As football loses luster, smaller teams take hold in Maine
OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine — “I bleed blue,” said Dean Plante, the longtime high school football coach in this classic boardwalk town. It’s a reference to the school colors, and to his passion for the long, proud story of Seagulls football.
But in a state where hard-nosed football is a community touchstone, the once unthinkable is about to happen. In a nod to shrinking enrollment and declining participation, Maine this fall will become the only New England state to field high school football teams with eight players instead of 11, a move some fans dismiss as a faint copy of the traditional game.
“A lot of people are skeptical. They don’t think it’s real football,” said Jacob Methot, 17, a Seagulls captain who plays center and middle linebacker.
Old Orchard Beach High will be one of 10 public schools in Maine to move to eight-player football next season, following the lead of other small high schools in football-smitten states such as Nebraska and Oklahoma.
It’s a stark reflection of the demographic changes that are emptying parts of rural America, as well as a growing recognition of the long-term health risks of concussions, which has prompted many parents, including basketball superstar LeBron James, to declare football off-limits for their children.
In the eight-player version, two linemen and usually a back are dropped from the offense, while the defensive alignment will vary. Leagues also have the option to play on a smaller field. The result is expected to be a faster-paced game where speed can trump size.
Since the 2009-10 school year, participation in 11-player football in Maine has dropped 14 percent. Across the country, the number has dipped 6 percent in that time, and close to 8 percent in Massachusetts.
“A lot of people are concerned about brain injuries,” said Susan Robbins, the athletic director at Yarmouth High School. “The concussion discussion has impacted the numbers we’ve seen.”
Earlier this decade, the Yarmouth Clippers won back-to-back state titles, Robbins said. But with just 19 players expected to turn out next season — not enough to field two full practice teams — shrinking the game seemed the only viable option.
“I’m very happy with our decision,” Robbins said. “It’s nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
The dwindling interest in football stands in sharp contrast to the popularity of the school’s soccer teams, which attract 70 boys and 45 girls.
For now, Maine will keep four divisions with 11-player teams. But the future appears uncertain, reflected by the jarring news that the two high schools in Maine’s largest city — Portland High and Deering — have discussed merging their football teams after a 107-year rivalry.
The schools eventually decided to keep separate 11-player teams. Athletic officials in the city said they need to restore football to the middle schools to maintain a dependable feeder program.
“It's been kind of a wake-up call that things have changed,” said Melanie Craig, Deering High School athletic director. “It’s not what it was 10 years ago or 20 years ago, and we have to change with it.”
In Old Orchard Beach, Plante described flashes of resistance he has encountered among alumni, saying with a wry smile that some longed for the days when players “walked to school uphill, both ways, lost all their teeth, and never missed a play.”
Several Maine coaches and athletic directors argued that football is much safer now, largely because of better equipment, changes in tackling techniques, and far less full-contact practice. Robbins, the Yarmouth athletic director, said the school’s records show no difference in concussions between football and soccer.
Jack Cosgrove, the football coach at Colby College in Waterville, agreed the sport is not as rough as it once was.
“I’m an older guy who’s been through a lot of what was wrong with football. None of that stuff happens now,” said Cosgrove, who coached the University of Maine for more than 20 years. The eight-player trend, he said, is “a way to give the game a chance to resurrect itself at a time in its history where safety has become a major, major concern.”
Cosgrove said he has two players at Colby who competed on eight-man teams in high school, and that they blend in seamlessly to the 11-man game.
“The X’s and O’s are a little different, but you’ve still got to tackle, you’ve got to run, you’ve got to catch, and you’ve got to defend,” Cosgrove said.
The Maine Principals’ Association, which approved the change to eight-player football, is recommending an 80-by-40-yard field but will allow teams to use the traditional-sized field, said Michael Burnham, the group’s assistant executive director.
“I have some work to do, but we’ll hit the ground running,” said Plante, who has asked eight-player coaches across the country for film of their games.
The smaller game is gaining popularity in the American heartland, particularly in sparsely populated areas. There are 847 teams in 19 states, with nearly 20,000 players, a 22 percent increase since the 2009-10 school year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“You get out in different states across the country and the geographic makeup gets to be a little more of a challenge, said Bob Colgate, director of sports and sports medicine for the Indianapolis-based federation. “They’re trying to find a way that’s in the best interests of the schools.”
At Old Orchard Beach, a small group of football players said they are excited about the possibilities in a reconfigured game that allows more space and creativity.
“It’ll be very cool,” said Kobe Weinstein, a sophomore linebacker. “It's the same thing; it’s playing ball.”
It’s also a chance to keep winning for a high school with only 243 students. In the meantime, Plante and his three assistant coaches will study film, sketch out game plans, and “school ourselves so we can school our kids.”
The better they play, after all, the better their chances of winning over wary fans.
“Change is a hard sell, but once they see the product and the lights come on again on Friday nights, they’ll be fully supportive,” Plante said.