Most days, when 7-year-old Luke Heffington steps onto the football field, he’s the smallest player on either side. His father, Jason, isn’t all that concerned.
“This is about as safe as it’s going to get, at this age and this speed,” dad said. “If you look at them, this is the only sport they’re completely padded from head to toe. So, there’s less injury in a sport like this than in soccer or baseball. Our next-door neighbor’s son just got a broken nose from a baseball that hit him in the face.”
Both of Jason Heffington’s sons, including 9-year-old Logan, are among roughly 450 kids who play tackle football in the Keller Youth Association. They represent a small fraction of the youngest generation of players in a wildly popular American sport that, in recent years, has seen even ardent supporters question its long-term existence.
Fear of both short- and long-term injury has players and parents — from the NFL to 5-year-old mites — weighing the risks of suiting up.
“I talk to kids all the time and parents that are in my son’s peer group, and they’re telling me specifically it’s because they are scared. That’s the biggest concern,” KYA VP of Football Garvin Fouts said.
He estimates that the KYA had about 900 players in 2011, almost double what it has now.
“As I casually talk with parents about it, they’re really nervous,” he added. “That NFL report has been a big factor in letting kids play. That and other celebrities saying, ‘I wouldn’t let my kid play.’ ”
The report Fouts refers to was published this past summer. It noted that Dr. Ann McKee, chief of neuropathology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and head of the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center at Boston University, studied the brains of 202 former football players and found that 87 percent of them showed signs of CTE — a degenerative disease thought to be caused by repeated trauma to the head.
It was a damning blow for a sport already facing a groundswell of questions about safety.
Texas isn’t shy about its religious-like fervor for high school football. But if congregations hope to continue gathering in their increasingly gaudy Friday-night temples, the sport will require a steady stream of indoctrinated players to cheer on. Reduced participation numbers at the youth level will likely translate into diminishing numbers in middle school and eventually high school.
Examination of area figures indicates few discernible patterns at this point.
In Keller, where youth participation has steadily declined, participation in football has actually increased slightly at all four high schools since 2015. Middle schools, of which there are six, show mixed results, half up and half down since 2015.
Nearby in Colleyville and Grapevine, high school player numbers have been stable over the past three seasons. Fort Worth ISD also reported stable numbers, while noting that two high schools have been opened in the past five years. Arlington ISD found about 500 fewer players across all of its middle schools and high schools combined.
But data without context cannot tell a complete story. Coaches and athletic directors point out that causation for reduced football participation may not directly reflect safety concerns. One factor many point to is increased and varied opportunities.
“One of the reasons our numbers are down is that we’ve added more programs,” said Brent Barker, Athletic Director of Eagle Mountain-Saginaw ISD. “The middle school soccer programs are just busting out at the seams. We added that five years ago.”
“There are other opportunities for kids to be involved in extracurricular activities,” Keller ISD Director of Athletics Bob DeJonge said. “There’s lacrosse and rugby. There are just more choices.”
High school struggles
There are others factors in play, such as population shifts and fluctuating enrollments as new schools open. Across the state of Texas, football participation has failed to keep pace with growing enrollment. The peak for Texas was 168,680 middle school and high school football players in 2010, and that number has been declining ever since, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).
The University Interscholastic League, the state’s governing body for all public school extracurricular activities, provided the 2010 number to NFHS.
More broadly in Texas, football players — 128,123 of the 3.22 million enrolled students — accounted for 4 percent of total enrollment in 1987. By 2016, it was 3 percent — 163,922 of 5.36 million enrolled.
“It’s something we’ve got to take seriously and how we manage the concerns of our parents,” said Bryan Gerlich, Grapevine-Colleyville ISD’s executive director of athletics. “I’m not going to tell you your child won’t get hurt. In any sport, you can get hurt. But we will do all we can to train your child so they can compete hard and play the game.”
Gerlich and DeJonge both said high school coaches are reaching out to parents at all levels, hoping to alleviate some of their fears.
“Our coaches are more in direct communication with the parents and how they’re teaching the game,” DeJonge said. “We’re working with the way Seattle Seahawks teach it, to get the head out of the game. We understand the importance of safety.”
Even through-and-through football diehards, who cut their teeth in drills reminiscent of Bear Bryant’s “Junction Boys,” understand what’s at stake to maintain the sport they’ve spent their entire lives playing and coaching.
“Our coaches go to the youth leagues and their boards and explain our protocols and strategies and contact,” DeJonge added. “The idea is giving people as much information as they can use.”
Information and education are a recurring refrain from football coaches, beginning at the earliest levels. In football-crazed Southlake, the Dragon Youth Football program has maintained stable numbers over the past five years, but not without discernible effort.
“We certainly have seen the concerns and heard the concerns from parents,” Clay Taylor, President of Dragon Youth Football said. “Our numbers have held steady, but we have worked incredibly hard to keep those numbers steady. That includes parent education, classes, involving ourselves in USA Football, and limiting the amount of contact to proactively address those concerns. My kids play, too, and I’m concerned about it.”
Southlake participates in the North Texas Football League, which includes Coppell, Lantana, Trophy Club, Colleyville-Grapevine and Northwest. Taylor said with the exception of Lantana, other youth associations have seen declining numbers.
Taylor also echoes KYA dad Jeff Heffington’s assessment that younger players are in little danger of serious injury.
“Anybody can get a concussion,” Taylor said. “But it’s certainly not as prevalent because they just don’t hit hard enough, particularly at the younger ages. They just don’t generate a lot of velocity at the second-, third- and fourth-grade level. In fifth and sixth, they’re starting to hit pretty hard. They’re starting to come into puberty, etc., and start hitting a lot harder.”
Taylor noted that four Dragon Youth Football players had received concussions this season, but only one of those actually came from football. The other three were suffered in non-football-related activities.
Recognizing that the youngest players face a greater danger of head injury from hitting the ground than contact from another player, some youth associations are taking precautions even into their flag football programs.
The TCU Pee-Wee Football Association provides a flag-football introduction to the sport for ages four and five. Beginning this season, those players are required to wear soft-shell helmets, somewhat akin to a bicycle helmet.
“We found the kids aren’t getting concussions from the contact or banging each other,” said Charles Douglas, president of TCU Pee-Wee Association. “What they’re getting head injury from is hitting the ground. A little kid is top heavy, so when he falls, if he doesn’t brace himself, he’ll hit his head.”
Douglas said the parents in his association firmly support the use of the soft-shell headgear, which came at an additional cost of about $40 per child. Douglas believes the helmets could eventually make their way into high school 7-on-7 competitions.
“If that tells you anything, we are progressing,” he added. “We don’t play around if we think there’s something we need to do for the kids.”
Begin early, or wait?
Most local youth associations start tackle football programs at age seven, or second grade. Keller is one of a handful that offers a tackle league starting at age five, though that division failed to materialize this fall after too few players signed up.
Fouts said a number of concerned parents he has talked to in recent years indicate they want to wait and start their boys in football when those kids reach middle school. That, Fouts believes, is a flawed approach.
“That’s not a good situation because then they don’t know how to play,” he said. “They’re getting thrown in with the big kids and they’re getting pounded.”
Without a significant growth spurt, Luke Heffington will likely still be among the smaller kids when he reaches the age that players start hitting much harder. Jason Heffington figures any decision he might have to make about letting his son continue to play football might not be a decision he has to make at all.
“If he doesn’t have a growth spurt, I think what will happen is the sport will weed him out,” Jason said. “He’ll be fine with it and have to pick another sport because he won’t get to play. And I’ll be fine with that.”
Star-Telegram reporter Kevin Lonnquist contributed to this report.