The brand of football Denise Page grew up watching in her hometown isn't there anymore.
“Football used to be the fun time Friday night,” said Page, a 2001 Chapel Hill High School graduate. “We’d all meet up at the field, watch the game, talk, gather. The stands used to be packed.”
Sitting in the back row of the away bleachers at a junior varsity football game at Jordan High School, she longs for the days when the sport was still in its heyday. But surrounded by a scattered crowd on a recent Thursday at twilight, the remnants of the community spectacle it once was are now only visions in her head.
The depth charts, which once teemed with players, now have just enough to field a team. And while the Chapel Hill players easily outnumbered their Jordan counterparts, maybe that’s because one of the schools would field another team — a varsity team — the next night. The other wouldn’t.
Page was the loudest fan in attendance, especially after big tackles or crucial catches from her son, a sophomore wide receiver and defensive back. With a big smile on her face, her voice cuts through the noise of the cheerleaders, the whistles and conversations around her.
And yet, no amount of cheering or clapping could hide the underlying reality.
The game of football is suffering in Orange County, N.C. With low participation numbers due in part to concerns about player safety, local high schools have suspended programs in recent years. And now, the ripple effects of football’s absence are beginning to disrupt life outside the lines.
“The sport is literally dying at a place where Chapel Hill and Carrboro used to be football towns," Page said.
The J.V. Tigers are clinging to what’s left of football at the district’s oldest high school. Some of the players put on shoulder pads for the first time less than a year ago, and now, their only hope is that by not giving it up, the game can be revived soon.
“We’re not going to go down without a fight because football should be here,” Page said.
"They want it, so guess what? We want it too."
'The Tiger family hurts for you'
On Aug. 13, 2018, 11 days before what would have been the first game of the season, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district announced the 2018 varsity football season at Chapel Hill High School was canceled.
“It was pretty much a shock to me and the people that I played with,” said former Chapel Hill varsity quarterback Brooks Benton, who graduated in 2013. “We never really asked how the program was doing because we thought it was doing fine.”
Benton said he didn’t see anything to suggest football was declining at the school until after he graduated. Things collapsed quickly.
Following a one-win season in 2017, the district cited “a low turnout of players,” that didn’t make a varsity program viable.
In June, across the county at Cedar Ridge High School in Hillsborough, school officials came to the same conclusion about the state of football in its district. In 2017, East Chapel Hill High School did as well, and while the varsity team returned at the school this season, the Junior Varsity team did not.
Schools with only J.V. programs often see those rosters turn into varsity teams, but then don’t have enough younger players to replace them. If that sort of struggle continues too long, the uncertainty may cause some underclassmen to leave the sport behind.
And that’s how the programs struggling to survive could finally die out altogether.
Just down the road
In Hillsborough, the distance of four and a half miles makes all the difference.
On a Friday night at Orange High School, the parking lot is jam-packed. Football is alive and well in this part of the county, where the Mighty Panthers have the full support of the students and community.
“Friday night football games, that’s an event,” Orange head football coach Van Smith said. “The greatest time to rob a bank is on a Friday night during the football game in the fall, because everybody is at the game.”
This season, Smith has more than 90 players in the program — a typical total in recent seasons. Just a 10 minute drive across town, though, things couldn’t be more different.
At Cedar Ridge, the campus is dark and the stands are empty. The school only had five rising seniors and nine rising juniors committed to play football this year.
“It is our responsibility to consider a variety of things when fielding a varsity team, none more important than safety,” Orange County Schools spokesperson Seth Stephens said at the time of the announcement.
For Smith, the trend's appearance in his neck of the woods was a wake up call. His program, and Carrboro High School, have largely missed the extremities of declining numbers in the area. Although, that doesn't guarantee they'll be safe in the future.
“If you look at the trend, we're next in line," Smith said. "If it crosses Interstate 40 and comes into North Orange County, we're next.”
Losing 10 straight games to finish 1-10, the Red Wolves’ 2017 season didn’t turn out as well as the team would have liked. But as Smith noted, a bad or good football season doesn’t necessarily correlate to the future strength of a program.
After the 2012 season, which ended one game away from the 3A state championship, Orange had more than 100 players in his program. In 2014, after CHHS lost in the 3A semifinals, the program had such a low turnout it had to suspend its J.V. program.
“It was an eye-opening thing for me.” Smith said. “I was shocked."
Smith credits strong middle school feeder programs at C.W. Stanford Middle School and Gravelly Hill Middle School with spurring athletes' interest in football before they even get to high school.
But he fears in the end, that still might not be enough.
The impact of C.T.E. research
Football has many more factors working against it than it used to.
Of the many reasons for the game’s decline, including the rise of esports, specialization, and rising popularity of soccer, basketball and lacrosse, one stands chief among them: concerns over concussions.
While participation in high school sports grew for the 29th year in a row last year, data from the National Federation of State High School Associations showed that high school football reached its peak in 2009, with a steady decline every year since.
In 2017, football saw just under 1.04 million players participate in the United States, a drop of more than 20,000 athletes from the previous year, according to NFHS data. Over the last nine years, participation has seen a rapid 6.8 percent decrease as players have turned away from the country’s biggest sport.
With more research into concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as C.T.E., the true dangers of the sport became more definitive — especially for players.
In a 2017 groundbreaking study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers discovered that a majority of deceased football players studied — 177 out of 202 — were diagnosed with C.T.E. Since then, part of the trend present in Orange County might be a trickle-down effect.
Many football coaches don’t want to talk about the controversy swirling around the game, while others push back against the idea football is more dangerous than other sports, like UNC head coach Larry Fedora.
“I believe the game is under attack right now,” Fedora said at ACC Football Kickoff in July. “I really do. If we’re not careful, we’re going to lose what the game is all about.”
Players and fans who still have a vested interest in the sport aren't turned away by the threat of injury.
“I think the benefits, in my opinion, far outweigh the risk,” said Ellen Roeber, a physical therapist and parent who volunteers with the CHHS football team. “Aside from rugby, I’ve never seen a sport where there’s more brotherhood, team building, support, discipline, pride, than there is in football.”
Nevertheless, those on the outside looking in on the sport take issue with the risk of injury and see it as a real reason not to play. The incongruence between the arguments of those two groups matters, and could be a point of contention that the future of the game swings upon.
“You have to clean the game up and make it safer,” Smith said. “You're going to lose mom, and if you lose mom, then you lose the kid. That's the way it goes.”
An indeterminate future
The future of high school football is not yet clear for Orange County.
Some say the trends in this part of the state are early evidence that will eventually reach other parts of the country. Others are hopeful that this is only a short-term issue that resolves itself over time.
People on both sides of the debate agree that the game has to continue to address safety, whether it’s gone in 50 years or not.
"I don't know what it can do (to sustain itself),” said Chris Hughes, a former football coach and editor of Carolina Preps, a statewide high school football news outlet. “You're not going to stop media entities or society in general from putting the microscope on it because that's their job.”
For the immediate future, all of high school athletics could benefit from football continuing to work on its image — and address the safety of the game.
At many high schools, football ticket sales and revenue are the means by which athletic departments afford other sports, or extend other opportunities. When ECHHS had to postpone its varsity program last year, it lost $10,000 in revenue, according to the News & Observer.
CHCCS spokesperson Jeff Nash said CHHS will move some soccer games to Friday nights to fill in the now-empty time slot. But that alone can’t make up the gap. Football tickets raised the athletic department $8,597 last year — and that's money no longer available.
“I don't know how it's economically possible to have high school sports without the sport of football, and that's not me bragging about football by any means,” Smith said. “It is a moneymaker.”
“To lose that economically would be a huge burden on schools and high school athletics in general.”
The effects of life without high school football matter beyond the gridiron. Without the game around, opportunities for scholarships or a path to college would also disproportionately hurt low-income communities.
"I feel like if this dies, some of these kids won't do anything else," Page said. "For some of them, this is their only sport."
CHHS football coach Isaac Marsh, ECHHS football coach Brian Nunn and athletic director Randy Trumbower declined comment for this story. Cedar Ridge High School Athletic Director Andy Simmons did not respond to requests from The Daily Tar Heel in time for a Thursday night deadline.
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