan High School in the regional semifinals, a matchup Bishop Hartley won, 10-6.

(The MHSAA and OSSAA also returned to their regular playoff systems for 2021.)

According to an article in The Baltimore Sun, the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association executive council and state football committee voted to allow all 182 member schools to compete in the playoffs for the 2021 season as a remedy for games lost to COVID-19. Maryland is the only state known to have made such a change for this most recent season.

For as strange as high school football was in 2020 and spring 2021, this past fall was a sizable, refreshing step back toward the version we’ve known for decades. Due in large part to the growth of the vaccinated population, the roar of the hometown crowd returned to many high school stadiums across the country. Capacity restrictions were lifted in locker rooms and weight rooms and on team buses, restoring the convivial chorus of teammate camaraderie to maximum volume. And as noted with the figures above, all 51 seasons reached the finish line, with championship hardware doled out to the best of the best in each state.

While there was a lot to like about this most recent campaign, it doesn’t mean there weren’t still plenty of positive tests, postponements, cancellations, and a fair amount of last-minute schedule juggling, although those detractions were much less prevalent this time around.

Of the five administrators/coaches who were interviewed for this article – Burchfield, Goltz, Redd, Reed and St. Maries (Idaho) High School athletic director Todd Gilkey – not a single one suffered a COVID-related setback with their schools’ teams this season. Redd and Gilkey each had to make one adjustment to their respective football schedules because of issues with their opponents. Gilkey had to move a game from a Friday to a Saturday to accommodate a team that needed an extra day to get players out of quarantine, and Redd was forced to bring in an alternative guest for Charlottesville’s homecoming game.

Aside from the perfect season completion rate and full lineup of state championships, the other major positive to come out of the 2021 season was a resurgence in attendance numbers.

All five interview subjects reported that crowds were at least as robust as they would have been in a normal year, while eight of 16 state associations recently surveyed for this article confirmed that same observation. (Several associations included in the survey do not track regular-season or postseason attendance.)

With stringent attendance policies in place during their spring seasons, Redd and Reed were especially pleased by what they saw in the stands this fall.

“Our attendance was much better this year than it was pre-pandemic,” said Redd, whose teams played all their spring games without fans. “And there was no correlation between how successful we were before or after. I think it had everything to do with the fact that people were itching to get back out there, and our community members and students appreciated it more having had it taken away.

“Allowing our students to come back and attend games – that was a pleasant surprise. Seeing how excited our student body was to get back to football games, whether we were winning or losing, you could tell that they missed it and they appreciated it.

Student spectators provided a massive boost for Reed as well, who was proactive in drumming up support from the student body before the season started.

“It was really hard to turn students away (in the spring), so this year we did some spirit rallying,” Reed said. “In previous years we charged students and we decided not to do that this year. We handed out 400 tickets per game – 100 per grade – and we did that at lunch to build up the spirit. We handed out t-shirts and played a bunch of themed games and just tried to bring the spirit up to another level. We have DJs at the games now and they make it a great atmosphere, and there’s been a lot of great reception to that. We had a student section this year and the parents were really excited about it.”

As far as football’s future outlook, there are two marquee opponents on the “schedule” at the moment, and both have the potential to inflict critical damage if trends continue in their current direction.

There isn’t one outstanding reason why yearly participation in high school football has dropped by more than 100,000 players since 2009. The answer is likely a combination of safety concerns over concussions and other catastrophic injuries, growing interest in other fall sports and non-athletic school offerings, employment, and any number of additional factors that could convince a student to invest his or her time elsewhere.

The effects of the waning numbers are felt from coast to coast, but they sting even more in the rural areas of the country. In sparsely populated small towns, three or four players deciding not to suit up could mean the difference between fielding an 8-player football team instead of an 11-player team, or a 6-player team rather than an 8-player team. Sometimes, it can determine whether a school has a team at all.

For instance, Goltz only has 40 boys to work with in grades 9-12 at Falls City Sacred Heart (FCSH), but thanks to the strong tradition in the Irish 8-man football program and a freshman crop that produced 10 players, he had 31 come out for the team this past year. Last year’s team, however, featured only 23 on the roster, as just three players came out of the nine total students in the senior class.

“We have some smaller class sizes right now down in our junior high, and we don’t have many players,” said Goltz, who is in his 36th year at FCSH and is also the school superintendent, boys basketball coach and track coach. “Just because of the lack of total students in our junior high, we only had 11 players to play an 8-man season. And that’s kind of the way it is at a small school. We’ve got some classes in the 20s, but we’ve got some classes that are less than 10. It’s just when small classes are back-to-back, that’s when you kind of get in trouble.”

It should be pointed out, however, that a marginal victory was earned coming out of the 2020 split season. According to nearly all of the surveyed states, 2021 participation numbers came in right around the marks posted in 2019, showing that football successfully rebounded – and will hopefully continue to rebound – from the compromised 2020 figures plagued by the pandemic.

Aside from this silver lining, there is still much more required to shift the momentum.

Looking to take meaningful action, the NFHS partnered with the NFL in September 2020 and took aim at “promoting growth, understanding and support for football at the high school level.” Since then, the two organizations have collaborated to roll out the #ThisIsHSFootball social media campaign, which was split into two six-week flights – one in late spring and the other during the opening weeks of the 2021 season.

“We did that purposely,” said Ed Passino, NFHS Senior Consultant for High School Football Promotion. “I think (placing the first flight in the spring) really helped jumpstart the promotion because it coincided with kids getting information from their coaches and athletic directors at school. And for other states, the high school football season was being played then because of the pandemic.”

Passino, who joined the NFHS staff in January 2021, also worked with NFHS Director of Educational Services Dan Schuster over the past year to develop “Football Tackling,” a new course that will debut on the NFHS Learning Center sometime in the late winter or spring of 2022 and will be offered free of charge.

Compiling research on the reasons why people value high school football, as well as the reasons why they fear it, was also a major objective in Year 1 of the partnership. Niehoff and Passino were instrumental in commissioning a survey that got right to the heart of those questions and many others and wound up with more than 30,000 responses representing 47 states.

“I think the part that really came out in the findings is that it’s not just gloom and doom with injuries and concussions,” Passino said. “The survey showed the top three benefits of playing football are physical fitness, confidence building and being part of a team, and parents are looking at those benefits of the sport for their children. They’re not just looking at the risks.”

In addition to the release of the new tackling course, several other initiatives are on tap for the partnership’s second year including a National High School Football Registration Month slated for April and the continued growth of the NFL Officiating Pipeline Development Initiative, a program designed to help take down football’s most formidable opponent: the nationwide shortage of officials.

The officials shortage has now reached a crisis point, and it isn’t just the toughest foe in the world of high school football, it’s the direst situation in all of high school sports.

“We are hearing about many instances across the country where (football) schedules had to be adjusted to access Wednesday or Thursday nights, simply because they can’t get full crews on Fridays,” said Niehoff. “We’ve also heard about some contests being cancelled because not enough officials show up. (Games) can’t be moved.”

The officiating ranks have seen such depletion in Idaho that the Idaho High School Activities Association is allowing 16- and 17-yearolds who complete the required training to officiate non-varsity games. Along with being a great tool for generating interest among the youth, Gilkey reported that the maneuver has been of tremendous value, as the late afternoon non-varsity contests are the most difficult for adults in the 9-to-5 workforce to get to.

Across the border in Washington, football officials in the Spokane area began staging “lotteries.”

“They would get together on a Sunday and see who all was playing that coming Friday and how many games they would have to cover,” Gilkey said. “And if they didn’t have enough officials to man all the games, they would just pull a school (name) out of a hat and inform that school and their opponent that their game would have to be played on Thursday or Saturday because they didn’t have enough manpower.”

Football will always have its Issues, but it will always have its Advocates, too. And a quick look at that rivalry reveals that the Advocates are thus far undefeated.

“(Football) just has such tremendous upside, such benefit to our kids,” said Elkins. “It teaches them so many things that they need to learn about life moving forward. And if I didn’t believe that, then I’ve wasted the last 30 to 35 years of my life. We’ll find a way for it to continue. I don’t see the game going away anytime soon.”