ROCKPORT, Maine —
A handful of sweaty football players still pump iron in the school weight room to channel their frustrations. Outside, the goalposts at Camden Hills Regional High School’s Don Palmer Field have soccer netting draped around them and goalies in front of them, making kick saves.
There is no saving the varsity football season. School administrators abruptly canceled it on Sept. 24, citing safety concerns.
Mason Mahonen, a cocaptain, finally got around to cleaning out his locker last week, as soccer players passed him in the hallways and the mountain biking team pedaled down the road.
The 16-year-old junior is still in shock over the decision, which was made after the third game of the season. There will be no varsity football next season, either.
“You shouldn’t take away something that someone has put so much work, effort, and heart into years of training,” said Mahonen. “Even if we lose by 40 points and people are disappointed after the game. I ask them, ‘Did you have fun?’ They all say, ‘Yeah, I had fun.’ ”
But the administration felt a responsibility to protect them from harm. The principal, athletic director, and superintendent canceled the season, and many in this mountains-meet-seaside area agreed with the decision.
“Unfortunately, dwindling numbers of players have created a serious safety issue, and we are simply not willing to put any more students at risk, “ said Camden Hills principal Nick Ithomitis in a news release.
“We did not feel it was safe to put a young team, compromised by injury, with relatively low numbers on the field knowing it was likely they’d be hurt, possibly seriously hurt,” said superintendent Maria Libby in an open letter.
“Our players sustained numerous injuries, two of which landed in the Emergency Room. Some of our players were afraid to go in, although that won’t be admitted publicly, and I understand why.”
Nationwide, this has already been a bad year safety-wise for high school football. Since September, four student-athletes have died playing high school football in New Jersey, Louisiana, Oklahoma. and Washington. A fifth died last week after collapsing at a practice in Georgia.
Camden Hills athletic director Steve Alex sympathized with his players but said the decision was final. He said a junior varsity team might be formed for next season and a varsity team might return in two years, pending approval by the school board and the Maine Principals Association.
“It was tough, but you know, in good conscience, I stand by the fact that we made the right decision,” said Alex. “We had to do what we considered safe. Look what happened this week in Washington State. That could’ve happened at Camden Hills High School. Who knows?”
Alex was referring to the death of a 17-year-old senior at Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Wash., who died after being injured while making a tackle.
No fear in the players
Thad Chilton, the first-year Camden varsity coach, was not involved in the final decision or in informing the players. That angered both parents and players, some of whom he has coached since youth league. Chilton believed that Camden Hills could still win its next game but grudgingly admitted the season needed to be forfeited. The Windjammers were 6-46 since football was reinstated in 2009.
“The decision was regretful, but I probably would’ve came to the same conclusion,” he said.
But it was still painful for the coach who helped bring youth football to the area.
“I didn’t want my next game canceled, for the same reason as the kids,” he said. “We’re football players and we look forward to the next week.”
Schools in Missouri and New Jersey also canceled or cut short their seasons because of injuries and low turnout. Winooski High School in Vermont is completing its last football season.
In Camden, the football players, downplayed the safety issues. When asked if he was willing to risk a death on the gridiron, Mahonen didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Yes,’’ he said. “Because I love it. I love not only the sport but also how I can get all this energy and go out there and just hit people. It seems bad but it’s not. It’s legal. You don’t get a ticket for it.’’
The quarterback, Spencer Johndro, a freshman, does not believe there was a safety issue at all. He doesn’t worry about dying on a football field.
“I can’t live my life under a rock,” he said. “The odds are astronomical. I’m surprised it’s only four freak accidents.”
He added that teams are more educated on concussions now. The Windjammers do baseline testing.
“If I even remotely feel like I have a head injury, that’s the season for me,” he said.
Safety has become a major concern in football. While the NFL continues to be wildly popular, it has agreed to pay up to $5 million per retired player for medical conditions resulting from repeated head trauma.
But now there is attention is on younger players.
A new study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine concluded, “The incidence of catastrophic head injuries in football is dramatically higher at the high school level than at the college level.”
The report also said “an unacceptably high percentage of high school players were playing with residual symptoms from a prior head injury.”
High school football participation is down by some 25,000 players nationwide in the last five years, according to CBS News. In Maine, participation is down 11 percent in the last four years. Teams are having trouble filling rosters. Soccer is very popular here, says Chilton, who blames the media for an anti-football agenda.
“In our community, there are significantly more soccer concussions and leg injuries than football,” he said. “Ask any orthopedist in this area. Part of that is because more kids are playing soccer.”
Football is fading in other pockets of Maine, too.
“A lot of towns used to be big football powers in this state,” said Chilton, whose football program was unfunded and supported by boosters. “They were big mill towns, and their populations are diminishing. What’s happening with their numbers is they’re feeling all the effects of negative press about concussions.”
Danger was ahead
At Camden Hills, 12 upperclass athletes chose not to return to football this season, and injuries reduced the roster to 21 players, including only four seniors.
For the upcoming game against Ellsworth, there were more freshmen available — including two girls — than there were seniors and juniors combined. Because of injuries, only 11 players showed up for the last Monday practice.
Administrators saw red when they looked ahead to powerhouse Maine Central Institute, which has outscored its opponents, 327-30, this season and has a 57-player roster.
So the plug was pulled.
“It was very emotional for me, thinking of all the things I lost for my senior year,” said Logan Mullikin. “It goes to middle schoolers, too; they won’t have anything to look forward to.”
He says the team practiced safety “every single day.”
Coach Chilton teaches the rugby-style shoulder tackling preached by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll in an instructional video. It keeps the head out of tackling.
But it doesn’t work if the opponent doesn’t do the same.
Mullikin suffered a mild concussion and whiplash during Camden Hills’s last game against Bucksport, a 53-14 loss.
“It was a cheap shot,” said Mullikin. “He head-butted me. I don’t really remember much but I do remember that my helmet was enjoined with his. It was kind of weird.”
The Windjammers never quit, though, even when they were overmatched.
John Heath, the freshman center, weighs 16o pounds dripping wet and routinely faces some big dudes. But he says he doesn’t worry about football fatalities.
“No one thinks they’re going to die,” said Heath. “I mean, it’s disappointing, but I could die walking out of this building right now and getting hit by a bus. I could die right now from a heart attack. I just hope for the best.”
Amid all the sadness, there is also a glimmer of hope.
“One of the guys who did not return to the team this season approached me following the meeting to pledge his return to the team in 2016,” Chilton wrote to his team. “I expect that others will follow his lead.
“Please encourage the others to return as well. We will need numbers of 35-40 players ready for varsity-level play if we are to be taken serious for a return to varsity in 2017.”
Logan Mullikin says he just wants to play football.
“Even if they take away contact, flag football is still a great sport we play,” he said. “Kind of like Ultimate Frisbee, but it’s still kind of contact. It’s still great fun.”