It’s a Monday morning at Ogden High School, and, once again, Erik Thompson believes he can win. He’s thought this before, but he’s come up short each time. Thompson has no playbook in hand, no whistle; he’s certainly not on the sidelines. No, he’s on a Pickleball court facing one of the school’s best athletes, a star on the Tigers baseball team, in a game of one-on-one.

Each showdown usually has the same stakes: If Thompson wins, the student-athlete will give football a chance next season. If he loses, he’ll have to wait until their schedules align once more, because the second-year head football coach at Ogden is persistent like that. He has to be. When there’s a rare bit of free time, Thompson is scouting the halls of the high school, wondering who could play, and yet somehow more important, who might want to play?

Thompson comes up short. The friendly wager, he says, will live on.

“Maybe tomorrow,” he said, “I’ll play him again.”

At a program that needed a 36-game losing skid snapped a year ago, Thompson has been able to reverse course. Participation numbers were at an all-time low before he arrived, dwindling to as low as the 40s. In 2017, all of Ogden’s football teams combined hit 115. The excitement skyrocketed; kids who’d never thought about giving football a shot did. Some stuck with it; others didn’t. In 2018, the Tigers are around 80 players — still a world of a difference compared with the state of the program just a few years ago.

“To me,” Thompson said, “the sport will sell itself.”

On a national scale, the game itself is in limbo. Participation numbers at the youth and high school level are dropping fast. In some states, they’re in a free fall; in others, they’re holding strong. In Utah, it’s complicated. Numbers are steady at the high school level, comparable to where they have been in recent years. At the youth level, they’re down, but those who vouch for the game believe it’s a short-term dip instead of a cliff dive.

The Salt Lake Tribune asked coaches, administrators and parents from around Utah to weigh in on the factors working for and against the future of football.

According to data supplied by the Utah High School Activities Association (UHSAA), high school football dropped from 9,170 players in 2017 to 8,944 in 2018. That’s just 226 fewer players. But the most recent data from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHS) revealed that more than 55,000 boys and girls stopped playing football nationwide within the past five years. In 2017, it’s reported that prep football is down another 20,000 across the country.

“It’s dying,” said Riley Jensen, a former Utah State University quarterback who runs Mountain West Elite, a football training company. “I’d be really surprised if football, in its current state today, is here in 10 to 15 years.”

Truth is, to understand the current state of football in the Beehive State is to dive deeper than numbers and percentages or declarations. There are layers to the conversation, and those associated with the game here vow to keep it alive.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ogden High head coach Erik Thompson talks to players during football practice. The mood at practice has changed after the team broke its 36-game losing streak last week. Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017.

Youth football

If there is a theoretical panic button, Jeff Gorringe hasn’t come close to glancing at it, let alone pressing it. The executive director of Ute Conference Football — Utah’s largest youth football organization with more than 7,000 athletes and 350 teams — said the association is in a battle to keep the sport moving forward.

“We love the game,” he said, “but do we feel like there could be a couple tough years? Absolutely. I think the whole climate with the NFL is having its impact all the way down to little league. It’s being talked about.”

In 2018, Ute Conference numbers are down 800 kids and 38 teams from 64 regions across the state. Each Ute Conference team has about 18 to 22 players on it. This is the first year, Gorringe said, the organization has seen a real difference in numbers. Every Saturday, Ute Conference has approximately 11,300 snaps, and every Saturday an average of 25 helmets are taken away from players, who range from 7 to 15 years old, due to various injuries.

To preserve the game, you must be prepared, Gorringe said. Ute Conference did studies to see where the majority of concussions in youth football occur. The results showed that most happen within 7 yards of the sideline, and they’re rarely helmet-to-helmet hits, he said. Most are helmet-to-ground contact. They’ve since tried to force the flow of the game through the middle of the field to prevent head injuries, which is among the chief concerns for parents.

While most helmet companies try to recertify helmets for 10 years, Ute Conference doesn’t keep a helmet longer than six years. It also invested in Shadowman, a company that teaches young players to tackle a dummy with proper technique: head out of the way, rugby-style tackling.

“We want the head out of the way as much as we can get it out of the way in a football game,” Gorringe said.

Cameron Flint, a father of two teenage players in Davis County, said without the evolution in coaching and tackling in the past decade, he wouldn’t hav

e allowed his two sons, who played in the Wasatch Front Football League program, to play football. But Flint himself is a former player and little league football coach.

“That’s made us more at ease as things progressed with studies, for sure,” he said.

A study from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association in September 2017 put the participation drop nationally at nearly 30 percent for kids ages 6 to 12 between 2008 and 2016. Dave Stireman, president of the Wasatch Front Football League, which stretches from Farmington to the Idaho border, said the league was at 270 teams in 2008. In 2018, it’s down to 182.

“A third of the league is gone,” he said. “We’re way, way down in terms of numbers.”

High school football participation is down nationwide and at a few high schools in Utah.
High school football participation is down nationwide and at a few high schools in Utah.

Open enrollment

Bart Bowen has to remind his players to not read into the disparity on the opposing sidelines. It’s hard, however, to not let it sink in — seeing the other team with as many as 100 players suited up. The Cottonwood Colts, a onetime powerhouse Class 5A school, have about 30 varsity players in 2018. Part of that is by design. Bowen, in his second year as head coach, doesn’t suit up players who don’t have a chance to play, who aren’t physically ready to contribute at the varsity level.

“The hardest thing is keeping kids healthy enough to continue throughout the season,” Bowen said, “because sometimes they’re getting as many as three times the reps as other kids at other schools. It just increases the amount of contact, increases the amount of injury potential.”

Cottonwood is one of several Salt Lake Valley schools in this awkward stage: enough kids to field a team in a higher classification, but not enough to compete the way they’d like or to field a junior varsity team. Without a JV team, there are going to be juniors who will be counted upon as seniors next year who haven’t received many minutes in 2018.

“I kind of knew the numbers were going to be a struggle,” Bowen said. “It’s bigger than I ever thought it would be, I guess.”

The open-enrollment factor in Utah high schools remains a hot-button issue, especially when it comes to the state of football participation. Cottonwood is just one of several larger schools that have had to nix a JV or sophomore team this season.

“Which is concerning, but at the same time, it’s optimistic that the numbers are staying the same,” UHSAA Executive Director Rob Cuff said. “Right now, we’ve been able to maintain, and I think a lot of that credit goes to the good coaching we have in Utah, the excitement we have with football starting out everybody’s school year.”

American Fork coach Aaron Behm understands what some of these programs are going through. When he arrived in 2010, numbers were drastically low compared with now — in the triple digits. Open enrollment is part of the equation when it comes to respective high schools rising or dropping in numbers each year, because student-athletes can, for the most part, choose where they want to go to school and play.

“If your program is up, you’re going to get some of those kids, and if your program is down, you’re going to lose some of those kids,” Behm said. “I think it makes it difficult on some of those programs in trying to get things going, when you have good kids going other places.”

Kearns coach Matt Rickards is in his sixth year leading the program. He said every Region 2 team in Class 6A except his has had to cancel its JV schedule this season due to lack of players and scheduling difficulties. Rickards, whose JV team is now playing an independent schedule, says coaches on the west side of the valley often see players who came up in their youth leagues playing for other high schools, which leaves them wondering what might have been. This isn’t a new development.

Powerhouse programs such as Bingham, East, Herriman, Lone Peak and others benefit due to an established winning culture that players and parents want to be a part of.

“There’s little to no parity in high school football or any sport for that matter,” Rickards said. “If you have a parent [who] says, ’Well, I have a choice to either take my kid to Bingham or I can have them go to Kearns. And I want my kid to win a state championship, so I’m going to have them go to Bingham.’”

As Thompson has done in Ogden, Bowen and his staff have to spend free time looking for potential players on school grounds.

“All of the areas that have low socioeconomic status, they seem to be suffering with numbers,” Bowen said. “It almost feels as if the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. If you’re a winning program, you just keep pulling in kids. If you’re a losing program, it’s hard. You’re just plucking kids out of the hallway [who] have never even heard of football before and trying to get them game-ready against some pretty legit schools in our division.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kearns football coach Matt Rickards works with wide receiver Peter Do during practice on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. Coaches across the state, including Rickards, are vehemently criticizing a proposal to eliminate restrictions on prep athletes transferring between schools, saying it would create a free-for-all that encourages athletes to focus on winning and entitlement, rather than than character development and overcoming adversity.

Commitment

Another reason numbers continue to decline, coaches say, is due to, well, too many things going on.

“We’re finding kids don’t participate in extracurricular activities as much anymore, for whatever reason,” Rickards said. “People just don’t value it. Parents don’t value it, kids don’t value it or see the hard work.”

Kearns had 27 players join the team but quit a year ago. This year, there were 21 who started but walked away. This is a ballooning trend, according to football coaches in Utah. A lot of Cottonwood’s junior class lost interest in the sport, according to Bowen. He’s heard students say they have to focus on school but has ironically heard that excuse in the summertime.

“Kids need to understand it’s hard,” Bowen said. “It’s not something you can show up and do. You have to work extremely hard all year round. A lot of kids want instant gratification.”

Fear of concussions and head or neck injuries is a concern Stireman hears from parents. But above all else, he hears parents not wanting to commit their young children to joining a team that encompasses weekly practices and games come Saturday morning. The Wasatch Front Football League is down nearly 20 teams in its youngest youth division, most of which he attributes to lack of overall commitment.

Tyler Hughes is in his first year as Bountiful’s head coach. The former Snow College head coach and quality control assistant at Ohio State University said now, more than ever, football is a 365-day endeavor for student-athletes. If there’s no existing passion for the game, he said, it’s harder to show up for weightlifting sessions, put money toward camps, go through practices and then wait for the four-month stretch of the season.

“It’s harder to do more now than you ever have before,” Hughes said, “because you’re expected to do so much.”

To Thompson, part of it is the rise of students sticking to one sport instead of venturing out and becoming multisport athletes. Ogden has a cross-country runner on its team this year who Thompson said trains twice a week with the runners and twice a week with the football team.

“I think kids are misguided,” he said. “I think they’re being told by someone that they need to go focus on just one sport so they could go play college, but the truth is they’re not good enough to play college. They need to play every sport possible and make memories. I think there’s a lot of kids that are going to get done with high school and have regrets they focused on one sport.”

Maintaining the game

The man in his 70s walked up to Tyler Hughes last week and wanted to get the scoop on this year’s Bountiful Braves. The two friends got to talking and Hughes asked if he played football growing up. He didn’t. He wasn’t allowed to. His parents were afraid of injuries.

“The issue of concerned parents with the welfares of their children is nothing new,” Hughes said. “I think it’s been going on forever.”

There is no escaping the violence associated with football. It’s the definition of a contact sport. But coaches who’ve been around it for decades vouch it’s the safest it’s ever been, that the days of three-a-day practices don’t exist anymore.

All of this is for the betterment of the gridiron. To ensure it lasts. Numbers nationwide are telling another story, but, in Utah, they hold out hope. As the state’s population boom continues, more high schools are popping up throughout the state. Next year, there will be three new football programs.

“It’s not just the same number of teams and more kids are playing,” Cuff said, “it might just be the fact that there’s more opportunities because there’s more schools. I think we’re seeing that a little bit in Utah.”

Jensen, the former USU quarterback who is also an assistant coach at Alta, said he cannot ignore the data he’s seen in recent years. It’s an issue that won’t go away, and it will eventually hit Utah the way it has in other states, he believes. To help turn the tide, Jensen said those associated with the game have to defend it now more than ever.

“There’s a community feel in football that’s different than other sports,” he said. “As violent as people think football is, a lot of us enjoy that. There’s not thousands of people lining up in South Jordan to see the flag football championship this year. I don’t think it’s as violent as a lot of people make it out to be.”

The Tribune recently asked readers and parents to fill out a survey regarding youth and high school football participation. Overwhelmingly, those who responded said they allow their kids to play the game, and nearly every submission mentioned experiences such as winning, losing, playing hurt, helping out a friend and responding to failure as key components to why.

“Just roots of the tree,” Thompson said. “Gotta water it. We'll just keep at it."

The bell rang Monday morning, and the Ogden High coach was off into the halls again, to see if he could find a future Tiger.