Rich Lawson was peeling off his wetsuit after riding two-foot waves at Malibu’s First Point surfing spot earlier this week when he decided to answer his cellphone after seeing the caller ID was a sportswriter from his past.
It was 23 years ago that Lawson walked away from a successful nine-year coaching career at West Hills Chaminade, where he had a 71-35-1 record, to start the football program at Malibu High. By 2004, he was done coaching football. Surfing had become his focus. Two of his sons were into surfing and he wanted to watch them.
Lawson has remained a physical education teacher at Malibu, which is located across the street from Zuma Beach. He has time to surf and runs a surfing school in the summer.
When word leaked this week that Malibu had become the latest California high school to drop 11-man football, Lawson was the one to call. The program was down to 19 players by the end of the 2018 season, according to former coach Terry Shorten. Several players had left the team because of the disastrous Woolsey fire that destroyed more than 400 homes in Malibu in November.
With a lack of players and no youth program to rely on, school officials decided to switch to eight-man football this fall.
In an emailed statement, Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District administrator Isaac Burgess said, "Years ago, the Malibu community invested heavily into the stadium, including installing lights for students to have the Friday Night Lights experience. This has increased student and community pride.
“By fielding an eight-man football team, our juniors and seniors will continue to have this experience, which includes our drum line, cheer, and dance teams. We plan to work with the community in developing a youth football program, increase interest in the sport, continue to improve our enrollment, and build back to an 11-man team in the next couple of years.”
It’s clear that surfing — not football — has become the more attractive sports option to Malibu students. The school has a surfing team that’s more than twice the size of the football team.
“We’re on the coast, so it only makes sense,” Lawson said. “The whole demographics of football and all the concussion concerns have changed things. Going eight-man football is better than dropping football.”
Football is certainly facing challenges. There are approximately 60 ninth-graders on campus, and just two freshmen went out for the football team this past season, Shorten said.
He said a big reason for the low participation is "there isn’t a youth program in Malibu, and kids are reluctant to come out in ninth grade having never played before and get thrown on the varsity team.”
The fact Malibu went 6-4 last season was impressive considering the Sharks had most of their players going both ways on offense and defense.
“They were a very courageous group of kids,” Shorten said.
The best player might have been receiver Louie Thrall, who will continue playing in college at Claremont McKenna. He expressed disappointment but understanding in the school abandoning 11-man football.
“Obviously it’s a bummer,” Thrall said. “But I can see why. After the fires, a lot of people had to transfer out. The only way to kick-start it back up would be to go eight-man because I don’t think we would have a team. If that’s the way to keep football, that would be great.”
High school participation in 11-man football declined for the second consecutive year nationwide in 2017, according to the annual survey by the National Federation of State High School Assns. The decline was 21,465 out of more than one million participants. Football is still the No. 1 participatory sport by a wide margin, but signs of trouble can’t be ignored.
Practice rules have changed to include less hitting, which might reduce concussions. But there’s a lot more to be done. There are so many sports options to have fun. Football can’t rely on the past. Coaches must innovate and lead.
Meanwhile, Lawson has no regrets about spending his afternoons on a surfboard.