Santa Fe New Mexican
High schools around the state struggle to field teams as number of interested, eligible students dwindles, leading some to worry the sport’s days are numbered
Philip Lovato wouldn’t trade his football players at Albuquerque Highland High School for anything.
Lovato, a 1994 Highland alumnus who is starting his third year as head coach, proudly boasts, “I have the best kids” — pointing out how they showed up en masse to summer workouts and conditioning drills in preparation for the upcoming season.
“That’s pretty awesome to see,” Lovato said of the 27 players, freshmen through seniors, who play football at the 1,150-student school.
But that number — 27 — underscores just how tenuous football has become at a place that boasts an NFL Hall of Famer and a variety of high school All-Americans and college stars among its alumni.
More concerning for fans throughout the state, Highland’s paltry participation points to this worry: Is high school football in New Mexico beginning to die?
Lovato admits it’s a distinct possibility at
Highland, which he said may not have enough players to field a team a year from now.
“When I took over the job, it was one of the things I noticed right away, and I started expressing my concerns every year,” Lovato said of Highland’s microscopic participation rate. “It’s interesting that until now, nobody really believed me. They were like, ‘Are you serious?’ I mean, why would I be lying?”
Highland’s struggle reveals what appears to be an unsettling trend throughout the state as teams officially start practice Monday.
In June, McCurdy Charter School in Española canceled its season after half of the 26 players were declared academically ineligible. Questa, which prematurely ended backto-back seasons in 2017 and 2018 because of a lack of players, will not field a team this year. On Wednesday, Mission Achievement and Success Charter School in Albuquerque dropped out of the New Mexico Activities Association, meaning it will not play football this season.
Just as troubling, some observers say, is this figure: 11 of the 113 schools expected to play football this year will do so as independents, according to the NMAA. That means they will not play in a district nor compete in the playoffs.
Add it all up, and the so-called Friday Night Flight causes some to worry that the sport eventually will be crippled.
Others, though, point to robust participation in places as small as Escalante High and as large as Albuquerque La Cueva as evidence that football’s dire predicament is greatly exaggerated.
Dusty Young, an NMAA associate director who oversees football, acknowledged the number of independent football teams is high, but he added that dropping football is not uncommon at smaller schools.
Young noted, though, that student-athlete participation rates have declined, regardless of the sport.
“So it’s not just football that is struggling to find participation numbers,” Young said. “It’s just that some schools are lacking in participation numbers as a whole, as far as where they were 15, 20 years ago.”
Still, football has been at the forefront of declining participation rates. Some of that may be due to safety concerns arising from the connection between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the neurodegenerative disease more commonly known as CTE.
The National Federation of State High School Associations, which works with state associations to establish rules and regulations for sports and activities, reported in September that more than 1 million students played 11-man football in the 2017-18 school year, a 2 percent decline from the year before. Participation rates in the sport have steadily declined since reaching a high of more than 1.1 million in 2008-09.
As a nod to safety concerns, Los Alamos head coach Garrett Williams said his program spent the past few years spending part of his budget on “guardian caps” — a layer of padding that covers the outside of the helmet. The equipment is designed to reduce impact rates by up to 33 percent.
Williams said all players will wear the caps for practice, adding he felt it was necessary to show concerned parents and students the school was proactive about safety.
“The safety issue has become so much more vocal than it was,” Williams said. “It caused our coaches and the [National Federation of State High School Associations] to step back and look at this. I feel that our sport is as safe as it’s ever been right now, and for people to be backing out of it is concerning for me.”
However, some administrators say the head-injury concern is not the only major factor in the decline in participation. Kenny Barreras, Albuquerque Public Schools athletic director, said his district has noticed not just a decline in participation but also a drop in athletes who play more than one sport. He attributes it to the growing trend of specialization in one sport.
“Even the number of two-sport athletes has declined,” Barreras said. “That is where you see that waning participation level at a school that maybe historically had been able get by because they had more kids doing more sports. Now, you need more kids overall to fill your teams.”
Bernalillo High Principal Tim McCorkle, who held the same post at Albuquerque High School from 2007-18, said football relies so much on larger roster sizes because of its physical nature. And when an injured — or nonexistent — upperclassman is replaced by a sophomore or a freshman on the field, it can have a corrosive effect.
It was a compelling reason McCorkle and Albuquerque High athletic director Doug Dorame decided to place the Bulldogs’ football program on an independent status in 2018.
“As a principal, if I see that my football team is going to be defenseless going up against bigger boys, I am going to side on trying to protect the students I serve,” McCorkle said. “It’s sort of like a boxer in the ring. When that boxer is defenseless or looks tired, the trainer has to step in and defend him.”
Once one of the smaller programs in Albuquerque, the Bulldogs have grown their numbers. Dorame said AHS will return to playing a district schedule in 2020, thanks to 93 players in the program.
The struggles of some teams go beyond simply getting kids out onto the field. Capital High head coach Bill Moon said administrative and community support are key factors in developing strong athletic programs. When there is a constant change in superintendents, principals and coaches, Moon said, it fuels the exodus of players.
When he took over at Capital in 2012, Moon was the fourth head coach in as many years, and the entire program had just 17 players. Since then, Capital’s roster size has grown to about 55.
Questa, which dropped football, is on its fifth superintendent in two years and has had four head coaches since 2015.
“Football is not only the hardest sport to play, but it is the hardest to integrate into your school if you’re the superintendent or a principal or the athletic director,” Moon said. “There are two sports that require administrative action all the time, and that is football and track. …
“You don’t just accidentally have a kid throwing a javelin at some park or kids lining up to play tackle football,” Moon continued. “It takes planning.”
Sometimes, all the planning in the world can’t account for socioeconomic and cultural factors. Lovato said the community around Highland — located in the heart of Albuquerque’s aging Southeast Heights — has transformed through the years, as families that once lived in the area for decades steadily left and were replaced with a constant rotation of fresh faces that do not stay for long.
Many of Lovato’s players come from poor and single-parent families, and they often didn’t have the opportunity to play in youth leagues because the price was too costly.
Lovato added that other Highland students belong to immigrant families from a wide range of countries, and they know little about football. When he hits the hallways to recruit players, he said he gets a lot of blank stares.
“They don’t know the sport and they’ve never played, so they have no interest in being in the sun, running and getting yelled at,” Lovato said. “It’s not what they are accustomed to.”
Los Alamos’ Williams laments that his program lags behind sports like cross-country and soccer in terms of attracting athletes, in part because some parents didn’t play the sport or grow up in football-centric towns.
“And there are so many club sports, and those kind of opportunities kinda help dwindle your numbers some,” Williams said. “But that’s not just football. It’s a lot of sports.”
In the end, winning sometimes is the ultimate cure-all for some of football’s problems. Sammy Martinez, who graduated from Santa Fe High in the spring, said he knew of fellow classmates who didn’t want to play because the Demons were in the midst of a 35-game losing streak, which ended last year.
Martinez added that some kids don’t want to go through the struggles that come with turning a program around; they only want to be a part of a successful team.
“I would always say, ‘It’s not going to get better unless you go out and try,’ ” Martinez said. “Kids want to play on a winning team, but you need to work at it.”
Though many are confident football will survive, and perhaps even thrive, Lovato said he thinks other large-enrollment schools will encounter the same problem Highland faces. Then they, too, will have to decide if having a football team is worth the struggle.
“It’s going to be a problem,” Lovato said. “I mentioned this to somebody before: If our program does fold, there is going to be another one that will fold eventually. And then another one.” And then another.
What happens then?