Photo Gallery | High School Football Practices
For the first time in five years, high school football participation went up in America last year.
Keith Thomson wishes that trend extended to his team in Lee.
"I haven't seen an increase in numbers," the Wildcats football coach said. "I've seen anything but."
Thomson's struggle to attract kids to, and keep them in, the football program is not exclusive to Lee, either. Across Berkshire County, programs are dealing with either fewer participants than previous years, or regular numbers typically lower than coaches would like.
Thomson's current Lee squad has 31 players. Traditionally, he's had at least 40 per year.
Compare that to, for example, the current 31-player roster at Mount Greylock, and the 32-player rosters that both the Drury and Hoosac Valley programs have -- and for Drury's program, the number is split between DHS students and former St. Joseph Crusaders who now play for Drury in a co-op program.
"It's been a huge struggle," sixth-year Drury coach Bill Bryce said. "We've generally started somewhere in the mid- to-low 30s, and by the end of the season, we're in the mid-to-low 20s. It makes it hard to practice. [Junior varsity] games get canceled, so the young guys have to go play against the older guys in practice ... and they don't have the reward of playing in their own game."
The attrition in Berkshire County football rosters, for once, is going against the national data. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), in a Wednesday press release, stated that football saw its first increase in participation in five years, helping the overall boys sports participation push past 4 1/2 million for the first time.
NFHS Executive Director Bob Gardner said in the release that the federation is pleased with the increase in football numbers, and that new precautions in place to address concussion issues back up their belief that the risk of injury is as low as it's ever been.
"Certainly, this rise in football numbers is a confirmation of those beliefs and indicates the strong continued interest nationwide in high school football," Gardner said.
That's all well and good nationally, but it hasn't helped everywhere locally. Thomson addresses concussion concerns with both prospective football parents and the parents of current players each year.
Lee takes part in ImPACT testing for athletes to assess cognitive functions related to concussions. Thomson has geared his practices to be less contact-intensive, focusing more on Xs and Os on both the field and in the film room.
"Other than that, I don't know that you can completely eliminate the fears people have," he said. "It's a tough deal, but it is what it is and everybody's got to deal with it."
Even in programs in which numbers aren't a concern -- like Wahconah, which has won a Western Mass. Super Bowl and reached the MIAA state semifinal round in the last two seasons -- the concerns regarding head injuries take their toll and force coaches to assure parents that the players are safe.
"[There's] all the negativity in the press about concussions and everything else in the world, so [the NFHS numbers] surprise me a little," Warriors coach Gary Campbell said.
Campbell noted, though, that it's not just concussion concerns that have contributed to lower football numbers. He cited Wahconah's smaller enrollment numbers in general, but added that his program's participation is in the mid-50s so far.
"To get 55 boys ... that's a pretty good percentage," he said. "We're happy with our numbers."
In-season attrition can also take its toll on a program. Whether injuries mount or in-season grades drop -- Bryce praised Drury's policy requiring athletes to be passing at least five academic, non-physical education classes, including both math and English -- county teams will typically lose a few players before season's end.
For some, though, the recent downward trend in football participation is just part of the natural ebb and flow you'd see in any school in America. McCann Tech coach Bob LeClair said his 44-boy roster is bigger than previous years, but he noted that he graduated just two seniors last year, and only six the year before that.
This year, the Hornets have 12 seniors and 13 incoming freshman players.
"For us, the amount of kids who come in with each class ... it's cyclical," he said. "You'll get a group with good athletes, and this is what we've got right now, kids who want to play football."