WEST WINDSOR TOWNSHIP, N.J. — The nationwide forces that are beginning to uproot football have collided at a place called High School North.
Population shifts, concussions, sport specialization and cost — among the same issues that have caused youth football numbers to plummet around the country in recent years — have led West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North to shutter its varsity football team this season. The Knights, with a roster of 37 players, will play a junior varsity schedule.
High School South, the other secondary school in the district, might have to do the same next year, along with high schools from four other neighboring jurisdictions, West Windsor-Plainsboro Schools Superintendent David Aderhold said.
The moves belie a crisis for football all over the country, but one that has accelerated in this New York City bedroom community.
“We’re the leading edge of a much larger iceberg when it comes to what’s coming in youth athletics,” Aderhold said.
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Football participation has dropped precipitously for some time. High school football enrollment is down 4.5 percent over the last decade, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
More schools are fielding football teams nationwide, albeit with fewer players, led by surges in such states as Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas, which have added 150 football teams in the past five years. But other regions — namely the Midwest and Northeast — are shedding high school football programs at an alarming rate. Michigan has seen a net loss of 57 teams in the past five years. Missouri has lost 24. Pennsylvania has lost 12.
Even Southern California powerhouse Long Beach Poly, which has sent dozens of players to the NFL, gave up its junior varsity squad amid low turnout this summer. California is down 28 high school football teams in the last half decade.
Centennial High in Ellicott City, Md., from a region that’s a traditional football stronghold, announced in August it would fold its varsity football team, citing a “lack of sufficient players and concern for student safety.”
Youth levels of football, leagues high schools lean on as feeder systems, saw a nearly 30 percent drop in participation between 2008 and 2013, according to data collected by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
It has sent school officials nationwide clamoring to stabilize their varsity programs and reevaluate the game that has claimed high school Friday nights for generations.
“Football can be a great game, and still can offer many benefits when served up well. But it is being squeezed from several angles, all of them 21st century concerns,” said Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute. “It takes a lot to do football right, and more than a few youth and school programs are groaning under that pressure.”
Unique issues in New Jersey
The forces fueling those declines have come to the fore, sometimes in extremes, in West Windsor.
Demographic changes have brought populations here among which football is not as familiar. Sixty-one percent of High School North’s 1,500-some students are Indian- and Asian American. Some of those families have clashed previously with other families, many of them white, over the role of extracurricular activities in the school district.
“We didn’t grow up with football being part of the culture,” High School North booster club president Sandy Johnson said. Johnson is Chinese-American and married to Olin Johnson, who is white and coaches one of West Windsor’s youth football teams. “It’s a struggle when parents don’t know the sport.”
Concerns over football-related head injuries have driven some parents to lead their children away from the sport. Great Recession-era education budget cuts meant New Jersey eliminated a slew of middle school and sub varsity sports.
It has all led to North fielding a team of only five varsity players this fall, senior quarterback Brian Murphy said. South has a senior class of only 11 players. After they graduate, the ranks are thin.
“They have more kids than us, but not by much,” Murphy said.
Football coaches and boosters at every level of play in West Windsor have scrambled to recruit parents to sign their children up for football or give their teens permission to try the sport in high school.
In so doing, they have found that the face of the town has changed. It used to be a haven for second-generation immigrants, said Steve Rome, a 1987 High School South graduate. His mother was born in Morocco, then immigrated to Israel, then the United States. His neighbors were Indian- and Asian American. His son, Jack, is a defensive lineman for North.
But the technology boom and high-skill jobs in biotechnology, medicine, finance and academia have attracted a new class of migrants to these suburbs, where the median annual household income is $161,750. Those parents are not signing their kids up for football at the same rate as the rest of the nation.
“I doubt many Italian or Jewish kids knew what baseball was when they stepped on Ellis Island,” Rome said. “It’s the same thing that’s going on here.”
North Coach Jeff Reilly, a physical education teacher at one of the local elementary schools, has asked other coaches about athletes who might be a good fit for football. He has emailed parents from his elementary school classes to suggest they sign their kids up for football or other youth sports.
The Wildcats offer new parents a free 21-day trial period for football. They moved spring flag football practice to days that don’t conflict with other sports, team president Donald Haas said. They offer full scholarships if parents aren’t sure about the $225 registration fee.
“I had a dad recently who told me, ‘I never dreamed my kid would play sports, let alone football,’” Reilly said.
Parents have growing concerns about the injury risk involved with football, specifically the risk of head injuries. A slew of recent academic studies have presented varying conclusions about the risk of long-term brain damage resulting from high school football.
Princeton High School Coach Charlie Gallagher said he spent more than an hour on the phone with a parent recently discussing the risks associated with football.
Haas, a cardiologist, spends time going through the studies with families and breaking down the relative risk of playing football with other sports like soccer, where concussion risk is actually higher than football.
“What we’ve talked about in our program is not about whether there’s risk,” Haas said. “There’s risk in everything. It’s whether that risk is manageable.”
The Wildcats’ 2.5 percent youth football participation rate — below the national average of more than 4 percent (using 2015 numbers from the SFIA) — is a healthy enough clip, boosters say, to support one high school football team. Aderhold, the superintendent, petitioned three of New Jersey’s high school athletics governing bodies to merge North and South’s teams into one healthy, viable program. The schools even offered to forego the playoffs, as long as they could play varsity football.
All three bodies — the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the West Jersey Football League and the state Department of Education — rejected the request.
‘There’s a ripple effect’
That put Murphy, the Knights’ senior starting quarterback, in a bind that even the college coaches recruiting him don’t have a solution for. Murphy threw for more than 2,200 yards his junior season, to go with 24 touchdowns. Coaches from Yale, Villanova, Georgetown and others have asked about his college plans.
Murphy has told them he’ll play North’s junior varsity schedule so he won’t have to transfer his senior year of high school.
A Georgetown coach, his parents said, told him not to bother sending in more game tape. Coaches wouldn’t look at JV film.
This is what’s at stake should High School North lose its football team, boosters say. It would disrupt so much more than a sports team. The recruiting and college options for the team’s student-athletes. The Friday night atmosphere. The main stage for cheerleaders, and North’s acclaimed marching band.
“When North played South, that was a big deal,” Haas said. “There’s a ripple effect from football. But the reason we’re vocal is because we’re a tight community and football does this to people.”
Aderhold in 2015 introduced a new curriculum with a larger focus on the arts and extracurricular activities. He called it a “whole child” approach to education. It included no-homework nights and ended high school midterms and final exams.
But it also raised tensions in West Windsor that broke largely along racial lines over the balance between academic excellence and well-roundedness outside the classroom. One Asian American father told the New York Times the reforms were “anti-intellectual.” A white mother said her son in fourth grade complained he had nothing to put on his resume.
Those tensions have simmered again as the school district pours more resources into rescuing a football program in decline.
“It’s underlying all of this,” Sandy Johnson, the booster club president said. “There are open wounds.”
In search of newcomers
Ayush Prakash is short and thin with lean arms and narrow shoulders easily engulfed by shoulder pads.
He started watching football two years ago at a friend’s house, then came home and flipped from the cricket match his father was watching to an NFL game. After his parents scolded him for changing the channel, he watched highlights quietly on his laptop.
When he asked to play football earlier this summer, his parents were confused.
“Play cricket,” they told him. “We’re Indian. We’re not built for football.”
“I want to play a sport I like and doesn’t feel like a job,” Ayush responded.
“Fine,” his parents said. “You get one year.”
Weeks into summer practice, Prakash looked to be in line to get decent playing time for the Knights at free safety and wide receiver, Coach Jeff Reilly said. He’s a smart kid and a decent athlete.
His neighbor, another Indian-American rising freshman at North, asked about the football team every day when Prakash gets home from practice, he said.
“Try it,” he told him. “Put yourself into it. You can play this sport. It doesn’t matter what race you are.”
Football coaches and school administrators are taking that same message to parents, and toeing a thin line between encouraging them to enroll their children in football without telling them how to parent.
Ivy League schools like seeing team sports experience on applications, coaches tell parents. They point to studies that show a strong link between athletics participation and academic improvement. There is a payoff down the road to playing sports, especially football, they argue.
But the whole saga has left families wondering what West Windsor will look like without football, and what it means that their elite school district might drop a sport long viewed as central to the high school experience.
Prakash spent two weeks with the Knights getting ready for their season opener against Robbinsville. At the end of the second, he realized playing football wasn’t for him. His father emailed Coach Reilly to say he wouldn’t be returning for the third week.