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First of two parts

By Charlie Specht and Mary Jo Monnin

News Staff Reporters

Playing high school football under the Friday night lights has been the ultimate slice of Americana for decades – right up there with grandma and apple pie.

But even before the death of Damon Janes – the 16-year-old Brocton junior who suffered an on-field blow to the head last week – many parents are asking whether all the excitement, fun and glory is worth the risk.

“You ask yourself, with the chance of them ever making a living off it being so small, that it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion they’re going to be carrying some of those wounds,” Dave Hicks said. “The thinking is, it’s really not worth it at this point.”

Coming from Hicks, that’s a surprising, maybe even shocking, statement given the success his sons found in America’s favorite game.

His three grown sons played football from a young age all the way through high school. His son Cameron was a member of an Orchard Park squad that won the state championship.

Even though his three oldest sons were crazy about football from the start, Hicks is thinking twice about letting his 7-year-old on the gridiron.

“I know it’s pretty safe at the lower levels, but we’re just trying to get him to dabble in every other sport if you will, to see if he maybe gravitates to those before he gravitates toward football,” Hicks said.

And he isn’t alone.

Fewer high schoolers here and across the country have signed up for football in recent years, at the same time more information has surfaced regarding the devastating effects of head injuries in contact sports.

From 2008 through last year, about 15,000 fewer high schoolers played football in America, with the numbers steadily declining each year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Sophomore Mitchell Mason, 15, had played 10 years of little league football with the goal of making the Eden varsity squad someday. A concussion he suffered while on the junior varsity last year, one of three he’s had in his young, active career, has contributed to the end of that dream.

Mitchell has since been dealing with short-term memory loss, irritability and pressure from peers who have mocked him for “wussing out.” The family has had its fill of emergency rooms, tests, doctor appointments and medications.

“We knew the risks were way too great compared to his health,” said Mitchell’s mother, Sue. “It’s a small part of your life, and there are so many more things out there. It’s been a battle. People think it’s easy, ‘oh, just pull him out of football,’ but it’s what he’s worked for, and he feels he’s had that stripped from him. We’ve already told his little brother, who is 6, we’re not even putting him in football.”

Mitchell is now enjoying his spot on the Eden volleyball team.

Squads combined

Local teams have found it increasingly difficult to attract as many players as they once did, with some teams being forced to combine squads with surrounding high schools.

While local football officials say the decline in popularity can’t be contributed solely to safety concerns – budget constraints and the growing popularity of sports like soccer play a role – the growing awareness of head injuries from the game have had an effect.

“There are a lot of programs playing football in Western New York where there has been a significant decline in the numbers,” said Dick Gallagher, who has followed high school football in Western New York for more than three decades.

Young athletes have more sports to choose from, and sports like lacrosse, hockey and volleyball have only gained in popularity in recent years, he said.

“But I think there is also some concern on the part of parents with injuries, and they’d rather have their child play a nonaggressive sport or a nonviolent sport,” said Gallagher, the founder of Western New York High School Sports magazine.

There are 78 local high school teams today – 10 fewer than just seven years ago.

Smaller schools that have had trouble dressing the state-mandated 16 players for a varsity contest are merging with nearby districts to keep their programs afloat.

Janes’ school of Brocton, now mourning the loss of one of its toughest players, combined with nearby rival Westfield three years ago.

Mergers have also taken place at Barker and Royalton-Hartland in Niagara County, as well as Silver Creek and Forestville and Maple Grove and Chautauqua Lake in Chautauqua County.

Holland’s players this year will be able to suit up for the first time as part of East Aurora’s team, and Niagara Catholic, which began its program in 1948, had to eliminate it three years ago.

Sherman and Clymer, two Southern Tier schools separated by 12 miles, will likely merge their football teams next year.

Football officials are quick to point out the declining participation mirrors enrollment trends across most districts in Western New York – and not just for football.

“We haven’t seen or heard of anything where student-athletes are not coming out for football for any other reason than just declining enrollment,” said Timm Slade, executive director of Section VI, the local chapter of the State Public High School Athletic Association. “They just don’t have the kids in the school to fill a team or roster.”

Coaches also attribute the trends to the increasingly sedentary nature of youth and society. Young people are turning to video games and electronic devices instead of physically demanding sports like football, they say.

“It’s part of the sign of the times in general,” Grand Island coach Dean Santorio said. “We’ve been noticing for eight, nine years, kids are not playing football or hockey in the street. You don’t see that anymore. It’s too bad that’s where’s technology has led us a little bit.”

The shift has frustrated Larry Puzan, athletic director at Niagara Catholic. He has kept the gym open at night and over the summer, trying to get kids interested in sports.

“Drive around and look at any ball diamond over the weekend, and you won’t find a bunch of kids playing,” Puzan said. “It’s not happening. They’re not doing anything.

“I’m sorry, but you can’t tell me there are so many one-sport athletes out there that all they do is train 12 months a year. When it’s their sport’s offseason, I really think they do nothing, and I don’t get it.”

Attraction continues

But more than 1 million high schoolers still strap on the pads each year, and anyone who shows up at a local high school Friday night will see the passion firsthand.

There, with the band playing, the cheerleaders jumping and the hoopla in full force, it’s easy to see why the game continues to attract so many young people.

“Kids like to emulate success, and they see opportunities for success in football, as well as the glory,” said Gallagher. “If you have 20 different sports in this area, what is the sport that generates the most attention, the most TV coverage, the most radio and print coverage? Football – there’s nothing close to it.”

In the wake of Janes’ death, Hicks, the parent, hopes his 7-year-old son opts for a different athletic dream. But even he acknowledges the chances of that are probably slim.

“My guess is he will be like his brothers, and once he tries it he will be hooked on it,” Hicks said. “It will be like the greatest thing ever.”

email: cspecht@buffnews.com and mmonnin@buffnews.com