Socking It to Football

soccer 0419As we learned yesterday, way back in 1979 people were warning of the dangers of football. At least, I read it in a magazine (I’m thinking Sports Illustrated, for which football is still its bread and butter) and turned it into a speech, where I recall mentioning that football had killed four players the previous season.

These days, football is hardly the darling of the medical profession, which is discovering that the sport turns more brains than you’d think to mush. (And we’re not talking about the fans who get so rabid that they rip their own city apart following a Super Bowl victory.)

The medical outcomes seem to be giving some parents pause, and it may be playing into a phenomenon here in Gunnison: the winnowing of kids (boys) signing up for football. There are probably other factors, but for whatever reason, we did not get enough high schoolers turning out to field a varsity team last fall. That seemed to be a first in the annals of Gunnison High School.

I keep the game clock for middle school football, and have for probably a couple decades. The numbers are thinning there, too. On one Saturday last fall, Salida came over for a pair of games. The seventh graders played as planned, but neither team had enough eighth graders to field a full team. Since both teams were short, they had seventh graders play alongside the eighth graders.

There have been several GMS teams in recent years with about 15 boys on the roster. And by the time you see the obligatory couple of boys in their jerseys on crutches on the sidelines, along with the one or two whose grades aren’t good enough to take the field that week, plus the kid who is sick with whatever bug is making the rounds . . . well, bonus playing time for those who are left.

So it is in this state that Susan Powers has waded in with what once might have been an audacious proposal. I did not learn this until my book group Monday night, and I don’t have much in the way of details, but I got the gist: Susan — history buff, teacher, parent, coach — would like GHS to offer soccer as a varsity sport.

I don’t even know enough to know if she is advocating for both boys’ and girls’ soccer, or just the boys, since her two children are of the male persuasion. In Colorado, the seasons are split: girls play in the spring, boys in the fall. And that, book group member Andy (who was at the school board meeting where Susan made her pitch) indicated, is the crux of the issue.

Gunnison High School has a population somewhere between 300 and 400 students. Let’s assume half of them are boys, and I don’t have a guess as to the percentage of those boys who participate in interscholastic sports. Already in the fall, boys can choose football, cross country, mountain biking and possibly climbing, although that might be more of a winter sport. Swimming might still be an option as well, although they haven’t had a boys’ team for several years. If you add soccer, something might have to give — and Andy seemed to think football would be the victim.

As he noted, if we were some small town in Texas, this conversation wouldn’t even be taking place, but we’re in Colorado, and in Gunnison, a lot of sports that speak to individual pursuits, like running, biking and climbing, are gaining more traction as football has trouble suiting up enough players to take the field.

Now, soccer needs the same number of players on the field, 11, at any given moment as football. But there’s far less specialization, so you don’t need nearly the same depth on the bench. And I would venture that the injury rate in soccer is far less than in football. (Western Then State once had a coach who presided over three broken necks in one season.)

There’s also culture playing into the choices here. Gunnison is collecting its share of People From Other Places, and the sport of choice in many of those places is soccer.

I don’t really understand the appeal of soccer. As a nine-year-old player, it struck me as way too much running and I stopped playing. As an adult spectator, I am not drawn to it in any manifestation. I did watch my niecphews in their early years — Justin was so into his field time that you could watch him somersaulting in the backfield while everyone else was chasing the ball at the other end of the pitch.

But I’m not really big into football, either. What I really notice anymore, particularly as I’m standing on the field behind the action with the clock’s remote control in my hand, is just how much “playing time” is spent standing around. A middle-school huddle lasts well over 30 clock-ticking seconds, while the play itself takes six seconds.

And a lot of players aren’t part of the “play.” Some of them get to push and shove at their opponents, while others serve as “mis-direction,” just sprinting from the line of scrimmage with no intention of coming near the ball. When you break it down for its lack of action and the number of players who never go near the actual “play,” it makes you wonder why it’s America’s favorite sport. (Sorry, rodeo — “America’s #1 sport” — and baseball — “the national pastime” — all you have to do is read a Denver Post sports section in March during basketball and hockey season to see which sport really rules. The Post makes the Broncos its lead story year-round.)

Andy thought Susan had done a good job with her presentation, marshaling her players and parents to help make her case. But he still thinks there will be pushback from the football tradition. I’m sure he’s right, but I’m not sure it matters what old alumni and other townspeople want.

The demographics are changing; the medical evidence is becoming clearer (damn those scientists, anyway!); and kids and their parents are making different choices. It may be, although probably not on the timeline Susan is striving for, that the decision gets made for the school. That’s how cross-country and mountain biking came along, and it may be how football fades away.

Just up the road, the Crested Butte boys last fall emerged as the state soccer champs. The winning goal was scored by a player from Gunnison. That certainly isn’t going to hurt soccer’s ascendancy in the valley.

I wish Susan all the Powers in the world as she proceeds with a quest that once upon a time would have been highly quixotic but that might now be more mainstream than many of us have realized.

One thought on “Socking It to Football

  1. Hard to believe GHS without football, I mean American Football. But since The Brain is one of my favorite organs and my kids had logged over 5-8 funfilled years of playing soccer before moving to Gunnison and their brains are doing very well, it sounds like a wise choice to me.

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