As Small Towns Get Smaller, High School Football Teams Reduce Their Squads

Oct 13, 2018
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Football is a way of life in many small U.S. towns. But as populations shrink in parts of rural America, teams are being forced to shrink, too, to survive. Emily Russell looks at the growth of small-squad high school football.

EMILY RUSSELL, BYLINE: Tupper Lake is a small mountain town deep in New York's Adirondack State Park. It's fall here, which means the trees are a blend of red, yellow and orange. It also means it's football season.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Yelling) What time is it?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Yelling) Game time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Yelling) What time is it?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Yelling) Game time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Yelling) What time is it?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Yelling) Game time.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Yelling) Jacks on three - one, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Yelling) Jacks.

RUSSELL: The Tupper Lake Lumberjacks are facing off against the Rebels from western New York. On this Friday night, the stands here are packed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Yelling) All right, boys, let's do some awesome stuff. Yeah.

(CHEERING)

RUSSELL: Tupper Lake was undefeated in its regular season a decade ago. But last year, the team lost every game, some by more than 50 points.

NOAH CORDES: And that's been tough on a lot of the guys.

RUSSELL: Noah Cordes is the team's quarterback. Since that championship season, Tupper Lake's local factory shut down and logging jobs dried up. The high school has lost a quarter of its enrollment. There just haven't been enough players to field a competitive football team. Cordes, though, says there is a reason to be optimistic this season.

CORDES: I think now that we've switched to eight-man, it's a breath of fresh air for us because we know we actually have, like, a chance against these teams.

RUSSELL: In the NFL, college ball and most high schools, 11-player football is the norm. But Cordes' teammate Jaden LaValley says playing with a smaller squad is something more rural schools should consider.

JADEN LAVALLEY: The switch to eight-man is exciting for I feel like anyone in our situation that has a small school in a small town because it just gives you the opportunity to be competitive with all the teams that you're playing with.

RUSSELL: There are now a dozen small-squad football teams across New York and more than 800 across the U.S. That's in part because the population of rural America - it's been on the decline since 2010. Hundreds of schools have completely eliminated football or cut their JV teams.

BOB COLGATE: It all deals with numbers.

RUSSELL: Bob Colgate is director of sports and sports medicine for the National Federation of State High School Associations. Along with shrinking school enrollments, Colgate says football has lost about 10 percent of players nationwide in the last decade. That's happened amid heightened awareness over player safety and concussions.

COLGATE: We've still got a very good sport, but yet we've got to protect it and take a look at it. What can we do to protect those individuals and the game as we go into the future?

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: There it is.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: That's a good tackle.

RUSSELL: To most people watching tonight in Tupper Lake, this likely still looks like a normal football game. But not everyone likes the change. Mitch Robillard (ph) is volunteering on the sidelines.

MITCH ROBILLARD: I went to high school here, graduated in 1970. I played football for four years in high school. And I love football - high school football.

RUSSELL: Robillard is a purist. So what does he think about the switch to eight-player?

ROBILLARD: Kind of disappointed because, you know, I've followed 11-man football for a lot of years. It's going to be different. I'm hoping for the best. I hope the kids can compete.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Fourth down - big fourth down, big fourth down.

RUSSELL: And that's what Dennis Klossner hopes for, too. Klossner also played football for Tupper Lake. He's been coaching the Lumberjacks for the last 20 years.

DENNIS KLOSSNER: It's new to everybody. They're all curious. But what I keep telling everyone - it's just three less guys. It's still football (laughter).

RUSSELL: And still a reason to get together under the Friday night lights. The Tupper Lake Lumberjacks lost to the Rebels but a week later scored their first win in more than a year. For NPR News, I'm Emily Russell in Tupper Lake, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.