There is a statewide (maybe nationwide) problem nagging high school football. If we already didn’t have enough to fuss about with concussion hysteria and parents concerned about injuries, now we are facing a growing numbers problem which is directly affecting the play of freshmen.

At some level, I played my six years of junior high and high school football in a golden era of the game, at least in terms of numbers. I graduated in a class of 189 kids at South Tama and my freshman year we had 30 boys out for the team. My senior year, our varsity roster had 42 juniors and seniors. We fielded a freshman team with a full nine-game schedule, a JV team (again playing eight or nine games) and a varsity team.

It was a rarity that a sophomore ever moved up to the varsity.

Playing football, as mostly country kids and townies whose dads worked for the packing plant, is what we did. By the time I got to my senior year, I had enjoyed playing in nine freshman games, eight JV games and about half the varsity games (not enough to letter) as a special teams reserve. There was never a time when even kids without much talent got to play and play at levels commensurate with their ability.

Sadly that train has left the station. Because of plummeting numbers, schools all over are scrambling to find games for freshmen and sophomore players. Even schools like Albia who still have decent numbers of freshmen and sophomores out for football, struggle because district teams in every direction don’t have the numbers to field teams for a Friday night freshman game and a Monday JV game.

So a whole lot of freshmen are either not getting game experience at all, or they are playing above their physical ability against sophomore and junior JV players. And we’re seeing more and more freshmen and sophomore players filling spots on varsity teams when they’re really not equipped physically to be on the field with a senior.

And I don’t have an answer except to say that it is no fun to practice football all week and not get a chance to get into a game.

This is actually a significant advantage that sports like cross-country have over football. Everybody gets to run, regardless of age or skill level. The down side of everybody running in cross country is the fact that somebody finishes last and you can’t hide in a huddle. It is difficult struggling across a finish line at or near the end of the race. But at least you get to get away from the drudgery of practice and go head to head against kids from other schools.

Lots and lots of schools are lucky if they get one or two freshmen football games played in a season.

I’ve never quite understood the declining numbers deal outside of a really unrealistic fear of injury. If you play any sports, you face the reality of injury. I broke a collarbone and suffered a severe ankle sprain playing football, both coming in my junior year. But I broke a finger, banged up a knee and separated my throwing shoulder in baseball, tore up my hip flexors in track, had around eight ankle sprains playing mostly intramural college basketball, tore my Achilles tendon as a 38-year-old racquetball player and nearly destroyed my right shoulder in a cross country skiing crash.

But I play on, even as an aching, aging mid 60-year-old because I love to play. As a teenager, it was part love of baseball and football and part release from the agony of farm chores. Every fall afternoon getting beat up on the practice football field was a couple of hours away from scooping hog manure or freezing sitting on an open air tractor waiting for the combine to unload corn into the wagon I was dragging around. Wait a minute. When I got home from practice on late fall nights, I’d have some supper and head out to the field until nine or 10 o’clock freezing on the tractor. Still, there was respite.

So I don’t relate to kids who have all sorts of natural talent but don’t play because it’s not fun, or it’s too hard, or they don’t like pain. But it’s likely my attitudes toward playing sports are now relics of the past. Growing up a hard scrabble farm kid, I was fully aware of the sacrifice my dad was making by letting my brother and me play football in the fall (harvest), basketball and wrestling in the winter (farrowing), track in the spring (planting) and baseball in the summer (haying).

Other farm kids didn’t get the opportunities to play like we did and I never took it for granted. It’s why I didn’t drink beer and raised the bare minimum amount of hell as a teenager. It’s why I kept my grades at a (barely) acceptable level. For a lot of kids today, that drive to be a part of something much bigger than themselves doesn’t exist. The isolation of a social media device is much easier and more attractive.

So is there an answer to plummeting football numbers caused by injury hysteria and youthful indifference? Can we figure out how to get freshmen and sophomores playing each week at their own age and skill level?

Better parent information isn’t cutting it, since facts have shown more concussion injuries in soccer and wrestling. Tighter officiating along with teaching head slide tackling instead of using the head as a battering ram technique is vital. Continued improvement of helmets is terrific as long as it doesn’t price the game out of the reach of normal kids and their families.

Perhaps the state could set up an entirely different form of scheduling games, forgetting the easy match-ups of identical non-district and district games could be considered.

I don’t know. Football is a great game, as is soccer and wrestling, basketball, track and baseball. It helps create better community and better people living within those communities. We’ve just got to sort things out and get some things fixed.

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