Unintentional Grounding Across America, kids' interest in high school football is steadily dropping. Is the time coming when Friday night lights will simply be extinguished?

November 16, 1998

If the football field in Pasadena is the Rose Bowl, then the one
at Butner High in Cromwell, Okla., is the Dust Bowl. The old
scoreboard at Nolan Coker Field lies facedown in the weeds, its
legs thrust upward like a dead animal's. Trees are erupting
through the rotting bleachers. Next to the baseball field
there's a pile of foot-long pipes--the remnants of the football
goalposts--stacked like firewood. Soon they'll be welded
together to make foul poles. "My son and I used to water this
field with a garden hose," says Nolan Coker, 62, who's walking
on the gridiron named after him. "It's deteriorated a bit since
then."

Back when football mattered at Butner, Coker was the coach. He
retired from the sideline in 1975, satisfied that he'd built a
winning tradition (60-29, only one losing season in nine years)
and made Butner football games the grandest gathering in town.
"When we played Okemah, there'd be a line of cars all the way
back to the general store," Coker says. "We'd have as many as
4,000 people, and there weren't enough seats for everyone in the
bleachers. Afterward the booster club invited everyone to the
cafeteria for pies and cakes. It was a real social event."

A rural school with students drawn from a 100-square-mile area,
Butner lies smack in the middle of Oklahoma football country.
Just 25 miles to the east on I-40 is Henryetta, where Troy
Aikman lived as a teenager, and 30 miles to the west is Shawnee,
which produced Denver Broncos cornerback Darrien Gordon. But
after Coker left the team to become Butner's principal, the
Eagles embarked on a trail of tears: 20 losing seasons in the
next 22 years. Low-salaried coaches--the school couldn't afford
any better--shuttled through town like vagrants, and the team
roster, which peaked at 35 players in '73, had shrunk to 20 by
'91. That year the school board decided to switch from 11-man to
eight-man football.

Then one night in May '96, without warning, the school board cut
football altogether. Budget reasons. "It was a massacre," says
Kenny Dickerson, Butner's athletic director. "They projected a
loss in revenue, so they dropped teachers' salaries and the
whole sport of football."

Outraged, parents called a town meeting, and two months later
the board decided to give football another chance. But there
were problems besides money. Lack of interest, for one. After
seven kids quit during the '96 season, the Eagles finished the
year with 10 players. Butner's enrollment has never been
high--there are a little more than 100 students from grades nine
through 12--but this fall the baseball team had 15 players, and
25 kids tried out for basketball. Why couldn't the school find
15 who wanted to play football? "They just weren't interested,"
says Dickerson. "It kind of became a stigma to play football."

With so few experienced players, injuries had become more
common. In '96 Butner's quarterback suffered five concussions,
and a year earlier a freshman tight end named Joe Little broke
his leg so severely that he had to have three surgeries. "It
cost $25,000 to repair Joe's leg," says his mother, Reta. "I
love football. I just don't want to see my kids playing it."

Finally, after the '96 season, Butner's third straight 1-9
campaign, the school board moved again to ax the program. This
time it announced its plans in the town paper and invited
football supporters to come to the next board meeting and voice
their concerns. Only two parents showed up; they both wanted to
drop the team.

So football lies fallow here, and the rhythms of fall have
changed. Gone are the homecoming dance and the various
fund-raisers: spaghetti suppers and fish fries and Indian taco
dinners. Gone are the cheerleaders, who don't emerge from
hibernation until basketball season. On Friday nights you can
find Mike Stanfield at the mall in Shawnee, but as a sophomore
two years ago he was a fullback and noseguard on the last
football team. "I was mad," he says. "The players wanted to keep
football, but the community let it go."

Cromwell (pop. 250) has changed, too. Ed Warrington played on
Coach Coker's first team, back in '66, and no one in town will
forget the night he scored the only touchdown in Butner's 6-0
upset of Maud High, then the third-ranked team in the state.
Warrington, the retired owner of a filling station on I-40,
worked on the chain gang at Butner home games until the end. "It
gets in your blood," he says. "Football was a way of life here.
I still go to games every Friday night in Wewoka, Seminole,
Okemah, wherever. Sometimes I'll go with friends. Sometimes I
just go by myself."

Last year Butner sold all of its football equipment to Okemah
High for $4,000. Before long the only evidence that Eagles
football ever existed will be the red helmet in the school's
trophy case, the one with a white letter B and the simple
epitaph: 1964 to 1997. "As long as people saw the equipment and
the goalposts, they might think football could work here again,"
says Dickerson. "So we decided to extinguish all hope. We'll
have a crane come in this winter and take care of the bleachers."

Lose the Grapes of Wrath imagery, and Butner's plight, or some
variation of it, is being felt in towns all around the country.
Nowhere is high school football hurting more, in fact, than in
the Rust Belt and the Northeast, the cradle of the sport.
Between 1978 and 1997 the number of players declined in Illinois
(by 12.6%), Massachusetts (29.1%), Michigan (18.1%), New Jersey
(38.9%), New York (11.5%), Ohio (10.6%) and Pennsylvania (46.8%)
as well as in 11 other states, according to the National
Federation of State High School Associations. The population
exodus from the Northeast isn't entirely to blame. In New
Jersey, for example, interest in playing football between '78
and '97 fell by 15.2% when measured as the percentage of
enrolled boys who played the sport.

Schools from Redwood High (enrollment 1,200) in Larkspur,
Calif., to Decatur (Ill.) High (enrollment 800) to Garrett Tech
(enrollment 750) in Charleston, S.C., have suspended or dropped
their varsity football programs in the past three years because
of a shortage of players. Even in the most traditional programs,
the number of players is declining. Rick Mancini, the coach at
Beaver Falls (Pa.) High, Joe Namath's alma mater, says, "When I
graduated from here in '72, there were more than 100 players on
the team. This year we have 40 players. Part of it is due to
population changes, but when you get down to it, the desire of
high school students to dedicate themselves to football isn't as
great as it was in the '70s."

Nationally the number of participants fell negligibly between
1978 and '97, though if you throw out pigskin-intoxicated Texas,
there was an 8.2% slide. While proponents of football point out
that U.S. participation has climbed by 3.1% in the 1990s,
interest, as defined above, has actually fallen by 10.6%. The
drop has been widespread: Between 1990 and '97, interest
declined in 38 states (chart, page 104).

The sport isn't hemorrhaging everywhere, of course. Texas had
159,317 players in '97, or one out of every 6.1 players in the
nation, while Nebraska was the country's most football-mad
state, with 31.8% of its enrolled boys playing the sport. What's
more, almost every major American city has at least one
school--usually private, usually suburban, such as De La Salle
High near San Francisco or Moeller High in suburban
Cincinnati--at which football's popularity shows no sign of
waning.

Yet there's no mistaking that, generally, football is losing
prospective young players and fans. When 12-to-17-year-old boys
and girls were asked to name their favorite sport, twice as many
said basketball as said football, according to a 1996 ESPN
Chilton Sports poll. As far as participation alone is concerned,
football (tackle and touch combined) ranks third among
6-to-17-year-olds, behind soccer and basketball, according to a
1997 Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association survey. Only four
years earlier football was No. 1.

High school football isn't struggling just in terms of
participation. In some places there has also been a decline in
fan support--school spirit, if you will. The reasons are many
and varied.

--Sports such as basketball, soccer and in-line skating have
grown in popularity over the past two decades, siphoning off
potential football players.

--More and more athletes are specializing year-round in one
sport, coaches say, rather than playing two or three.

--Kids who want to play football aren't able to because their
high schools, in a time of contracting budgets, can't afford the
sport.

--The rise of women's sports has taken money from football and
drawn girls from the football sidelines to their own playing
fields.

--Unlike 20 years ago, kids can get a football rush from video
games without ever stepping onto a field.

The NFL, naturally, sees all this and worries. That's why it
hired a former MTV executive as president of NFL Properties four
years ago to repackage football as a "cool" sport for fans,
especially kids and women. The league is just as concerned,
however, about the financial crunch facing high school athletic
departments. As part of this year's extension of its collective
bargaining agreement, the league created the NFL Youth Football
Fund, which will spend $100 million over the next eight years to
promote the sport at the youth and high school levels.

"We're not in dire straits, but if we project down the road 15
years, we could be in trouble," says Gene Washington, the NFL's
director of football operations. "The worst-case scenario is
that participation gets to be very narrow, that in a city with
10 schools, only five are playing football. That's our future
labor pool, and if that shrinks, it's going to affect us."

Nor has the trend escaped the notice of college football
coaches. "I'm seeing fewer kids out for high school football in
our state, and that scares me," says Don Nehlen, the coach at
West Virginia. "I think everyone should be concerned. We have
rural counties where a kid needs to pay $285 to play, and mom
and dad are telling him they don't have enough money."

Yet these changes in high school football affect far more than
just the future of the college and professional games. They
raise questions about our kids, our towns, our cities. Why is
the sport less popular than it used to be? What does this mean
for the future? And what is its greater significance in a
country where Friday-night football has been a cherished part of
our culture?

The high school pep rally is one of America's most bizarre
traditions. All day long students are virtually
shackled--interrogated about hall passes, told by their teachers
to keep quiet during class. Then, suddenly, they're summoned to
an auditorium where a middle-aged man is screaming like a
revival preacher, encouraging them to act like lunatics.

"Do I see some people sitting down at my pep rally?" booms
Harold Cole, the athletic director at Coral Gables (Fla.) High,
on a Friday afternoon in October. "No one sits down at my pep
rally!"

Cole has this drill down cold. He has been at Gables for 25
years, the past 15 as the AD, and in 1964 he was a member of the
school's national champion football team. (Gables won four such
mythical titles between '64 and '69.) Cole has been around so
long that he remembers the time in '65 when 48,000 people turned
out at the Orange Bowl for the Gables-Miami High football game.

"All right!" Cole bellows into the microphone. "Let me hear it
from those people who plan on coming to the game tonight!"

The cheerleaders cheer. The Gablettes dance team cheers. The
students cheer. It's a classic display of school spirit, but it
is something else, too: a handsomely packaged lie. That game
attended by 48,000 in '65? There were 800 at the Gables-Miami
High game last year. Gables's enrollment--3,400--is virtually
the same now as it was in '65. "They'll all yell and scream at
the pep rally," Cole says afterward, "and only a few hundred
kids will show up at the game. You watch. On Monday morning 70%
of them won't know whether we won or lost."

The weather at Tropical Park stadium that night is beautiful:
mid-70s, calm. Twenty minutes before kickoff against Goleman
High, Gables senior Rafael Burgos is sitting in the first row at
the 50-yard line. His face is painted red and white, like a
barber's pole, and he's wearing a football jersey with burgos on
the back. He is certainly Gables's No. 1 fan, which is a lonely
job, for right now he has an entire section of the stadium--the
prime section--to himself. "We don't have lots of school
spirit," he says. "People go out to the Grove, the movies,
clubs. Everybody goes to the clubs."

Over in the next section Annie Black, a senior Gablette, is
chatting up the rest of the dance team. "There's so much stuff
to do in Miami, and teenagers have a lot of freedom here," she
says. "Why would anyone want to come to a football game?"

Then why are you here, Annie?

"We have to be here."

Not counting the band and the cheerleaders and the Gablettes,
80 people are on the Gables side of the stadium at kickoff,
including about 40 students. Hail, hail, the gang's all here!
the cheerleaders chant without irony. New arrivals wander in
slowly as the game wears on, but when they climb into the
bleachers, many of them look embarrassed, like the first people
to arrive at a not-very-cool party. "Omigod," one girl says.
"Nobody's here."

Out on the field just before halftime, Cole squints toward the
visitors' stands on the far side. "There are only going to be
200 over there," he says before turning to the Gables side, "and
maybe 600 over here. We're just hoping to break even and not
lose money tonight. We'll need about 500 paid to do that." He
shakes his head. "It's sad to see it like this. You used to have
the players' parents come to every game. Now they don't come
anymore."

Pity. They miss a great game--Gables loses 25-23 when it fails
to convert a last-second two-point try--but then again, this is
the kind of football everyone in Miami-Dade County is missing
each week. Even though the district's football players are the
lifeblood of the juggernaut Florida college programs, even
though the county had 24 alumni on NFL opening-day rosters this
year, average attendance at district high school games dropped
steadily from 1977 through 1996, from 2,511 to 1,006. "Everyone
wants to go to pep rallies because they get out of sixth hour,"
says Ron Balazs, the athletic director at Coral Park High. "But
when we put 4,000 kids in the gym at two in the afternoon and
then have 300 at the game, where are the other 3,700?"

Close observers offer several answers. Since none of the schools
have their own stadiums--the district's 28 teams have access to
only seven facilities--each week's games must be spread out from
Wednesday to Saturday. Even if students know when and where
their school is playing, why would they spend five bucks for an
evening under the Wednesday-night lights? Second, four major
professional sports franchises have arrived in South Florida
since 1988, leeching fans from high school football. Third, many
people would rather be watching futbol. "You're looking at an
international community, and in the majority of those countries
they don't play football," says Cole. "If we pushed soccer and
played it at night, I think soccer would outdraw football."

Perhaps most important, kids in Miami are busy doing other, more
important things: working, going to the beach, hanging out. As
Kevin Veras, a Hialeah-Miami Lakes High senior, puts it, "People
would rather smoke a blunt than go to a game. For most people
football games just aren't the thing to do. Maybe when my mom
was in high school, but not now."

How does a lack of school spirit threaten the future of high
school sports in Miami? Gate receipts affect athletic budgets.
When mom was in high school, football revenue covered a school's
entire sports budget. These days ticket sales don't even support
football. After expenses Miami schools lose money on half of the
games.

Each year the Miami-Dade County school district contributes
$17,000 plus transportation costs to each school's athletic
department. That's not nearly enough. "Every school needs
$65,000 to $75,000 to run its athletic program, and that's no
frills," says Cheryl Golden, the former AD at Southwest Miami
High and now an administrator for the district. "There's a big
financial crunch for all sports, but football is killing people
because of the expense of the equipment. To outfit a kid, you're
looking at spending $300, and then you've got $69 more for
insurance."

As a result, athletic directors are trying desperately to
stretch a nonelastic money supply. This year, for the first
time, Coral Park's Balazs scheduled three afternoon games,
including the homecoming game, to save on lighting and security
costs. Earlier this season he scheduled a game against defending
state champion Carol City on Miami's North Side, the better to
attract Carol City's supporters and thus earn a bigger paycheck.
The scheme didn't work. After expenses, Coral Park lost $193 on
the game. "If we have a couple of games where we lose money, our
budget goes down the toilet," says Balazs, which helps explain
why his office resembles a sale rack at JC Penney's. Dozens of
Coral Park T-shirts are piled next to his desk, waiting to be
sold. Too bad he doesn't have a booster club to help him out.

Fund-raising is an innocuous-sounding word that can turn ADs and
football coaches into shrieking Willy Lomans. Dale Hardy, the
coach at Coral Gables, helps oversee all kinds of moneymaking
ventures for his team: doughnut sales, garage sales, car washes,
lift-a-thons (in which players gather pledges according to how
much iron they can pump), Pizza Hut coupon sales and work at the
Doral golf and Lipton tennis tournaments. When Hardy coached at
Homestead (Fla.) High, he even staged pro wrestling
extravaganzas to help pay the bills. "Coaches have to prostitute
themselves so much that it's hard to find time to coach," he
says. "I don't want to be the chief fund-raiser, but I have to
be. It takes away from our preparation in the classroom and on
the practice field." To improve attendance, Hardy thinks Gables
should have Burger King and McDonald's set up booths at games.
"That's where all the kids are, anyway," he says. "We don't care
if they watch. We just want their money."

Hardy may not like it, but he's doing exactly what the NFL wants
every high school coach to do if his program is low on cash.
"The coach is the central figure," says Gene Washington. "He has
to be dynamic enough to know how to do fund-raisers." But what
about the $100 million in NFL largesse over the next eight years
for youth and high school football? "If they've got all this
money to put into football, why aren't they writing us grants?"
asks Golden.

Simple, replies Washington. "It's like feeding people fish or
teaching them how to fish," he says. "We don't have enough money
to feed them the fish." He pulls out a calculator. "To have a
[financial] impact on a high school football program, you need
at least $5,000 per year. If you multiply the 14,000 schools
playing football by $5,000, that's $70 million. But that's only
one year. Our $100 million has to last eight years. It's a drop
in the bucket."

According to Washington the NFL hasn't decided how to use all
the money from the Youth Football Fund. It has awarded grants to
seven nonprofit organizations (including the Police Athletic
League, Pop Warner and the YMCA) to support youth football. It
has given no money directly to high schools, though one idea
that has been kicked around, Washington says, is to provide
stipends to former NFL players who are willing to coach high
school football.

Golden, for her part, would prefer old-fashioned greenbacks to
old Dolphins running backs. It's not uncommon, she admits, for
her and other Miami-Dade administrators to pay for football
players' shoes and insurance out of their own pockets. "My
greatest fear in life is that in 10 years, we won't have
athletics in Miami because there won't be enough money," she
says. "Athletics is the Number 1 dropout-prevention program in
this country. If we lose sports because of a lack of community
participation, we're going to lose kids."

At Hinsdale (N.Y.) Central School on a fall afternoon, the
gridiron is buzzing with activity. The boys' soccer team is
practicing on one side of the field, the girls' team on the
other. They're working on corner kicks and set plays and firing
shots at their respective goals, which have been moved in front
of the football goalposts. The leaves are changing, the air is
crisp, but there's something missing from this sporting tableau:
varsity football. This September, for the first time in 35
years, Hinsdale couldn't come up with the 18 players required by
state law to field a team.

Football has a storied past in Hinsdale, a town of 2,000 just a
few miles from the Pennsylvania border in western New York. The
Bobcats were 15-4 over the past two years, and they hadn't had a
losing season since 1983. As recently as '89 and '90 they had
spotless 10-0 records and won the New York Section 6 Class D
championships. Why, back in 1975, a Hinsdale boy named Dave
Conklin set what was then the New York State single-season
rushing record. "We've had a great football tradition here,"
says Bill Bathurst, Hinsdale's athletic director. "In the '70s
and early '80s we'd have as many as 45 kids out, and we've
always had [a total of] 125 to 150 kids in the high school
grades."

Fan support never slackened. Hinsdale routinely drew 400 people
to its games last year. When the Bobcats hosted archrival
Ellicottville in the 1990 state playoffs, more than 3,000
roaring fans overflowed the bleachers and stood three and four
deep on the sidelines. "It was the largest crowd I've ever
seen," says Rod Rohl, who retired as Hinsdale's coach in '91
after 28 seasons. "People had to park at the fire hall a mile
away and walk all the way here."

Hinsdale football's death certificate was probably signed two
years ago when the school started its boys' soccer program at
the request of students who had played in the town's youth
league. "Those were kids who I would have worked on to come out
for football in the past," says Rohl, a man who seems to have
popped from the womb wearing polyester coach's shorts. "Even
when we had good numbers, I always had to sell the program. I'd
say to kids, 'I've got 22 positions and a spot for you to play.'"

Yet soccer was only part of the story. After 13 seniors
graduated from the '97 football team, the school held sign-ups
last spring to gauge the students' interest in playing.
Administrators breathed easier when 39 kids put their names on
the list, but when practice started in August, 17 players showed
up. Hinsdale had to forfeit its first game, and on Sept. 1,
after one player quit and two others were injured,
superintendent Ron DeCarli pulled the plug.

If there's a tragic figure in all this, it's Bill Clayson. A
senior center, Clayson lifted weights three times a week last
summer to prepare for his final season. His goal was to be one
of Hinsdale's two players chosen for the Big 30, the annual
all-star game among schools along the New York-Pennsylvania
border. Yet as few players came out to practice, Clayson's dream
began to die. "We called them," he says of the no-shows. "We got
in cars and went to kids' houses or where they worked to try to
convince them. A lot of them said they'd come, but they never
showed up."

"These kids don't have the work ethic to play football," says
Rob Blendinger, 27, who took over as football coach last spring
after his predecessor, Dan Brooks, left to go back to college.
"I actually had kids come up to me and say, 'I'll play, but only
if I can start.'"

Blendinger's rules were hardly Draconian--"no swearing, no
burping, no farting and come to workouts"--and yet they were
constantly broken (most frequently the last one). Chris
Grabowski learned what it meant to be a running back when
Blendinger forced him to run 1,000 yards a day in August after
Grabowski skipped too many summer weightlifting sessions. "I had
other obligations," says Grabowski, a senior. "I had a job. I
had summer school. Coach Brooks had more respect for the
players. He never told me I had to be there."

Certainly the biggest blow came when Josh Luzier, last year's
starting quarterback, decided not to play this season. Ask
Luzier why he quit, and he gives you a couple of reasons: Last
summer he found out he would have to pay his own way to college,
so he works 40 hours a week at a greenhouse. He's also taking a
course in U.S. history at nearby St. Bonaventure University,
where he hopes to go to school next year. Dig deeper, though,
and Luzier admits that he can't wait to play basketball this
winter, and he might even take a crack at baseball in the
spring. Football? "I never loved the sport," he says. "My whole
football career was to please everyone else. All this town is
about is football and the memories of it."

No kidding. While only a few parents bother to watch the varsity
soccer team's games, 200 people came out to watch the first home
game of the school's hastily assembled jayvee football team in
October. "This was a last resort," Blendinger says. None of the
18 players had been on the varsity last year, which made their
plays look a lot like Keystone Kops routines. ("Half of them
don't know what a three-point stance is," Blendinger admits.)
Yet somehow Hinsdale uglied out a 6-2 win, and the hometown fans
left happy.

Five days later a white sheet is still hanging over the fence by
the football field, so that anyone driving by on Highway 16 can
read it: HINSDALE FOOTBALL IS BACK. COME SUPPORT OUR BOBCATS.
"Like my sign?" asks a woman wearing a blue Hinsdale
Cheerleading Coach jacket. She's Tess Deckman, a Hinsdale alum.
Her son, Dave, played football before graduating last spring,
and her daughter, Brandy, is one of a dwindling number of
cheerleaders. "We have three left," Deckman says. "We started
with seven, but we just lost another one who quit today."

Still, it was homecoming the previous week, and so Deckman and
her girls bravely continued the old traditions. They made
banners that said BIG BLUE WRECKING CREW and LET'S GO BLUE and
hung them on the front doors of the jayvee players' houses. And
they marched in the annual homecoming parade down Main Street,
right in front of the football team and the old red fire engine
that blows its siren so loud the dogs howl. Last year Main
Street was filled on both sides with well-wishers. This year
there were fewer than a dozen.

"I can't handle soccer, and I can't handle baseball. Give me
football, and I'm cool," said Deckman. Her feelings are shared
by many.

"We got a lot of crap from the football players last year," says
Jason Bell, a soccer sweeper who played football three years
ago. On the eve of the '97 school year, in fact, the senior
football players challenged the soccer team to a game at their
"sissy sport," as they called it. After the soccer team won
11-3, one football player tackled a soccer player as if he were
a running back. A rumble broke out, until Bell finally streaked
over and kicked one of the football players in the head. "That
pretty much ended the fight," Bell says.

Soccer may have won that day, and it may be winning over the
kids in western New York, but it isn't triumphant with everyone.
"Football is an American sport, and it brings the community
together," says Ellicottville coach Tim Bergan one night at a
meeting of area football coaches. "You can't believe how many
people in Ellicottville are down because there's no Hinsdale
game this year."

Rick DeKay, the coach at West Valley (N.Y.) High, nods in
agreement. "You can't rally around a soccer team," he says.

But as soccer gains in popularity, football in western New York
continues its slide. Chuck Pollock, the sports editor of the
Olean (N.Y.) Times-Herald, says, "We have 31 football-playing
schools in Pennsylvania and New York in our coverage area, and
I'd say 75 to 80 percent of them have declining numbers [of
players]."

There's a reason for this, says Mike Kane, the football coach at
Olean High: "We haven't tried to make the sport easier. You
still have to run and lift weights and block. Kids can play
Nintendo football now, and they don't have to do those [other]
things. They don't see the point."

The point, of course, is that much more than sports is at stake.
If a boy would rather play football by himself on a TV screen
than sweat with a team of his peers, will he ever be an active
member of his community? DeCarli, Hinsdale's superintendent,
asks himself questions like that all the time. "I'm looking down
the road at the impact of this on the lives of young people
here," he says. "I want them to be good citizens, and sports is
a part of that."

Lonnie Williams is the football coach at Martin Luther King Jr.
High in Chicago, which is a lot like being the head rabbi at the
Vatican. King, after all, is one of the country's preeminent
basketball powerhouses. Every year more than 100 of the school's
550 students try out for coach Landon Cox's hoops team, which
travels to tournaments all over the Midwest.

Williams almost canceled the varsity football season this fall.
Six players showed up for the first two weeks of practice in
August, and there were only seven kids out for the team five
days before the first game in September. Thanks to some
last-second recruiting by players and coaches, King had 15
players on the sideline for its opener. Lately the varsity has
been carrying 22, but only five of them played on the team last
year. "I have to teach kids football like they're six years
old," says Williams, who's in his 28th year at King. "They don't
even know how to put their pants on."

It wasn't always like this. Over the past three decades more
than 300 of Williams's players have received college football
scholarships, and he keeps photos of nearly all of them on a
wall in his office. In 1990 and '93 King qualified for the
Illinois state playoffs, although no one really noticed. The
basketball team went undefeated and won the state championship
those years. "We never had a numbers problem before the '90s,"
says Williams. "From '72 until about '93 we had 40 to 50 kids
out. We actually had a shortage of equipment. Now we have the
equipment, but we don't have the kids."

More and more, sports at King are a hoops-or-bust proposition.
If kids don't make the basketball team, Williams says, they go
directly to the streets. "It's like a disease," he says.
"Everybody thinks he can be like Michael Jordan, and he can't.
When kids don't make the basketball team, they just quit
[sports] altogether. Two of my top players were just released by
the basketball team this year. They'll be Division I football
players, but I had to go way out of my way just to recruit these
guys."

Even worse, basketball coaches in Chicago tell their players not
to even think about playing football and risking injury. "Four
or five guys on the basketball team wanted to play football,"
says Albert Powell, a senior free safety and receiver, "but a
basketball coach threatened 'em, saying they'll be off the team
if they play for us."

Williams's anger boils over whenever he hears these stories, for
they mean that athletes on Chicago's South Side are wasting
their chances of getting college football scholarships. "The
bottom line," he says, his voice rising, "is basketball coaches
need to be honest with kids who aren't good enough and tell them
to go out for other sports. If you have a kid who never plays
[in basketball games] but could have the talent for Division I
football, you should tell him, instead of keeping the kid to
dress up your bench. It's not about basketball. It's about life,
what's right and wrong."

All around the Chicago Public League, football is fighting to
survive. Three high schools--Lake View, Near North and
Wells--have canceled games this season because of a shortage of
players. Meanwhile, Corliss High had only 14 players for its
home opener; Foreman High had 15. Williams pulls out a letter he
has just received from Peter Fosco, the coach at Carl Schurz
High. Under the headline SAVE FOOTBALL, it reads, "I am writing
to you and all of the football coaches in the Public League with
a concern that our sport we love is dying in the Public League.
Every year our football programs are declining with the number
of quality athletes going out for our teams."

At least Schurz has a football field. King is supposed to have
its first field next year--or the year after. Williams isn't
sure. For now he takes a morbid pleasure in showing King's
football facilities to visitors. "This is where we practice," he
says, walking out the east side of the school building with his
team. "Every day! Can you believe it?"

Lying before him are four square patches of grass and mud, each
measuring 12 by 20 yards and separated by concrete paths. When
the team tries to run drills, the players have to dodge trees
and limbs and look out for five-inch-high stumps underfoot.
Across the street men sit on stoops drinking 40s of St. Ides.
The only piece of heavy equipment on the grass is a rusty
blocking sled propped up against a wall. The constant sound is
that of cleats skidding on concrete as ballcarriers avoid being
hit by cars on Ellis Street. "We're good against the run," says
Williams, "but we have trouble with the pass. We're not used to
all that space."

The next day a train clatters past on the tracks overlooking
Amos Alonzo Stagg Stadium, where a crowd that might crack triple
digits is watching the homecoming game against Robeson High.
"The game doesn't change," says James Rainey, who played for
King last year. "The enthusiasm changes. I've been coming to
King football games since I was six. This place used to be
packed. There were at least 1,000 kids. Now we get maybe 50
students."

King gets waxed, 41-0, but Coach Williams remains calm, stopping
to teach the rudiments of the game to his players: stance,
blocking, hitting. Things could be worse. A few weeks ago he
thought he wouldn't even have a team. "My greatest goal is to
rebuild this program despite the obstacles," he says. "We may
have to start at the beginning, but I know we can do it."

What is the future of high school football? Sources at the NFL
say that if schools' financial situations deteriorate further,
the league may someday fund and operate its own regional
football academies (not unlike Nick Bollettieri's tennis school
in Florida).

Meanwhile, the struggle continues. At Hinsdale, administrators
hope to bring back varsity football next year, though they'll
have to wait and see how many players show up on the first day
of practice. At the Miami-Dade County schools, players, coaches
and ADs keep beavering away at their fund-raising, but expenses
continue to rise. And at King High in Chicago, Williams predicts
he'll have 28 varsity football players out next year. King might
even challenge for the Public League title, he says, "now that
we've learned how to put our pants on right."

At Butner High in Oklahoma, the basketball season is under way.
The Eagles could advance to the state playoffs this year, but
football is gone for good.

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ELI REED/MAGNUM The fallen scoreboard at Coker Field in Cromwell, Okla., sinks into weeds two seasons after Butner High dropped football. B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ELI REED/MAGNUM Warrington (left) and Coker now travel to other Oklahoma towns on Friday nights in search of the action they used to help generate on Butner's football field. [Ed Warrington and Nolan Coker on grandstand] B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ELI REED/MAGNUM A pep rally at Coral Gables High is a mirage of school spirit, attracting hundreds of students, almost none of whom will attend the football game later that day. B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ELI REED/MAGNUM These days Coral Gables superfan Burgos, a senior who once played for the school, finds the 50-yard line on game night to be the loneliest spot in town. [Rafael Burgos sitting in empty grandstand] B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ELI REED/MAGNUM Soccer didn't kill football in Hinsdale, but all that's left is the jayvee team, which has to share a field with the town's new No. 1 sport. [Soccer player standing in front of football team] B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ELI REED/MAGNUM From left: Hinsdale's Luzier, Bell and Grabowski used to play football. Luzier quit, while Bell struck a blow for soccer by kicking a football player in the head. [Josh Luzier, Jason Bell and Chris Grabowski] COLOR ILLUSTRATION [Map of United States indicating which states have suffered a decline in interest in high school football] B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ELI REED/MAGNUM When players at King High practice, they have to watch out for concrete paths and passing cars as well as onrushing blockers and tacklers. B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ELI REED/MAGNUM This fall the varsity football team at King is carrying 22 players, and sometimes they're barely outnumbered by the fans who show up for their games. [Fans in nearly empty grnadstand watching football game]

A Game On the Wane

From 1990 to '97, interest in high school football across the
U.S., defined as the percentage of male students who played the
game, declined from 15.1% to 13.5%, according to statistics
gathered on both state and national levels. Interest decreased
in 38 states, leaving no region unaffected.

"People would rather smoke a blunt than go to a game," says one
senior. "Football games just aren't the thing to do."

"We're not in dire straits," says the NFL's Washington, "but if
we project down the road 15 years, we could be."

Fund-raising is an innocuous-sounding word that can turn ADs and
football coaches into shrieking Willy Lomans.

"These kids don't have the work ethic to play football," says
one coach."Some say, 'I'll play, but only if I can start.'"

If a boy would rather play football by himself on a video
screen, will he ever be an active member of his community?

Being the football coach at Martin Luther King Jr. High is a lot
like being the head rabbi at the Vatican.

"From '72 until '93 we had a shortage of equipment," says
Williams. "Now we have the equipment but not the kids."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)