COVID did not kill football!

After lamenting turnout in 2021, coaches see better numbers this fall

For The Weekly Post

Last year, coaches in this same space were fretting about the future of high school football. Numbers were down. Injuries dominated the conversation. And eight-man football was all the rage.

Twelve months later, some teams are still turning to the eight-man game and measures are still being taken to make the game safer. But at least locally, turnout for most programs playing 11-man football is the best in years.

Farmington doesn’t have enough varsity jerseys for its 87 players. Princeville has the best turnout in Coach Jon Carruthers’ career. Elmwood has a big group of freshmen, as does Stark County. And ROWVA-Williamsfield has 48 players – incoluding nearly one-fourth of the 80-student high school population in Billtown.

What gives? For one thing, practices are not what they once were. There’s no Hell Week anymore. Not even Heck Week, really. My youngest is a freshman at Elmwood and spent about 15 hours in football practice during “Hell Week.” In those same five days, he spent 25 hours in marching-band practice (can one suffer lip injuries from too much trumpeting?).

Then too, measures to make the game safer are real. Newer helmets. Funny-looking foam pads on top of the helmets. All are designed to decrease concussions. All are needed.

“The truth is, football is safer than it ever was,” Farmington Coach Toby Vallas said. “Before, we might have thought football was dangerous. After COVID, we know what’s really dangerous – staying home and being isolated.”

At Farmington and elsewhere, kids are coming out to play football just to be active, outside and around their friends. Sure kids today still play too many video games, but many are sick of sitting at home alone, as they did through so much of COVID.

Not just boys, either. More girls have started coming out for football, including one at Farmington and two at Princeville. Both are firsts for those programs.

For those of us who enjoy the spectacle of Friday Night Lights, renewed interest in the gridiron is an encouraging trend.

Too few officials – Less encouraging is the steady decline in the number of officials available to work high school football games. While there are more high schoolers coming out to play and enjoy the company of friends, there are fewer grownups willing to get yelled at every week for a few bucks.

That shortage has created major scheduling problems, forcing some schools to move games to Thursdays, Saturdays and even Sundays, in a few cases. As many businesses have learned in this post-pandemic era, hiring and retaining employees is tough unless you increase pay. In the case of officials, it would also help if loudmouths would shut up.

Crystal ball – The area’s top team once again looks to be Farmington, which has gone 53-7 since 2016 and twice reached the quarterfinals. This year shows no dropff, as the Farmers lead the area in turnout and have veteran leadership at many key positions. Plus, quarterback Gage Renken is more of a threat to run, which makes the always dynamic Farmers offense even tougher to defend. Nobody racks up more chunk plays than Farmington.

That said, the Prairieland favorite Farmers face a test this Friday at Mercer County, which is picked to win the Lincoln Trail Conference. With a win, Farmington could be headed to another unbeaten season.

But there is also reason for optimism in Elmwood-Brimfield, Princeville and ROWVA-Williamsfield, all of whom have a realistic chance at making the playoffs if things go right during the season.

Et cetera – Grandparents are sure generous. During the annual Elmwood-Brimfield player auction last week, one pairing of Trojans fetched a record $2,100 while another pairing brought $2,000. …
Abingdon-Avon has installed a new grass field, but grass has been slow to grow and the Torandoes will have to play their first home game vs. Stark County in Galesburg on Sept. 3 at 6 p.m.