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Coach Jeff Reilly addresses his High School North team. Citing a lack of players, the New Jersey school will only field a junior varsity squad.

The nationwide forces that are beginning to uproot football have converged at a place called High School North.

Demographic shifts, concussions, single-sport specialization and cost - among the same issues that have caused youth football numbers to plummet around the country in recent years - have led West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North to drop varsity football this season. The Knights, with a roster of 37 players, will play a junior varsity schedule.

High School South, the other secondary school in the district, might have to do the same next year, along with high schools from four other neighboring jurisdictions, West Windsor-Plainsboro Schools Superintendent David Aderhold said.

The moves reflect a crisis for football all over the country, but one that has accelerated in this New York City bedroom community.

"We're the leading edge of a much larger iceberg when it comes to what's coming in youth athletics," Aderhold said.

Football participation has dropped precipitously for some time. High school football enrollment is down 4.5 percent over the past decade, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

More schools are fielding football teams nationwide, albeit with fewer players, led by surges in such states as Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas, which together have added 150 teams in the past five years. But other regions - namely the Midwest and Northeast - are shedding high school football programs at a significant rate. Michigan has seen a net loss of 57 teams in the past five years. Missouri has lost 24. Pennsylvania has lost 12.

Even Southern California powerhouse Long Beach Poly, which has sent dozens of players to the NFL, gave up its junior varsity squad amid low turnout this summer. Centennial High in Ellicott City, Md., from a region that's a traditional football stronghold, announced this month that it would fold its varsity football team, citing a "lack of sufficient players and concern for student safety."

Youth levels of football, leagues high schools lean on as feeder systems, saw a nearly 30 percent drop in participation between 2008 and 2013, according to data collected by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

It has sent school officials nationwide clamoring to stabilize their varsity programs and reevaluate the game that has claimed high school Friday nights for generations.

Unique issues in the state

The forces fueling those declines have come to the fore, sometimes in extremes, in West Windsor. Demographic changes have drawn families here who are less familiar with American football. Sixty-one percent of High School North's 1,500-some students are Indian American and Asian American. Some of those families have clashed previously with other families, many of them white, over the role of extracurricular activities in the school district.

"We didn't grow up with football being part of the culture," High School North booster club president Sandy Johnson said. Johnson is Chinese American and married to Olin Johnson, who is white and coaches one of West Windsor's youth football teams. "It's a struggle when parents don't know the sport."

Concerns over football-related head injuries have driven some parents to lead their children away from the sport. The state's budget cuts meant New Jersey eliminated a slew of middle school and sub-varsity sports.

It has all led to North fielding a team with only five upperclassmen this fall, senior quarterback Brian Murphy said.

Football coaches and boosters at every level of play in West Windsor have scrambled to recruit parents to sign their children up for football or give their teens permission to try the sport in high school. In so doing, they have found that the face of the town has changed. It used to be a haven for second-generation immigrants, said Steve Rome, a 1987 High School South graduate. His mother was born in Morocco, then immigrated to Israel, then the United States. His neighbors were Indian American and Asian American.

But the technology boom and high-skill jobs in biotechnology, medicine, finance and academia have attracted a new class of migrants to these suburbs, where the median annual household income is $161,750. Those parents are not signing their kids up for football at the same rate as the rest of the nation.

'There's a ripple effect'

Murphy threw for 24 touchdowns and more than 2,200 yards his junior season. Coaches from Yale, Villanova, Georgetown and others have asked about his college plans. Murphy has told them he will play North's junior varsity schedule so he won't have to transfer his senior year of high school. A Georgetown coach, his parents said, told him not to bother sending in more game tape. Coaches wouldn't look at JV film.

This is what's at stake should High School North lose its football team, boosters say. It would affect the recruiting and college options; the Friday night atmosphere; and the main stage for cheerleaders and North's marching band.

Football coaches and school administrators are taking that same message to parents and toeing a thin line between encouraging them to enroll their children in football without telling them how to parent.

But the whole saga has left families wondering what West Windsor will look like without football, and what it means that their elite school district might drop a sport long viewed as central to the high school experience.

The Washiongton Post

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August 27, 2017
 
 
 

 

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