Once king of local sports, football falters
Coal region football was once legendary, a near-religion. Its players were tough as nails. Brought up in rugged ethnic communities, they were the epitome of macho, playing through injuries and other adversities.
Nesquehoning, Mount Carmel, Shamokin and Coal Township, for example, fielded teams that were statewide powerhouses.
But that was then, and this is now.
The profound changing gridiron landscape was underscored in the announcement last week that Marian Catholic, with one of the most storied private school football programs in the state in its division, was throwing in the towel and ending its season with two games remaining on the schedule.
With fewer than a dozen and a half healthy recruits, coaches and school officials decided that the prospects of lifelong injuries are magnified with such a small contingent that includes inexperienced players.
This scenario is playing out throughout the nation as parents weigh the costs and benefits of letting their sons play this sport that has been such a positive and negative game-changer for so many.
Palmerton’s football team has dwindled to about 17 game-worthy players, but the Blue Bombers are in better shape than Marian because of having more experienced players.
In fact, Palmerton, despite not being able to field practice teams of 11 members on each side of the ball, has won two of its last three games and is in contention for a District 11 playoff spot in its division.
It was a short four years ago that Marian won a District 11 championship and was runner-up the previous and following years, but football at all levels, especially in high school, has been put under the microscope because of serious football-related injuries that have shown up later in life. This has alarmed parents scrutinizing the risks and rewards of playing the sport.
To continue, said Marian Athletic Director Stan Dakosty to Times News’ Sports Editor Emmett McCall, younger players would have to be put into positions for which they are physically unprepared. “The health and safety of our kids comes first, and we felt we would be unfairly jeopardizing some of these kids by playing our remaining games,” Dakosty said.
It was a painful pill to swallow for the coaching staff led by Pat Morgans and the school administration, which take great pride in their football program. The Colts are just 1-7 this season, with the lone win coming against Shenandoah Valley in their last game.
Dakosty emphasized that football has not been abandoned. The plan is to work diligently to build a strong program to be able to compete effectively in 2020. “We are going to do everything in our power to accomplish that,” he emphasized.
What’s happening here is playing out across the state and around the country. Once upon a time, quality football programs, populated by numerous all-state candidates, were cherished traditions in depressed communities decimated by the decline of King Coal.
Friday nights and Saturday afternoons provided a source of pride and a brief relief from the economic realities of life as legendary gridiron programs showcased their talents.
Many of the major industries that provided jobs for the parents of these football standouts, who played the game with abandon and without regard to personal safety, are now long gone — coal, steel and the railroads.
Other sports, such as soccer, also compete for players’ involvement. Parents are increasingly encouraging their children to play some of the “safer” sports to avoid the risk of a serious injury that might follow them for the rest of their lives.
With the advent of more significant research on football injuries, concern has grown about the sport’s long-term physical consequences. In addition to neurological damage caused by hits to the head, injuries to the mid and lower body can also lead to nagging lifelong ailments.
Improved equipment and rule changes have helped, but some of the scary end-of-life outcomes afflicting well-known pro players have made parents take a hard look at the sport and how it might affect their children’s well-being.
While football is still the most popular sport among high school athletes nationwide, the number of participants has fallen every year during the past decade. Last year, participation was down 3%. There were nearly 31,000 fewer high school football players nationwide in 2018 compared to the previous year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
You don’t have to be a math whiz to see where this trend is heading.
By Bruce Frassinelli | email@example.com