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Football participation demands hard work, commitment

By Rick Fires

This article was published August 13, 2017 at 1:00 a.m.

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.

Rick Fires can be reached at rfires@nwadg.com or on Twitter@NWARick.

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