Fall is my favorite season. The air is crisp. The kids are in school. And the Friday Night Lights shine brightly.
Spoiler alert: I love high school football. I have since I was a kid when my late father, a South San Francisco High teacher, would take my older brother and me to watch the powerhouse South City Warriors.
The games were like festivals. Packed stands, cheerleaders, marching bands. I can still hear the South San Francisco fans chanting “South City, South City, South City High!” at the end of their fight song.
Nothing gold can stay, as Robert Frost wrote. Last season South City suited up just 15 players in losing its 24th consecutive game, 49-14 to rival El Camino. Ouch.
A similar scenario played out locally last spring during the abbreviated prep football season. Week after week I watched area teams with minuscule rosters struggle against larger foes. I fretted about the future of these teams and high school football in general. I wondered if the sport will exist or what it might look like 25 years from now (see accompanying story).
New Redlands East Valley High football coach Gavin Pachot was a tight end on Fontana High’s juggernaut teams of the late 1980s and has insight.
“Loyalty to high school programs is not what it used to be,” Pachot said. “So now what you see is a lot of bad football teams and then some powerhouse teams. In the 1980s, at Fontana, we could compete with schools like Mater Dei and (St. John) Bosco, but not anymore.”
Pachot was an assistant coach last season at San Gorgonio High, which went 12-4 and made a state title game in 2018 but had fewer than 20 players for most of last season. The Spartans forfeited one game at halftime against Summit when they ran out of healthy players and canceled its season finale against Kaiser.
“COVID made things tough,” San Gorgonio coach Rich McClure said. “We’re not alone. Everyone has seen their numbers drop. Some of our kids have to work to help support their families. Or they have multi-generational families and they’re nervous they’re going to bring something (contagious) home.”
The fear of concussions is real. A study by the Hospital for Special Surgery revealed that concussions are the No. 1 injury concern for parents, especially in football.
McClure keeps fighting. He tries to attract players by handing out flyers, utilizing social media, and having teachers steer athletic-looking kids to him. He hopes to have 30 players.
Across town at Arroyo Valley High, Hawk coach Jake Knesel can relate.
“We’re low on numbers,” said Knesel, who said COVID-19 has also taken a toll there and that 5-6 of his starters got jobs last school year and aren’t returning to the program.
But Knesel had an idea. He erected an easy-up on campus and decorated it with Hawk gear. Thirty students signed up, but the coach isn’t celebrating yet.
“Football is tough,” he said. “It’s not the kind of thing you decide to play overnight. If 10 of those kids pan out and wind up on the team, I’ll be happy.”
The outlook is brighter elsewhere. Beaumont High has 94 players on varsity, Citrus Valley 90-plus, Yucaipa 45, small-school Aquinas 38; and Banning (John Tyree) and Redlands East Valley (Pachot) have new coaches with winning backgrounds.
Prep football is not dying, it’s just gasping for breath in some places. I hope for the best.
John Murphy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.