Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette The Cardinals and the Colts of the Metro Youth Sports league fight it out on the field during a recent youth football game at Memorial Park Middle School.
Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Fans cheer on the team during the Colts vs. Cardinals Metro Youth Sports football game at Memorial Park Middle School on Saturday September 1, 2018.
Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette The Cardinals and the Colts of Metro Youth Sports face off during a youth football game at Memorial Park Middle School on Saturday September 1, 2018.
Thursday, November 22, 2018 1:00 am
Youth football bucking trend here
Fort Wayne has not seen participation falllike it has nationwide
ELIZABETH WYMAN | The Journal Gazette
As this chapter of Friday night lights comes to an end this weekend for Indiana high school football, some enter the winter sports season wondering why fewer and fewer kids are choosing to play youth and high school football.
While 11-player football is still the top participatory boys high school sport, numbers did drop 2 percent in 2017, according to the National Federation of State High School Sports. However, the drop was less significant than the 2.5 percent drop from 2015 to 2016.
But the answer to the decline in high school football seems to lie where it all begin – at the youth level. And in northeast Indiana, youth football is at the core of producing some of the top talent in the state.
The Journal Gazette asked a number of area youth sports leagues their thoughts on the current state of youth football.
Pop Warner, one of the largest and oldest youth football programs in the country has been hit hard with declining numbers. Pop Warner's Mid-America Region – which consists of Indiana and 11 other states – recorded 21,155 participants in 2011. That number has dwindled to 11,696 in 2017 – a 44.7 percent decrease.
Still, the Pop Warner Panthers, which have been in town since 2015, are actually increasing, according to coach and board member Jason Million. What started as two teams in 2015 is now at four for the 2018 season.
Another local league, Metro Youth Sports, has seemed to avoid the plummeting numbers but has increased its awareness of head injuries, an obvious concern among parents.
Jamari Adams, a member of the Metro Youth Sports 11-12-year-old Colts team, collides with a member of the opposing team, falling to the ground grasping his head as he slowly gets to his feet during a game this season.
Vashon Lee, a cheerleading coach and part of the MYS medical staff, immediately grabs his helmet as she asks him a series of questions before ultimately deciding the boy is OK and can return to the sidelines.
“We're not afraid to take our children out of the game. We care more about the children than the game,” Lee said. “When we notice that our children have experienced even a minor head injury, we still take them out of the game to get the treatment that's necessary.”
Adams was fine, but incidents such as this one are regular occurrences during Saturday morning MYS games. Courtney Davis, former Colts player and now head coach for the past five years, said educating parents and players about the game of football and risks involved is key to understanding the concept of head injuries better.
“I never try to hide anything from parents. I tell them football is a tough sport; it's not easy, I played it,” Davis said. “I've been there and I've done that; if you got any questions come see me. Keep an eye on your son or daughter and let us know.”
Despite national numbers decreasing, MYS has seemed to dodge the bullet, recording about 100 fewer participants than what it had in 2014.
Flag football up
Flag football saw a 6.1 percent increase from 2016 to 2017, according to the SFIA Single Sport Participation Report on Flag Football released this year. With tackle football numbers declining, more and more kids are switching to flag football, or in many cases, playing both.
“I think for me, part of it was the injury aspect, but at the same time watching him develop in flag football and get used to the speed and get used to the play gave us a little bit of comfort that he'd be able to transition to tackle without just being absolutely blindsided by the game,” Chris Jellison said of why his son Evan also plays flag football.
Evan, an eighth-grader at Maple Creek Middle School, has been a football player most of his life. He played flag football when he was younger and now middle school tackle and flag.
Evan plays year-round flag football at The Plex, and he and his dad think the skills he's learned playing flag have only aided him on the field during tackle.
“He does a lot more conditioning and a lot more focus on offensive and defensive plays,” Chris said of Kevin Merz, director of football at The Plex. “Not just throw the ball around and grab the flag; a lot of thought goes into setting up the play. He's made it a lot more of a developmental league knowing that a lot of these kids do want to play high school football.”
Despite the lack of tackling, flag football can produce contact – just not the level of collisions that occur in tackle.
Chris said that in Evan's case it wasn't a matter of choosing flag or tackle but having them complement one another in hopes of preparing Evan for a possible high school football career.
“We hold our breath a little more watching tackle than we do flag,” Chris said.
Regardless of the fact that football numbers may be down, the total participation of kids who play a team sport slightly increased. In 2016, 56.3 percent of ages 6 to 12 played a sport at least one day a year, according to SFIA.
That fact, along with numerous other sports such as tennis, gymnastics, flag football, hockey, lacrosse and wrestling all increasing, could play a role into tackle football's falling numbers.
Eric Wilkins, head commissioner of the Police Athletic League said football and the conversation surrounding it is definitely changing from professionals to kids. Wilkins said he believes there was a direct correlation between concussion research and participation a few years ago.
“Back in 2014-16, I think a lot of it had to do with the awareness of the concussions, and people decided they didn't want to do that,” Wilkins said. “But then even now as I look at the numbers, it's a matter of just opportunities and different things kids are doing.”
PAL just finished its 49th season providing youth football and now also offers basketball, volleyball and tennis. In 2014, PAL had 650 kids sign up for football. That number fell to 385 in 2018.
“I think when you saw that (decline) happen, the rise in other sports and opportunities filled that void,” Wilkins said. “I think those have continued to grow and have ultimately affected our numbers at this point.”
Football isn't going anywhere, but most coaches, fans, players and spectators can agree that the sport is changing rapidly.
Whether those changes are good is up for interpretation.