Foot­ball par­tic­i­pa­tion de­mands hard work, com­mit­ment

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL - RICK FIRES Rick Fires can be reached at or on Twit­ter @NWARick.

It’s 8 a.m. in La­mar and I’m watch­ing as a line­man strug­gles to com­plete a crab crawl drill while an as­sis­tant coach barks en­cour­age­ment be­hind him.

At one point, the player pushes his hel­met up, drops to his knees, and wipes the sweat from his face with his hand. But he doesn’t quit. Far from it.

The player fin­ishes the drill then gets back in line with his team­mates for an­other at­tempt. Af­ter prac­tice, he is smil­ing and jok­ing as the play­ers head to the locker room.

Foot­ball is hard. Al­ways has been, al­ways will be — even with a much greater em­pha­sis now on the health and safety of the play­ers.

A study re­leased by the Na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of State High School As­so­ci­a­tions last week showed that par­tic­i­pa­tion in high school sports rose for the 28th con­sec­u­tive year. Girls, es­pe­cially, are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly in­volved. But foot­ball par­tic­i­pa­tion was down 25,901 from the pre­vi­ous year.

Ev­ery­where mem­bers of this sports staff have gone for prac­tices, we hear the same thing from coaches. Num­bers are down, play­ers aren’t com­ing out, depth will be a prob­lem.

Even at Charleston, a small-school power where lit­tle boys have long dreamed of one day play­ing for the Tigers, there is a drop-off.

“We started the off-sea­son with 50 and now we’re down to 34, and three of those are kick­ers,” Charleston coach Greg Ken­drick said. “Kids to­day are so used to hav­ing that elec­tronic gadget in their hand and hav­ing things easy. When I was grow­ing up in the sum­mer in Van Buren, we went out by 8 in the morn­ing. If we went home for a meal, great. If not, I knew I had to be home by dark or I was get­ting my butt whipped. We were out­side a lot and we were con­di­tioned to it. This gen­er­a­tion is dif­fer­ent and we, as foot­ball coaches, have got to find a way to reach those kids who have a hard time com­mit­ting.”

There are other fac­tors to ex­plain the de­cline in par­tic­i­pa­tion for foot­ball. High school stu­dents have more op­tions now with non­tra­di­tional sports such as archery, lacrosse and moun­tain bik­ing. An­other ma­jor fac­tor is the is­sue of head in­juries in foot­ball, and I lis­tened in­tently while R.J. El­bin, a Uni­ver­sity of Arkansas, Fayetteville, pro­fes­sor, spoke on the topic two weeks ago in Rogers.

El­bin’s pre­sen­ta­tion came on the heels of a con­tro­ver­sial study con­ducted by re­searchers in Bos­ton that found Chronic Trau­matic En­cepalopa­thy — com­monly re­ferred to as CTE — in 110 of 111 brains do­nated by fam­ily mem­bers of de­ceased for­mer NFL play­ers. But El­bin, who’s re­searched con­cus­sions for nearly 10 years, said there could be other vari­ables in the de­vel­op­ment of CTE and that the study has prompted some hys­te­ria against foot­ball.

“We need more re­search, as the authors have stated,” said El­bin, who was an op­tion quar­ter­back in high school. “Foot­ball is a great sport when done right.”

I had some ques­tions for El­bin that he couldn’t an­swer.

Why is foot­ball al­ways sin­gled out on the topic of sports and head in­juries? Why not rugby, soc­cer, base­ball or even rodeo, which is a high school sport in many ar­eas? I’ve seen up close the dan­ger in rodeo and the po­ten­tial for in­jury in base­ball on plays at the plate and with field­ers crash­ing into each other. But it’s al­ways foot­ball, Amer­ica’s fa­vorite sport, that is tar­geted. That spot­light puts fear in the minds of some ath­letes and their par­ents about play­ing the sport.

As fans, we should ap­plaud ba­sic block­ing and tack­ling and clean play, and not the high hits play­ers try to level on their op­po­nent to make the high­lights. It would help, too, if ESPN and other me­dia out­lets quit glo­ri­fy­ing those plays.

Break down, wrap up, take to the ground. Ba­sic foot­ball.

For the next few months, you’ll read in the sports sec­tion of this news­pa­per about top play­ers and top teams in all lev­els of foot­ball. But let’s rec­og­nize to­day all the ath­letes go­ing through the grind of pre­sea­son drills, from the star player to the back­ups and the guys who may not even get on the field this year.

“Nick Sa­ban says foot­ball is a tough game played by tough peo­ple,” Ken­drick said. “If you’re not com­mit­ted, you’re not go­ing to make it at any level.”

Foot­ball is hard. Al­ways has been. So, let’s stand and cheer all the par­tic­i­pants, es­pe­cially at a time when the game ap­pears to be un­der as­sault.

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