If you read any national magazine or website regularly, you’ve surely seen some form of this headline: Have millennials killed off _____?
Fill in the blank: Television, automobiles, bicycles, “American Idol.” Whatever.
You’d think that as a generation, millennials were axe-wielding sociopaths, hacking away at all of our treasured institutions.
But conversations with numerous coaches throughout Tucson has me begging one question, which is sure to generate a flood of InstaSnaps, or whatever the young whippersnappers are doing these days:
Have millennials killed off high school football in Tucson?
(Cue dramatic music).
This conversation only started because I was having trouble picking my jaw off the floor.
A few weeks back, while chronicling Canyon del Oro’s attempt to rebound from a down year, head coach Dusty Peace said something along the lines of, “We have a stronger group of seniors this season, 26 instead of 14.”
Fourteen senior starters, I half-inquired, half-corrected.
“Oh, no, 14 total,” Peace said.
That had to be incorrect, but there it is on the Dorados’ online roster: A baker’s dozen, plus one.
Their opponent this week, Catalina Foothills, has 33 players on its entire roster. I called Justin Argraves over at Tucson High; he’s got 11 juniors on his whole varsity team.
Not to get all back-in-my-day, but my high school football teams teemed with players in Thousand Oaks, California, a sizable suburb in the Ventura County outside Los Angeles. My freshman season in 1998, the Lancers — not the Salpointe Lancers, mind you, but the TOHS Lancers — had almost six dozen kids. The backup’s backup had a backup.
My senior year, we had about three dozen in my class, and only about half started.
Now, a team is lucky to run two-deep.
Two-deep? Heck, what some of these guys wouldn’t do for 11 reliable starters.
“It’s really bad,” Peace said. “I did the numbers last year, and the reality is the percent of football players is way down. It’s not even close. All across the city.”
It’s not like Tucson high school football was ever like the game deep in the heart of Texas, but even a cursory look at a stack of mid-1990s football programs reveals a decline. Many of the Tucson-region state playoff contenders two decades ago fielded teams of 45, 50, 60-plus — Catalina Foothills had 50 players in 2001 — never really competing in size with the likes of Scottsdale’s and Phoenix’s powerhouses, but enough to offer some healthy competition.
Like a quarterback who doesn’t see a blitzing safety on the backside, local coaches have been blindsided.
“It’s been very, very gradual,” said Foothills head coach Jeff Scurran, whose Falcons head to CDO Friday to face Peace’s Dorados. “I had teammates who were literally beat up by the coach, hit in the head with a helmet. And the whole thing was if you don’t like it, don’t play football. Our coach used to line us up and paddle us for group noise. Bend over, hands on our knees, with our heads two inches from the wall, and bam, you’d walk away holding your head and your butt.”
Those days are long gone, but even with fewer fire-breathing coaches singeing the eyebrows off of 16-year-olds, the kids are staying away.
And it is a combination of factors that has led to a declining local high school football population.
Factor 1: The risks are too great.
There is some debate among area coaches about the recent health scares that have been attributed to the violence of the sport. Scurran doesn’t believe concussions are scaring away kids in droves, pointing to the vastly higher number of head injuries that occur in sports like soccer. But Pima College coach Jim Monaco, who has extensive local high school coaching experience, believes it’s a big factor.
“Parents, they’re just, they’re worried,” Monaco said. “There’s been so much made of the concussion thing. I don’t know man, I played for a guy who was a terrible coach; punched me in the sternum, broke it. I wouldn’t leave. I blew my knee, my patella was gone; I played with a knee brace. I wasn’t going to let anybody get the best of me. Those kids don’t exist now. I hate to say it, but it’s a fact.”
Factor 2: Sports specialization.
Exhibit A: Local would-be stud Turner Washington, a senior at CDO. He played football for two years, but after getting better and better at the discus, he transitioned solely to track and field. A 6-foot-5-inch, 245-pound specimen, Washington would be one of the most coveted football players in the state, and as Peace said, “Our best lineman on campus doesn’t even play football.”
Washington acknowledges that he likely could’ve earned a small-school Division-1 scholarship, maybe lower-tiered Pac-12, but, the thoughtful senior said, “Throwing is what I really love, and it’s a more manageable sport to do in college. It’s safer; one of my best friends just tore his ACL, and I wasn’t going to risk managing both sports. Any given second, my knee could’ve blown out and I could be done.”
Maybe he belongs in the Factor 1 section about risks, but he admits, if he wasn’t so good at the discus, he’d still be playing football.
Factor 3: The Cool Factor has chilled.
A confession: I played high school football to get girls.
It didn’t work, of course. Rarely does it for the funny, 5-8, 230-pound backup, backup guard. But you know what? As they say, it got me in the conversation.
Truth of it is, I loved the sport, and I had desperately wanted to play for years to the dismay and ultimately disapproval of my mother. By about Day 3 of summer practice, I realized that just about the only tangible benefit I’d get, at least as that portly freshman, was the right to wear that sweet, sweet jersey on Friday morning.
For the gangly kid who couldn’t fill out a milkshake straw or the chubby kid who couldn’t put down the milkshake straw, this was it, baby. We were one of Them.
“Hey man, the last guy who graduates out of med school is still called a doctor,”’ Monaco said. “Back in the day, if you were on the football team, if you just had the fortitude to get through two-a-days, that was all you needed. You were in.”
Newsflash: Football ain’t that cool anymore, bud.
“Ten, 20 years ago, football was glorified,” Tucson’s Argraves said. “Everyone’s eyes were on the sport. It’s still a big thing, but it’s just not as big. You’re throwing in technology, all these studies that go into the long-term risks, and it’s getting some of the borderline kids who 15, 20 years ago would’ve played, now they have an excuse not to.”
Why put yourself through the gruel of two-a-days when you can get just as High School Famous by being pithy online?
“Kids have found different ways to — and I hate to sound old — but to get the attention,” Peace said. “We were football players, kings of everything. Now you can be a king of school if you have a funny Twitter account.”
Washington admitted as much himself.
“Glory comes from whatever you’re doing and being good at it,” he said. “The biggest thing now — and I’ve thought about it the last year — but it’s cooler to be smart and get good grades more than anything else now. Yeah it’s great to score touchdowns, but the stereotype of all the jocks are the popular kids — now you see some of the most popular kids are in all AP classes.”
Jonas Leader, one of a handful of CDO senior leaders, agrees.
“Playing football has nothing to do with it anymore,” he said. “It’s all about personality and whatever. I don’t think there’s anything negative about it, I just don’t think it’s like such a positive thing any more. But I guess maybe I’m not the perfect guy to ask.
“I just love football.”
So, fellow football followers, fear not.
There’s still a few of them left out there.