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Reports of high school football's imminent doom have been exaggerated, says former Oregon Sportswriter of the Year

PMG PHOTO: JIM BESEDA - Gladstone's Mason Sheehean (right) demonstrates an agility drill for running backs during a recent youth football camp at Dick Baker Stadium.If you drove past your area high school Monday, you may have seen the football team going through its first official day of practices.

Reports of high school football's imminent death have been extremely exaggerated ... and I was part of it.

Over the years, as I've watched, played and written about football, I've experienced and witnessed the physical toll the game can take. (In my case, it was two ACL surgeries, the first as a sophomore at South Eugene High, the second as a senior in the Denver area.)

FreiI've seen how many of my journalism and book subjects in college and pro football have been struggling later in life with various maladies and after death have been shown to have had significant CTE, or brain damage.

The most notable on that front was Greg Ploetz, the Texas defensive tackle in my 2002 book Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming. He died in 2015 after about a decade of struggle, including with dementia treated with legal marijuana products during a stay in Colorado.

His wife, Deb, sued the NCAA and only a settlement reached during the trial prevented it from becoming a chilling precedent for the college game. I also exhaled because the NCAA had subpoenaed me, the tape of my 2001 interviews with Ploetz, when he was just starting to have cognitive issues, and my notes. Deb told me whenever she drove past a kids' football practice, she wanted to stop and scream to parents that they needed to get their children away from the sport.

To see all I've written about Greg, both in and after the book, go to the HHNC page on my site and scroll down to the the Greg Ploetz saga listings on the right.

Beyond the college game, the NFL's $1 billion concussion settlement highlighted the peril of playing the game — especially as a career — while also essentially limiting the league's liability. (Albeit at a staggering cost, but there's plenty of money to go around.) It can be both stunning and aggravating to notice how today's players still often are in denial, acting as if they are invulnerable or at least willing to put off consideration of the risks.

Yet as this has played out, it hasn't been unreasonable to wonder about the future of the game. The most extreme scenario would be that liability and other issues literally kill off football at all levels, but that isn't happening.

The more pertinent big-picture issue is whether participation at the youth and high school levels drops so significantly, NCAA and NFL football becomes more of a gladiator pastime than it even is now.

Would parents' concerns about the sport cause more of them to say, "No, you're not playing football."?

Would more parents agree with Deb Ploetz?

It has become a cliche, but the water cooler or easy talk-show question often has been whether you'd let your kid play.

If you'd asked me in, say, 2012, I would have thought that by 2019, high school football would be in more trouble than it is now, and that participation would have slipped far more than it has. I wondered if rural school districts could afford the liability insurance now, as the end of the decade approaches.

No question, the numbers have dropped. The National Federation of High School Associations says the peak in particpation for 11-man teams was in 2009-10, and that it has dropped about 6.5 percent since, but the number of players still is over one million nationally. The other significant possibility is that we haven't seen the effects of the doubt over the safety of the game show up in participation levels at the high school level, and that could take place as those declining to play — or not being allowed to play — youth football get older.

But for now, football is hanging in there.

Part of it is due to the realization that the risk of suffering concussions is almost universal in sports, especially given the increased awareness of the issue, the need to diagnose and dictate protocol. In football, yes, but also in soccer, lacrosse, even baseball, certainly hockey ... and more. Plus, we've gotten so much smarter over the physical parameters of practices. I'm not sure Oklahoma drills were the embodiment of evil they have been portrayed to be, and I believe some of the no-contact, or no-tackling-to-the-ground standards in practices have been a bit of overreaction. But I understand why it has happened.

So....

This is my stand on football now.

It's still OK for kids to play it.

As long as they're not rushed into it too young.

As long as their coaches are qualified.

As long as they want to play it and aren't being pressured into it by parents, peers or anyone else.

And as long as it's made clear that if they don't enjoy it, quit. Don't buy into the crap that you'll be a quitter in life if you quit football ... or the piano.

In my generation, the problem was that if you were a good athlete, or even a marginal one capable of donning pads, holding tackling dummies and liked being known as a football player, you were both under pressure — even in the mirror — and expected to play football. Even if you liked another sport more, and were better at it.

It's healthy that we're past that.

It's a fine line because I believe that while skipping football because you enjoy another sport more is fine and understandable, or because you don't enjoy it, period, overspecialization can be a plague.

It's good for young men and women to play multiple sports, rather than a single one, often year-round on traveling and club teams and buying into it because of the usually ridiculous belief that a college athletic scholarship is the inevitable reward.

Yes, some of the slippage in football numbers has been because of overspecialization, and that bothers me.

But if the kids out there Monday for the first official football practices are there because they want to be, I'm still with the program.

Denver-based journalist Terry Frei is an Oregon native and a three-time winner of the Oregon Sportswriter of the Year in peer voting conducted by the National Sports Media Association. He's the author of seven books — two novels and five non-fiction works. His father, Jerry, coached at Portland's Grant and Lincoln High Schools, then at Willamette University and the University of Oregon. He was the Ducks' head coach from 1967-71 before moving to the NFL.


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