Headlines hit harder than a Chicago Bears linebacker or Oakland Raiders defensive back from the 1970s.
“The slow drip of football’s youth participation decline continues,” Forbes magazine declared earlier this year. “The Friday night lights start to dim on high school football,” sounded a similar NBC News alarm last summer.
Two sitting U.S. presidents and countless former National Football League stars have publicly said they would have a hard time seeing their kids play the game, or may outright stop them from doing so.
Will Smith’s “Concussion” motion picture and other real-life tales of past players wrestling with dementia and depression have taken their toll on youth football numbers and cast the game’s future into question.
How do organizations such as Scott County Youth Football cope with the trend? By staying proactive and transparent, and putting the right people with the proper training in charge.
“Since movies like ‘Concussion’ came out, the No. 1 concern of most parents is safety for their child,” SCYF vice president Chad Little said. “We’re doing everything in our power to keep it fun and make it safe.”
There are other factors stacked up against football or any competitive sport these days, of course.
Video games and cell phones provide virtual reality entertainment at the touch of a button. And pay-to-play leagues aren’t always feasible for families that are struggling to feed themselves and keep the rent up to date.
Yet through it all, Scott County’s feeder program prospers. Early-bird registration for the fall league has climbed each year since 2016. Overall numbers are growing, not withering.
This comes in a time when at least seven states have made moves to ban tackle football until a specific age, typically 12 to 14.
SCYF didn’t stand pat and see changes in the sport as cyclical, nor did it wait for a higher authority to intervene. Seven years ago, it joined forces with Heads Up Football, a program designed by the NFL and USA Football aimed at getting the game back to basics.
“They have layouts for coaches’ certifications, so we require all our coaches to be certified. As part of that certification, they have training videos with coaches from all over the NFL that are teaching proper blocking and tackling techniques, how to break down a drill, things like that,” Little said. “We’re really trying to implement those and encourage our coaches to use those, because any time you can take the head out of it, it’s much safer for the kids.”
While the game nationally appears to be on its heels and striking a defensive posture, Scott County’s introductory level of football has stayed ahead of the curve.
In addition to its senior tackle (ages 10 to 12) and junior tackle (8 and 9) divisions, SCYF transformed its older flag division into a so-called freshman tackle league. Such a move may sound counterintuitive to the prevailing train of thought that all contact for young players is bad, but the strategy is to teach good habits as early as possible for the best long-term results.
“There’s no blitzing. They line up on a much smaller field. It’s a much slower game,” Little said. “A lot of people worry about the impact at that age, but again, we’re teaching them the fundamentals.
“Everybody starts out in flag learning the basis: To run, catch and throw. Then as they move up into freshman tackle, that’s when they start learning the basics of blocking and tackling the proper way.”
Little noted that Heads Up Football has just begun integrating a freshman tackle division into its infrastructure.
“We were well ahead of them on that, with a smaller field and adapting new rules,” he said. “We’ve been doing that for a while. We play all the games at Marshall Park, and the freshman field year in and year out has the biggest crowd and is the rowdiest group. It’s fun to watch. It’s wonderful, fun games.”
Other safety measures by the organization include required certification and background checks for all coaches, an additional insurance policy (beyond Parks and Recreation coverage) against any significant injuries, and a goal of 10 percent new equipment each year.
There are also weight limits in each league for players who may catch or run with the ball, to avoid full-speed mismatches in the secondary. In the senior tackle division, it’s 130 pounds.
The initial Heads Up training videos for coaches take four to six hours to complete, Little said. They cover a spectrum that includes blocking, tackling, hydration, how to maintain a proper practice schedule and equipment fitting.
Once approved, coaches are counseled never to encourage 100 percent, game-style contact during practice.
“Practice is where a lot of your injuries happen,” Little said. “(With full contact), you lose the fundamentals with the feet, getting your shoulders up and back, your arms ready, where does your head go, and all that. The best thing is to ‘go to the pop.’ You make contact and you stop, learning to get things in position.”
Kids are perceptive, of course, and news about football’s inherent danger finds its way to their eyes and ears, as well.
SCYF has tried to demystify tackling by breaking it down into individual stages and introducing it gradually.
“You get a lot of kids that are nervous about tackling,” Little said. “The videos talk about those kids, and the last thing you want to do is yell, ‘Suck it up and get in there!’ It’s learning how to encourage those kids and take those steps so they aren’t scared and they learn it the proper way and are going to be safe.”
Parents and players have given their endorsement by turning out in droves.
Little said the three-year average from 2016 to 2018 was about 240 tackle and 60 flag players in the fall. A spring flag football league has almost tripled in size to 250 participants since it was introduced.
With a new high school opening next month, SCYB has an increased need to recruit and develop players who want to continue playing the game at Scott County or Great Crossing.
“That’s something we’ve always prided ourselves on,” Little said. “We consider ourselves a feeder program for the middle schools, and seeing those do well and then feed into the high school. It’s got to start somewhere.”
The early registration rate elapsed July 1, but players may continue to get on board for the 2019 season through July 21. To sign up, go to scyfootball.com.
Tryouts and draft days are set for July 22 and 23, followed by games in early August.
“We’re ready to rock and roll and get going,” Little said. “It will be a little different for us this year. We’ll be almost three games in before school starts.”
After the championships are settled in October, Little and other coaches will try to encourage all players in the league to continue with a travel team on weekends until the cold weather hits.
“That way they get an idea what it’s going to be like going into middle school, playing tougher competition,” Little said. “We don’t turn anybody away.”
It’s yet another sign that the county’s football offerings are in a growth pattern, if anything.
And the injuries?
“I don’t have any true numbers to show it, but what we’re finding is we have more kids getting hurt at home playing football than on the field right now,” he said.
Kal Oakes can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.