SALEM, Ore. — Kyle Greeley was a star basketball player for West Salem High School. At 6-foot-4, Greeley showed great court awareness and athleticism, and an ability to take over a game for the Titans.
It's easy to envision how his athletic attributes could have been applied on the football field as a quarterback, seeing over defensive linemen and finding open receivers, and if plays broke down, being able to adjust on the fly.
Greeley played Pop Warner for a few years and contemplated playing football in high school. But by the age of 15, Greeley already had his mind made up: “I definitely knew basketball is what I wanted to pursue in my (sports) career.”
Greeley is one of thousands of athletes in Oregon high schools who have walked away from football in recent years.
Football participation down, participation up for other sports
At its peak in the 2008-09 school year, there were 15,009 Oregon high school students participating in football. That number dropped to 12,473 in 2017-18, a decline of 17 percent.
At the same time, high school students playing sports other than football climbed from 82,147 to 87,434, an increase of more than 6 percent.
Coaches, parents and football officials say there are many reasons for the decline: a wider variety of organized sports for kids to play; the growth of athletes specializing in one sport; the cost of outfitting, training and caring for players.
And perhaps more than others, the increasing worry about concussions.
Football has long been the marquee high school sport in Oregon, but it's dropped to the third-most popular sport among all athletes, in terms of participation numbers, trailing basketball and track and field.
And it may soon drop behind soccer. Football remains the most popular sport among boys, but for how long?
Fans and supporters of the sport are trying several things to regenerate interest.
New methods of tackling and stricter protocols for players who receive concussions are designed to make the game safer.
And leagues are being reorganized more frequently so teams that have been faring poorly can be placed with teams closer to their competitive level.
Why football participation is declining
One of the main reasons for the significant drop in football participation is the concern over injuries, especially head injuries.
In recent years, there has been an emphasis on preventing and treating concussions at all levels of football, whether it be the protocol for treatment or the way tackling is taught.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, is a degenerative disease in the brain caused by repeated head trauma, and recent studies have found it to be common among football players.
In January, Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski took his own life, and he was found to have suffered from CTE.
Hilinski’s death was a wakeup call for West Salem senior quarterback/defensive back Simon Thompson, who has multiple college football offers.
“The young man at Washington State, very tragic, very young. It scares people, it scares parents,” Thompson said.
“After I read the article about (Hilinski), I definitely talked to my mom about it, and we had a conversation," he said. "I think it’s a good thing to talk about and realize it’s there. I feel like if I play with worries, then I’m going to play soft. I just have to play aggressive.”
Thompson stuck with football, but so many other athletes have not. There were about 2,500 fewer high school football players in the state of Oregon in 2017 than in 2008.
Former South Salem baseball standout Aaron Zavala played football growing up in Keizer, but with injury concerns, he decided not to pursue it in high school.
“I considered playing (football) later on in my high school career,” said Zavala, who received a preferred walk-on offer from Oregon and is a freshman catcher for the Ducks.
“But the injury thing was part of it because I knew I would be able to play (college baseball) somewhere, and risking injury and having that opportunity go away wasn’t something that was worth it to me.”
Specialization and prioritization
Another major factor for football's declining participation is sport specialization.
Competition for scholarship offers, particularly at the NCAA Division I level, is fierce and there is much more national attention given to the recruiting process than there was 10-20 years ago.
So more athletes focus solely on their best sport year-round, rather than competing in multiple sports for their high school.
“Even at our high school, there are. three or four kids that don’t play football, maybe more than that, and I’m begging them to come out," Central football coach Shane Hedrick said. "But their summer program in baseball takes them through fall ball, and then maybe basketball picks up, and it just doesn’t happen.”
Sprague junior Santos Cantu III, a two-time state wrestling champion, started playing football in fourth grade and stayed with it through his freshman year with the Olympians.
Then Santos opted to specialize in one sport.
“I felt like wrestling was what I wanted to do in the future and go to college and wrestle, and hopefully after college as well,” Cantu III said. “My main thing was making wrestling a little more of a priority and putting all my time and effort into getting better.”
Benefits to playing multiple sports
It’s a tough decision for families, whether to specialize or not. Athletes who specialize often compete on off-season club or traveling teams for their chosen sport.
Gragg said there are a number of benefits to playing multiple sports, even if you are pursuing a college career in a primary sport.
“It’s good to stretch an athlete that might not be very good at golf to actually maybe play golf, because it’s going to stretch you and make you better in your primary sport,” Gragg said. “When I have the opportunity to share those things, I talk about the importance of playing multiple sports.
Sprague football coach Jay Minyard said the idea that high school athletes must specialize in one sport in order to get a big-time college scholarship is a myth.
“Parents get sucked into the specialization thing at a young age because there’s all these different agencies out there,' Minyard said. "Some of the big-time college football coaches will tell you that they look for multiple-sport athletes.”
Bill Swancutt, who was an all-state player in football and basketball for Sprague before competing at defensive end for the Oregon State football team, said playing multiple sports helped him develop skills for football.
“Playing basketball helped me with my footwork and hand-eye coordination,” said Swancutt, who was the Pac-10 co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 for the Beavers.
“Being a competitor, you’re gonna have your best sport, but if you’re not as good at other sports, I think it makes you even more of a competitive person because you have to work harder."
Football's not for everyone
McNary football coach Jeff Auvinen thinks there's a generation component to high school football participation.
"I feel old school sometimes, but I don't know if the typical athletes are as physically and mentally tough as previous generations," Auvinen said.
North Salem football coach Jeff Flood shared a similar sentiment.
"Football, in particular, is a sport that takes a passion," Flood said. "You can't just go out there and get hit by people and not have a drive to want to do that. It's not an easy thing to do and sometimes kids shy away from things that are a little more difficult for 'em."
And today's high school students have more options competing for their time than past generations, with social media and video games at their fingertips.
Playing football is a major commitment.
"It's no secret that it's a tougher sport, and I think kids aren't pushed as much to challenge themselves and do tough things," said Sprague senior Landon Davis, a two-sport standout in football and wrestling.
Davis isn't overly concerned about the declining numbers for football.
"It almost helps us because even though there are fewer kids, the kids that are here want to be here," Davis said.
Schools prioritizing safety
Addressing safety and competitiveness are two ways schools are trying to boost participation.
When players for Salem-Keizer schools are suspected of having a concussion, they must follow a six-step policy before being allowed to play again, with a minimum of 24 hours between steps.
First, the student-athlete cannot take part in any activity until he or she “is self-reported to be symptom-free,” “has returned to school full time,” and “returned to a normal (Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing) score.”
After the athlete is cleared to take part in activities, he or she will only do non-contact light exercising before engaging in sport-specific activities without equipment. Once cleared, the athlete can participate in non-contact training with full equipment, followed by full-contact practice, and then returning to play.
“We are significantly more conservative now,” said Amy West, who has been an athletic trainer at Sprague since 1996. “We know tremendously more now, and the more we know, the better we do. By today’s standards, we did not do a good job of taking care of concussions.”
West said it’s difficult to know if there are more head injuries now compared to the mid-1990s because the definition of a concussion has changed.
“For instance, loss of consciousness has nothing to do with whether or not a person has a concussion now,” West said. “And that was one of the big driving forces 20 years ago.”
In addressing concussion concerns, one of the biggest changes for coaches is how they teach tackling.
Today, many coaches have gone away from the old ways of tackling where the defender’s head was exposed during the collision with the ball carrier.
Now, there’s a new style.
“All it is, is rugby tackling. And if you watch rugby teams, they’re some of the best tacklers,” Sprague football coach Minyard said. “Keeping the head out of the game, focusing on the back hip, not putting the head across the body like we were taught.
"And now that we’re all starting to tackle like that, I feel like kids are more comfortable tackling,” he said.
While some resist the idea that football needed some changes to improve safety, West Salem football coach Shawn Stanley said it was a necessary step.
“Some of the stuff that has come out of the concussion awareness is good for the game, it’s good for kids,” Stanley said. “For a while, there were some guys, the old-school guys, who were digging in their heels, saying, ‘You can’t change football, it is what it is.’ Those guys are just ignorant. We should change if there’s a way to make it safer.”
No matter how many rule changes are made, there always will be risks involved in football, as well as other sports and activities.
McNary athletic director Scott Gragg, who played 11 seasons in the NFL with the New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers and New York Jets, said it’s important to remember there are benefits to playing football that go along with the risks.
"What I tell parents is that you have to weigh those inherent risks with the added benefits for the student-athlete,” Gragg said. “Participating in something that requires them to be accountable, requires them to set goals, requires them to work well with others — things that are so important.”
During his NFL career, which spanned from 1995 to 2005, Gragg started all 16 games in a season eight times. In all, he played in 172 games, including 149 starts.
“I pride myself in being able to play 112 consecutive starts in the NFL, and I walked away from the game with virtually no injuries and no disabilities,” said Gragg, who played high school football at Silverton and college football at Montana.
“I’m able to jog three days a week and feel very fortunate,' he said. "I suffered one concussion in college, no concussions in the pros.”
To address the drop in football participation, the OSAA put in place a new rule this school year, allowing schools to play down a classification if they met certain criteria.
To play down, a team must have a winning percentage of 22 percent or lower over the past four years, or a 22 percent winning percentage or lower over the past two years, or played 12 or fewer in-classification games during the past four years.
“The No. 1 issue is the number of kids that are not playing football today that played 10, 15, 20, 25 years ago, and that’s across the nation,” said Hedrick, who was on the OSAA’s Football Ad Hoc Committee that made the recommendation.
“The goal is to get them to a position to compete, and then when you compete and have some success, then more kids come out.”
McKay is the only Mid-Valley team that opted for the reclassification.
The Royal Scots are playing at the Class 5A level in football, but 6A in all other sports. Five other 6A schools across the state —- Wilson, Benson, Cleveland, Forest Grove and South Eugene — also are competing in 5A football.
A member of the Mid-Willamette Conference for football, McKay has an enrollment of 2,476, about 600 more students than any other school in the conference.
But a majority of the potential football players arrive at McKay with limited experience. Only three players on this year's team played on the varsity in 2017.
That trend figures to change in the coming years due to increased participation at the youth levels.
"This year we've added two teams at every level," third-year McKay football coach Josh Riddell said
With increasing youth-level participation, which could translate to more experienced players entering high school, Riddell envisions a brighter future for McKay football.
"I wanna win. I'm competitive," said Riddell, who has a 3-18 overall record at McKay. "But for me, it's are we bettering these kids? Are you giving them a good experience to learn how to become men because that's really what football's about?"
And it's those life lessons that football teaches, like the importance of teamwork, sportsmanship, dedication and perseverance, that could sustain the sport even as participation declines.
"I love the game of football. It taught me so much about life," Gragg said. "The sport has given me so much. I would hate to see it die on the vine and become extinct."
ghorowitz@StatesmanJournal.com or Twitter.com/ghorowitz or 503.399.6726
pmartini@StatesmanJournal.com or Twitter.com/pmartini or 503.399.6730