Column: High school football coaches see fear of injuries draining talent pool

Santa Ana Mater Dei Coach Bruce Rollinson celebrates a win over Anaheim Servite on October 11, 2013.

Santa Ana Mater Dei Coach Bruce Rollinson celebrates a win over Anaheim Servite on October 11, 2013.

(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)

Playing high school football used to be considered something of a rite of passage. Parents wanted their teenage boys to learn about toughness, teamwork and perseverance on the path toward adulthood.

Football is still the most popular sport played at high schools in California and throughout America, but there are signs of trouble brewing.

Participation in football has fallen in five of the last six years, according to an annual survey from the National Federation of State High School Assns. In 2014-15, there were 1,083,617 students playing 11-man football across the nation, a one-year decline of 9,617.


Several high-profile private schools in Southern California have their lowest number of players on freshman teams in years. Santa Ana Mater Dei has gone from 84 freshmen last season to 58. Los Angeles Loyola, an all-boys school with nearly 1,300 students, has 83, the fewest number in the last two decades, according to longtime trainer Tim Moscicki. Mission Hills Alemany is at 37, Encino Crespi has 30 and Sherman Oaks Notre Dame 50.

Studio City Harvard-Westlake dropped its junior varsity team. Crespi canceled its freshman game last week with Bellflower St. John Bosco and switched to a combined freshman-JV team for one week because it lacked an available quarterback.

The reason: “I think it’s the fear of concussions,” Mater Dei Coach Bruce Rollinson said. “The boy who might not have the best size but might have an interest, the parents are saying, ‘Not so fast. Try something else.’ I think it takes your numbers down.”

Said Crespi Coach Troy Thomas: “People are scared.”

The focus on concussions that has played out in the media will end up being good for the sport’s future, but it’s also making parents reluctant to let their sons play football.

“We’re doing everything we can — guardian helmets, we’re not hitting as much — but it still has parents concerned,” Thomas said. “I think the numbers are going to be down across the country. I can’t see any other reason.”

Lots of schools still have full rosters. St. John Bosco has more than 200 players in its program, including 85 freshmen. It has two freshman teams. Lake Balboa Birmingham in the City Section has 136 players in its program. San Clemente has 89 freshman players.


It’s probably premature to predict that football is headed for a serious drop in participation numbers. Any real evidence of a trend won’t be known until the next participation survey, scheduled to be released in August.

“I’m not sure yet it’s a catastrophic trend, but we know there’s concern about the sport,” said Bruce Howard, the NFHS publications and communications director.

Sports participation is rising in high school, but students aren’t choosing football. Lacrosse is attracting interest, and others are choosing to be year-round specialists rather than multiple-sport athletes.

Donald Gipson, an All-City basketball player at Los Angeles Fairfax High, was a standout receiver in youth football but never played the sport in high school. “I didn’t want to do both,” he said. “I thought I was better in basketball.”

Football coaches are clearly getting nervous.

At a minimum, teams could be missing out on 14- and 15-year-olds who might have been stars had they given football a try.

“The fear is, how many nuggets did you lose? How many with future growth spurts did you lose?” Rollinson said. “My responsibility is to get out everything we do in the area of concussion education and prevention and the protocols because we know they are going to happen.”


Parents will continue to debate whether the rewards outnumber the potential risks.

Gardena Serra football Coach Scott Altenberg has been trying to convince his wife to let their 11-year-old son play youth football.

“My wife won’t let him play,” he said.

Altenberg said youth football coaches need to teach proper tackling technique to make the game safer.

It’s the challenge for every coach at all levels these days.

Twitter: @LATSondheimer