Eight is enough

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As football numbers drop, schools turn to 8-man game
By: 

Tom Beschta, Staff Writer

For many Oconto Falls area residents, high school football has been as much a part of fall as back-to-school shopping and the smell of burning leaves.

Football field lights have shined as beacons across the Friday night sky, as the Panthers, Tigers, Hawks, Bears, et al. battled on the gridiron, just as their fathers and grandfathers had done, for community pride, school spirit and individual glory.

But the sport beloved by so many for so long is in danger.

“Just with the experience and the trends that I have seen through the last 10 years, seeing the number of kids coming out and getting in sports and things, there are just not the numbers there used to be,” Bowler/Gresham high school football coach Ralph Smith said.

State athletic associations across the country are reporting fewer and fewer athletes are participating in high school football.

Michigan reported a 6.9 percent drop in 2011-12. Maryland reported a 3.5 percent drop. Even California, where the population has increased, reported a more than 4 percent drop since 2007.

The National Federation of State High School Associations, meanwhile, estimates 1,084,056 boys played 11-man football in the U.S. in 2012-13, about 12,000 fewer than the previous year.

The news is the same in Wisconsin, where WIAA Deputy Director Wade Labecki said football participation numbers have dropped every year since 2007-08.

Labecki said the WIAA is investigating why athletes are leaving teams at an alarming rate throughout the season, and why they are not coming back the following year.

The reason for football’s demise most frequently cited in the media is the growing attention to concussions and head injuries. The concerns that prompted a lawsuit by former NFL players have filtered all the way down to high school, where new concussion testing procedures are in place, and youth leagues, where there is a new emphasis on teaching proper tackling techniques.

However, other factors contributing to the football decline include declining enrollments, especially in small, rural schools; school budget restrictions; the growth of other sports, such as soccer; consolidated or co-op teams (often involving former rivals) that lack the community identity so prevalent in the past; and other distractions, including video games, that foster student disinterest and inactivity.

Gillett Secondary School coach Rick Kamps has been coaching football for 20 years. But when his son became eligible to play tackle football in a Pop Warner league, Kamps had some doubts.

“It’s exciting for me to have him involved and wanting to play, but I was hesitant,” Kamps said. “He is 8 years OVERSET FOLLOWS:old, and I was very hesitant to let him get involved in tackle football with all of the studies about hits and how the brain and skull are still growing.”

Parents have cited similar concerns when withholding their sons from high school football.

Dale Lange, co-head coach at Lena/St. Thomas Aquinas Academy, said some parents and students may use the concussion talk as an excuse.

“I don’t care what you are doing, you can be riding a skateboard and get a concussion,” said Lange, who has been coaching for 33 years. “In years past, sports were the only things out there. Now kids have so many other activities, and a lot of it is the video games.”

Labecki, too, said the decline of high school football started even before the health issues were raised.

“Some people will tell you the participation numbers are going down because of the concussion talk, and I would tell you that’s not true,” said Labecki, who is entering his fifth year as deputy director. “It has been going down before the concussion talk.”

According to the WIAA, 10,746 ninth-graders reported for football at the beginning of the 2007-08 season, but the number had dropped to 10,109 by the end of the season. When the same class entered its senior year, 6,100 boys reported at the beginning of the season and 5,872 remained at the end.

So what is going on?

“The reason people participate in athletics is because they are fun, and the reason people do not participate in athletics is because they are not fun,” Labecki said. “We are trying to figure out why it is not fun.”

The rise of eight-man football

Smith, who has been coaching for eight years, can tell you why it was not fun for his Bowler/Gresham program, which moved from 11- to eight-man football this season.

Smith said it was difficult to keep his players from becoming discouraged while trying to compete with larger schools. They were at times losing by lopsided scores, getting beat up by teams with more and fresher players, and generally — as Labecki says — not having fun.

“Going out Friday night and taking a beating was tough for them,” Smith said. “It got to a point where kids didn’t really want to be a part of it.”

Labecki agreed.

“Some of these schools that went 11-player when they only had 15 or 20 kids, you were finding out when the kids went out on varsity and got beat, they quit,” he said. “They don’t like losing so they don’t go … it’s a never-ending cycle. Hence you have the eight-player.”

Coach Bryan Peterson said the Oneida Nation football program, which has opted for eight-man football for the last four seasons, had similar problems.

“We were playing 11-man games with 13 and 14 kids,” Peterson said. “It was terrible. … For the first three years I was in the system we scored seven points—total. When you have 11 guys playing against 50 they burn out pretty quick.”

Smith said with so few players in 11-man football, a couple of key injuries can end a team’s season.

“You can’t be competitive,” he said.

Peterson said once players and fans get past the idea of not seeing the traditional football formations, they seem to enjoy the eight-man game.

Due to a smaller field and fewer players, the tempo of the game is noticeably faster and produces more scoring than most 11-man games.

“It was just something that made sense for our school to do so we tried it, and it really took off,” Peterson said. “People have really embraced it.”

On offense, eight-man football typically includes the quarterback, two receivers, two backs and three linemen, including center. The defense is typically three linemen and five backs/linebackers.

The field is smaller, 240 feet by 120 feet, compared with the traditional 360 feet by 160 feet.

Peterson said he thinks eight-man could help not only with low numbers but also injuries.

Peterson said despite a smaller field, there is actually more room in eight-man football and fewer hard hits, and less contact overall. Oneida Nation has not suffered a significant injury in the last three seasons, he said.

“There are a lot more fundamental open-field tackles rather than guys just getting laid out,” Peterson said.

Labecki said it is too early to know if eight-man will reduce injuries

Will it work?

In 2012, Wisconsin and 21 other states offered eight-man football at the high school level.

In Wisconsin, 21 schools fielded eight-man football teams this season; about 504 have 11-man football.

Responding to growing interest in eight-man football, the WIAA introduced an eight-team “jamboree” last year, pitting the top four teams from the north against the top four from the south.

Schools with a three-year average enrollment of under 200 are eligible for the WIAA jamboree.

The WIAA has indicated at least 30 schools are needed before it would consider sponsoring a postseason playoff series, as it does for 11-man football in seven divisions. There has been speculation among coaches that the WIAA might replace Division 7 in its regular playoff series with eight-man football if it grows to 32 teams.

Labecki said he does expect eight-man football to grow, but decisions have to be made through the committee process as to what the magic number will be to make such a change.

Smith also expects more schools to learn, as the Bowler/Gresham communities realized, that in order to keep their programs alive they will need to make the transition, and eight-man is the best and safest option for the athletes.

“This way, I told the kids, we can always keep people fresh and rotate people through, and it’s just all-around better for them,” Smith said. “They will be able to get their rest and we can work with them.”

Kamps does not believe smaller schools ultimately will have a choice whether to play eight-man football; the numbers will demand it.

“I don’t believe in co-oping,” Kamps said. “I think the answer is eight-man football. I would rather stay Gillett Tigers and keep an alumni base and have 8-man football that they can watch on a Friday night.”

Coaches who have already made the switch say eight-man football offers the same benefits as 11-man.

“If you think there are not athletes in eight-man football, you are totally mistaken,” Lange said. “As far as being competitive and kids learning the game of football, they learn everything, like the camaraderie and the sportsmanship.

“Football is a sport that happens once a year. It’s a unique sport. Most kids will only play football during high school. It’s a special sport because of that, so we want to make sure that we continue to point that out.”

Kamps agreed, stressing that football is the one sport that really teaches the athletes life lessons.

“I think if you can get through four years of high school football you will be successful in life,” Kamps said. “I do think it teaches you the most about life, the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations. I really believe that.”

DID YOU KNOW?

The WIAA sponsored reduced-player football prior to the advent of the football playoff system in 1976. There were 78 schools that fielded reduced-player squads in the late 1950s, 72 of which were eight-player teams and six that were six-player. However, that number dwindled to just a few programs by 1969.

Tom Beschta is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. The Lena High School graduate spent much of the last couple of weeks of his summer reporting internship with Wolf River Media developing this story.