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The state of Texas has long been the king of high school athletics in this country. More boys and girls participate in some sort of high school sport in Texas than any other state. But over the last five years, the number of high school football players has been dropping there and in dozens of other states. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has our story.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: From the era of the Ford Model T to the age of the Tesla Model S, generation after generation of Texas men have taught their sons the sacred ritual of knocking the ever-living crap out of the guy across the line of scrimmage.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Get your pads down low. We're not pass blocking. Stick your nose between his numbers. Here we go.
GOODWYN: At Trinity High School near Dallas, coaches teach their players the fundamentals, like spacing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Defense, don't get too close, OK? Don't get too close. We don't get that close in the game. Here we go.
GOODWYN: Football is alive and well in the Lone Star state. But for the first time in Texas's history, the number of high school football players has actually gone down over the last five years. And according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, that's true for a majority of other states too.
In Texas, the decline is small, not quite 3 percent. But really, there shouldn't be any decline at all. Texas is growing so fast it can barely build enough schools to keep up.
Dr. Julian Bailes is a neurosurgeon, a founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute and head of the Pop Warner Football advisory committee. Bailes believes one reason for the decline is concern about concussions in developing brains.
JULIAN BAILES: You know, Pop Warner's participation dropped in 2012, 2013 a few percentage points. I think in general, we can say that participation is down a little bit, and it's probably concerns for concussion or brain injury.
GOODWYN: There is concern at Texas' Trinity High School too, but most of it seems to be centered in the principal's and coach's offices, not in parent's living rooms. Here's Trinity principal Mike Harris.
MIKE HARRIS: I've never had a specific parent come to me concerned about, you know, I don't want my child to participate or, what are you guys doing to prevent this?
GOODWYN: Trinity tests every incoming student athlete using concussion detection software, establishing their brain's baseline performance level. Then, if the student receives a blow to the head, they can't play again until they complete the concussion test with the same mental agility they had before. Sometimes that takes months, much to the athlete's frustration. Coaches have no say in the matter. Trinity's head football coach, Chris Jensen, says that's why parents are reassured.
CHRIS JENSEN: The biggest thing is to establish trust with the parents that we're going to take care of your child. We're not going to be silly about going out in ridiculous heat. We'll give them plenty of water breaks. And blows to the head are the same thing. We're going to take care of the kid first.
GOODWYN: Both Coach Jensen and Principal Harris believe there's another possible reason for the decline in high school football participation - pressure on the students to specialize, to focus on what they think they're going to be good at to the exclusion of other activities. Seventeen-year-old Trinity student Chase Averitt is one example. At six-foot-two, Averitt glides into the room like the natural athlete he is - quarterback for the Trojan's Junior Varsity team and star outfielder on the Trojan's baseball team. But that was his first two years.
CHASE AVERITT: I got to my sophomore year, and just going back and forth between both, it seemed like I could do better in one if I could spend all my time on that. So I ended up choosing baseball.
GOODWYN: Football players at Trinity spend 16 to 20 hours each week in preparation and game play. If Averitt's 8-hour school day is equivalent to a 40-hour work week, being on the football team is like another two days of work. If it's an away game, it's more. And this doesn't include the 60 to 90 minutes of homework every night. After his sophomore year, Chase Averitt decided it was too much. He loved it dearly, but football had to go.
AVERITT: Just getting home at 9 o'clock every day for an entire year's just exhausting after a while. I don't want to do homework - nothing.
GOODWYN: Averitt actually did suffer a serious concussion, but it wasn't while playing quarterback, but chasing a long fly ball that lured him into the outfield wall. It was a homerun. It was embarrassing, and, to complete the losing trifecta, it knocked him right out. It was two-and-a-half months before the concussion software gave him the green light to play again.
But, perhaps not surprisingly, that experience has not entered into Averitt's decision about his future at all. It was more about being overbooked. Does he feel a twang when the Trojan football team runs out onto the field, thinking, that could be me at quarterback? Yes, he does. But he'd also like to mention his grades are up. He's got a shot at a baseball scholarship, and he says he's just happier, more relaxed.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Defense, we're not getting any movement out of you.
GOODWYN: Still, Argentina, don't cry for American high school football. Nationwide, there are 14,262 high schools with football teams. That's more than a million American boys who will be leaving it all out on the field under the Friday night lights.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's what some of you guys got to learn. You can't block nobody like this, standing up like this. It ain't happening.
GOODWYN: Wade Goodwyn, keeping his center of gravity low in Dallas.
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