Football is king in Eden Prairie, and the eighth-grade Red Bulls hope to play for the town’s famed high school team, which has won two-straight state championships — and eight since the mid-1990s.
But Eden Prairie coaches are concerned the high school team may not have such a rich pool of players to choose from in the near future.
Participation is dropping in Eden Prairie’s third to eighth grade youth football league, reflecting a national trend. Multiple recent surveys show a decline in tackle football participation around the United States, including a 2013 Sports and Fitness Industry Association study that found a nearly 5 percent decline in tackle football participation for boys age 6 and older and up since 2007.
Across Minnesota, some youth football teams are seeing drops in overall participation, with declines ranging from about a fifth to as much as a third fewer players in the last five years.
Coaches, parents and players say this decline is due to increasing concerns regarding the sport’s safety. They also say that youth football can be expensive, and with so many other sports to choose from, some boys are making the choice themselves to drop out of football.
After years as a star player on a St. Anthony Youth Football Association team, sixth-grader Charlie Ash, 11, consulted his parents and chose to hang up his cleats for good this season. Although it was a difficult decision, Charlie and his parents, David and Stephanie Ash, agreed it was best for him to quit, largely due to their concerns about serious head injuries.
“Best case, they play football and they have a pretty good time,” David Ash said. “Worst case is they’re permanently brain damaged.”
Nationwide, many families share their concerns. About 57 percent of parents surveyed in a recent ESPN poll said stories about concussions in football have made them less likely to allow their sons to play in youth leagues.
The Eden Prairie Youth Football Association has seen a nearly 34 percent participation decline in its third- to eighth-grade league since 2008. In 2008, it had 803 players. This season, only 532 enrolled in all six grade levels. Jay Hansen, an eighth-grade coach and president of the association, said the most alarming drop is in the younger grades.
“We used to capture a big percentage of the third graders coming in and you know that’s declining,” he said. “I love the game of football, number one, and I wish we could get more kids to participate.”
Other Twin Cities programs have seen similar drops. Since 2008, participation in Anoka-Ramsey’s kindergarten to eighth-grade youth football program has gone down 26 percent. Both the St. Croix Valley Athletic Association and Stillwater’s middle school program have seen a 24 percent decline.
Logan Hauser, of Farmington, Minn., played football from age 6 until his senior year at Saint Thomas Academy. He used to have fond memories of being on many teams and practicing with his dad.
“We’ve had a lot of great memories in this back yard just throwing the ball around.” his dad Craig Hauser said. “There’s lot of life lessons you learn on the football field, baseball field or tennis court or whatever … that will help you as you grow into college and in life.”
But many of those memories are fuzzy for Logan, now 17.
While at a football camp at North Dakota State University two summers ago, Hauser was doing a drill with another athlete in which two players line up across from each other and try to push each other away at the coach’s command.
But the grass was wet that day, causing Hauser to slip on the ground. His partner’s knee struck him in the head. Hauser said his head started to hurt, but he went back at it, continuing practice.
Then, the same thing happened again. His vision became spotty.
“All my senses were completely simplified to the brightness,” Hauser said. “My hearing was ridiculous. I could hear a pin drop.”
Hauser had sustained a concussion that forced him to quit football for good, just before he was set to begin his senior season and potentially go on to play in college.
Although he’s still involved with the team and helps coach from the sideline, the concussion clouds his memory and blocks him from playing the sport he loves.
“It’s kind of scary knowing how easily that can all go away and it was the feeling that I’m mortal because you know all teenagers think they’re on top of the world,” he said. “You can get away with everything and that was really all taken away from me.”
For Logan Hauser, being away from football is tough. His parents also miss the game. But they stand by his decision to stay out of the sport and protect his brain.
“He’s got the brotherhood and the team and that is going to stay with him for the rest of his life,” Craig Hauser said. “But it’s the academics and the ability to function [in] a good solid life and get through college. I think he knows what’s important.”
Cindy Hauser said despite her son’s life-changing injuries, football has been a good part of their lives. She understands the fear of injury, but urged parents to think carefully before pulling their children out of youth football.
“I don’t think that it is fair to the child to ask them to not pursue something that they love or want to explore when they’re young,” she said. “We can’t take away all the risks in life because that’s how people get ahead. That’s how people learn. We didn’t know that this was going to happen to him. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Concussions like Hauser’s are becoming more common around the country. Emergency room visits for concussions in the United States increased by more than 60 percent between 2001 and 2009, according to a 2012 study by the Biomedical Engineering Society.
But Edina Football Association president and coach Mick Spence said about half of the injuries sidelining players aren’t football related.
“They’re basketball related injuries, hockey in one case,” he said. “There was a boy injured jumping on his bunk bed and another one riding his bicycle.”
SPORTS SPECIALIZATION, CHOICES
Some coaches believe sports specialization is another factor to blame for decreasing registration.
For Prior Lake Athletics for Youth’s football league, participation in its program for players in first through eighth grade decreased by almost 70 players from the 2012 season to this year. Gerald Raddatz, the program’s vice president, said officials are increasing safety efforts in the organization, but some players are still quitting in favor of other sports, a practice with which Raddatz disagrees.
“You’re starting to see kids specialize at an early age,” he said. “That’s wrong.”
Spence said some families think their child will be successful in a single sport, so they opt to focus on only one. For coaches and program leadership, he says this is unfortunate.
“We think multi-sport children have a better well rounded approach to life and they don’t put all their eggs in one proverbial basket,” he said.
Athletes who specialize in just one sport tend to have higher rates of injury, according to a 2011 Loyola University Health System study. The study surveyed 154 athletes, who had an average age of 13, and concluded that young athletes who specialize in a sport have nearly twice the rate of injury.
About 60 percent of injured athletes specialized in a sport, whereas only about 31 percent of athletes without injury specialized.
Aside from injuries and specialization, some young athletes simply choose to stop playing football. Eleven-year-old Nick Friedges of Cottage Grove dropped out of the youth football program he had been playing for since the third grade. He decided to play golf instead.
Nick’s mother Jen Friedges echoes what many parents have said. There are too many sports to choose from and not enough time. Neither injury nor sports specialization were factors for her family.
“He would come home from school last year and say he’d want to go golfing and we said, ‘You can’t. You have football practice,’ ” she said. “So he weighed the options and said, ‘If I don’t do this, I can do more of what I really want to be doing.’ ”
A PUSH FOR SAFETY
Registration in the Edina youth football league has diminished by about 9 percent overall since 2011, but Spence, the coach and association president, said the program’s second grade flag football league grew by 13 percent this season. The fifth grade tackle league grew by 7 percent.
Spence said he hopes the numbers increase, but he’s worried confusion about the damage that football can cause is deterring parents and players from the sport.
“What they don’t understand is there [are] an awful lot of kids walking off the field without any injury because of all the safety precautions that we’re taking,” he said. “We’re training the kids to play more safely.”
USA Football – the official youth football development partner of the NFL – is training coaches in Edina and around the country to treat and recognize signs of concussions, properly fit safety gear, and teach proper tackling techniques.
The program, called Heads Up, has spread to more than 2,000 youth football programs nationwide and 133 in Minnesota.
Although serious injuries can happen in the physical game, Spence hopes to stress the positives for kids involved with youth football.
“They’re getting exercise. They’re working with their friends,” Spence said. “They’re having fun and we’re keeping them safe in the meantime.”
SOME LEAGUES GROW
Despite declining numbers for some leagues, participation numbers are on the rise or holding steady for others.
The Blaine-Spring Lake Park program has seen steady growth since 2008, especially at the entry level.
“We’ve got almost 140 kids playing flag football which is a great place for kids to start to get an idea do they really like football,” league president Phil Richard said.
Richard, who is the football director for grades four through six, attributed the program’s success to safety precautions, which includes participation in Heads Up.
Blaine-Spring Lake Park players also use high school level helmets and special mouth guards. In addition, the league has implemented changes in the way teams practice to reduce the risk of injury. The association also split second and third graders because the two grades were so physically different.
“We just have really taken it seriously,” Richard said. “You go into practice and need to know how to take care of these kids.”
MPR News intern Cody Nelson contributed to this report. Tune in to KARE 11 at 10 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 15 for more on this story.