As high school students prepare to suit up for another football season, new statistics show there has been a decline in player participation in Texas, despite strong growth in the state’s population.
Those statistics show the average number of Texas high school players on the field dropped more than 2 percent over the last eight years, even though the population grew by about 3 million people.
Locally, the decline has been more drastic at some schools, including a nearly 50 percent drop at one of the most famous high school football programs in Texas history, records show.
And the decline comes as other high school sports are gaining in popularity – player participation up 15 percent in soccer, 11 percent in cross country, 5 percent in swimming and 4 percent in baseball.
The number of kids playing high school football peaked in 2010, then began dropping.
Some experts believe students and their parents are increasingly wary about game injuries, primarily concussions that can lead to the degenerative disease CTE, short for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
The disease has drawn national headlines in recent years and prompted the movie, “Concussion,” featuring NFL players whose game-battled bodies have led to their coming down with CTE.
Daryl “Moose” Johnston, former star fullback with the Dallas Cowboys, told NBC 5 Investigates he was surprised by the player decline because high school football is “part of the Texas culture.”
Johnston, who is now and NFL analyst for Fox Sports, blames the drop on growing concerns about concussions and their last effects.
“When the movie came out and CTE became a term that was in everybody’s vocabulary …the timing probably correlated with the decline in numbers, and that’s the issue,” he said.
Johnston said he feels that, while player safety should always be at the forefront, the increased fears about concussions are driven more by media exposure than by reality.
“Somebody declared war on the game of football about eight years ago,” he said, adding, “Football has never been safer than it is right now … so much safer than it was when I played. The equipment is better; the rules are better.”
Some local high schools, once powerhouses in Texas football, are showing an even bigger decline than the state average.
In Dallas, Carter High School won the state championship in 1988, beating Odessa Permian in one of Texas’ most famous high school football games – so big that it set the stage for the movie, Friday Night Lights.
But now, statistics show that player participation in football is down 48 percent at Carter, compared to 2009.
Unlike some other experts, Troy Mathieu, athletics director at Dallas ISD, does not feel concussion concerns are a factor in the drop.
“We have not noticed any trends or parents calling expressing concerns …,” Mathieu said.
Instead, he said, more students are specializing in one sport, rather than multiple sports, and more often their pick is not football.
At Southlake Carroll High School, state statistics show a 20 percent drop in kids playing junior varsity and varsity football, combined, since 2009.
The fear of serious injury is the reason for that drop, said Chris Southern, whose son Walker suffered a concussion his freshman year in football.
“I think …parents and players are becoming more and more aware of the impact of concussions,” Southern said.
Walker agreed as he recalled the hit, and its aftermath.
“I sat up and I was seeing stars a little bit,” he said.
Walker said he played out the rest of the year, something he now says he probably shouldn’t have done, but then quit.
“I definitely think I made the right decision,” he said.
At Naaman Forrest High School in Garland, player participation in football has dropped 22 percent this year, compared to 2009.
Cliff Odenwald, director of athletics in Garland, said fear of injury is one reason for the decline.
But there are other reasons, Odenwald said, including an overall drop in school enrollment and, more recently, more families moving in from countries where football is not as popular.
Youth football programs, like Arlington’s ACA Optimist League, are also feeling the impact, fielding far fewer teams than years ago.
“Sometimes it’s the very first statement,” said Glenda White, ACA Optimist Club president, when asked when the topic of concussions come up during recruitment talks with the families of prospective young players.
But in Southlake, the local youth league says it’s seeing more kids return to the game, especially in flag football, rather than tackling, giving parents an added measure of comfort that their child won’t get seriously hurt.
“All we can do is teach, educate and encourage the kids to play,” said Willie Pile, a former safety for the Dallas Cowboys, who now is a coach and board manager for Dragon Youth Football in Southlake.
For Daryl – the “Moose” – Johnston, he hopes the fate of high school football will soon get back on a winning streak.
If, instead, the Friday night lights grow dimmer, “that would be a shame.”
Online: NBC News: Friday Night Lights Starting to Dim