Suburban High School Says Farewell To Football
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's Sunday, and for a lot of people, that means one thing - order up the wings and turn on the football. Increasingly, though, many people find their love of the game is being tested with a new focus on injuries to the people who play it, especially the youngest players. September was a particularly tough month as three high school football players lost their lives due to injuries sustained on the field. In suburban St. Louis, a school ended its football program, not because of budget cuts but because of the difficulty recruiting players. From member station St. Louis Public Radio, reporter Durrie Bouscaren tells us more about that.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL GAME)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yes (cheering).
(SOUNDBITE OF COWBELL)
DURRIE BOUSCAREN, BYLINE: When she was a student at Maplewood Richmond Heights High School back in the '70s, Betty Pearson would ring a cowbell every time the Blue Devils made a touchdown. Her high school sweetheart, now her husband, played football, and their oldest son later followed in his footsteps. So when the school board announced that were ending their high school football program due to a lack of interest, Pearson was pretty shocked.
BETTY PEARSON: I was very sad. I was, like, oh, wow, you know.
BOUSCAREN: So today, Pearson brings that cowbell to support her younger son on the soccer field instead.
B. PEARSON: I'm a soccer mom, as my son reminded me. That's where I'm at. Whether he was doing track, volleyball - I don't know, whatever - I was going to be there.
BOUSCAREN: Isaac Pearson is a sophomore on the varsity soccer team. Their numbers have always been strong, and later this month, they'll be the main show for the school's homecoming game, replacing the traditional football game. He says the football program kept seeing fewer and fewer players try out each year.
ISAAC PEARSON: The freshman coming up, they weren't as interested as, like, the seniors that left. People are trying to try different things; different sports like volleyball, field hockey, lacrosse.
BOUSCAREN: Maplewood only has about 300 students total. So fielding a football team of 23 was a lot harder than it was for larger schools in their league. School board president, Nelson Mitten, says that lack of interest made it more dangerous for their players on the field.
NELSON MITTEN: The differential in size between freshman and sophomores and juniors and seniors is really significant in my opinion, which makes those younger students much more susceptible to injury.
BOUSCAREN: Last year, Mitten watched two students taken off the field for injuries during a single game. Another player had a head injury and had to sit out the rest of the season.
MITTEN: As the season progressed, they kept suffering injuries to where at one point in time, we actually had to cancel a game due to the fact that we had insufficient numbers of healthy players to play.
BOUSCAREN: There's no getting around it - football is a high-contact sport. Three different high schools around the country were rocked last month when players died after injuries sustained during a game.
KITTY NEWSHAM: I hate to paint football as the bad guy in this picture because there is a lot of good that comes out of it.
BOUSCAREN: Kitty Newsham, an athletic director who works at St. Louis University, says an increased focus on head injuries and concussions has pushed coaches and trainers to change the way they coach.
NEWSHAM: Where we see it is they're either getting hit, right, or their head is hitting the ground. And if we can teach people how to hit appropriately, we reduce the risk. And if we teach them how to fall, we can reduce the risk.
BOUSCAREN: And the biggest component, Newsham says, is getting football players to report a head injury; something that isn't easy if a student knows he might be taken out of play. Some have guessed that the slight decline in high school football participation nationwide is due to safety concerns.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTBALL GAME)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Cheering).
BOUSCAREN: But take a short drive just a few miles down the highway, and you'll still see the lights on a Friday night.
ANN CLAIR: Andrew just ran.
BOUSCAREN: More than a dozen family members are here to see Andrew Clair play; a junior running back for St. Louis University High School. His mother Ann says she worries he'll get hurt.
CLAIR: All the time because I know the type of things that he does. I don't want him hurt, and, you know, and they go for him.
BOUSCAREN: But she says choosing another sport would be out of the question. Her son's been playing since he was five-and-a-half years old and has set his sights on playing college football; something he might not have been able to achieve if there were no football program at his high school. For NPR News, I'm Durrie Bouscaren in St. Louis.
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