Ted Dalicandro remembers growing up in Newton in the 1980s, at a time when there were enough youth football players in the city to fill three teams at each age level of Pop Warner.
Those numbers have dwindled to the point where the Newton Mustangs, the American Youth Football program that replaced Pop Warner, is fielding only three teams total this fall — one each at the fifth, seventh, and eighth grade level.
Now, the city’s four middle schools have discontinued their tackle football squads, replacing them with co-ed flag football.
“It didn’t make sense to keep doing it at the middle schools,” said Dalicandro, the Newton South varsity head coach who was on the committee of principals, coaches, and administrators that decided middle schools would switch to flag.
“There are not enough young kids playing to have middle school and AYF,” he said. “It’s true that some people are afraid to have their kids play at a young age. I can argue all day why that shouldn’t be the case. But it is. It’s too bad.”
Day Middle School principal Jackie Mann said she didn’t hear from parents that they were keeping their middle-school age children out of tackle football specifically for safety reasons. But there simply wasn’t enough interest to field after-school teams at each of the four schools. She said some parents of players with serious interest in the sport told her they were playing for the Mustangs youth program.
Flag football has proven to be a bit of a hit in its first season at the middle schools, with 35 players at Bigelow, 30 at Day, 29 at Oak Hill, and 12 at Brown as of Sept. 17. The teams practice four days a week after school and will play each other in jamboree-style field days.
“We’ve been trying to broaden our offerings to different interests and abilities,” Mann said, “and provide more access points to get involved with the sports in order to bring our after-school programs more in alignment with our vision for the middle schools overall.”
Dalicandro said he supported the change to flag football, and thinks there are some limited aspects of the game that can provide a foundation for high school tackle football.
Eric Busa, the seventh-grade team coach for the Mustangs, is skeptical, however. His squad has maintained strong numbers with 30 players; he said the eighth-grade team has 24 players and the fifth-grade team has 20. But Busa is worried about the overall trend of parents keeping kids out of the contact game at the younger levels.
“My concern is not that the middle schools here don’t have it, but that we don’t have kids getting exposed to it before they play high school football at all,” Busa said. “Parents are more apt to give the green light to play when they are 14, 15 years old. There’s no exposure for a lot of these kids to the physical aspects of the game. While starting off with flag football is a great segue into tackle football, I am definitely not convinced that playing flag football in seventh and eighth grade will prepare them to play high school tackle football.”
Busa said media coverage of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was feeding into “scare tactics” used to steer parents away from youth football. He said the game is taught far differently than it was 10 or 20 years ago, and that younger players are missing out on all the camaraderie and teamwork skills that are developed through playing the contact version of the sport.
“The play[in flag football]is more disorganized, with kids focused on catching a ball vs. paying attention to each other,” said Robert Walsh, president of Newton Mustangs Youth Football & Cheer. “Youth tackle football has made some significant rule changes to increase safety such that most injuries today involve wrist and ankles — common in all sports.”
Yet, while youth numbers have slid in Newton and some surrounding communities, high school participation has ticked up in the city. Newton North had more than 100 players come out for the program this fall, while Dalicandro said he had 22 freshmen — including 12 players who had never played football before at any level — sign up at Newton South.
Waltham AYF president Francois Joseph said participation is up there, with 101 players between grades 4 through 8. Framingham AYF president Jason Smith said numbers are up about 5 percent in that city since last year.Wellesley athletic director John Brown said numbers on the middle school eighth-grade team in that town are up slightly this fall, but down significantly from 10 years ago.
There is part of Dalicandro that wistfully recalls the days when young players in Newton came up through the crowded ranks of youth football to the high school teams. But he allows that changing times call for changing approaches to the game.
“I don’t think you necessarily have to play youth football before you get to high school,” Dalicandro said. “Some of my best players were soccer players growing up. I think the flag football is fun. You get the aspect of being on a competitive team and get exposed to it a little bit. Then the kids and their parents can decide whether to take it to the next level in high school.”