For the first time at Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School, goals — not touchdowns — were the homecoming focus.
On Friday night at the school, hundreds of parents, students and faculty members gathered amid blue and white balloons blowing in the wind, hamburgers grilling, and an R&B high school band playing classic oldies. But unlike past homecoming celebrations, a volleyball game entertained the crowd, and the highlight of the evening was a soccer game, not football, as the school’s Blue Devils took on the Lift for Life Academy squad.
“I actually think it’s fantastic,” said Nelson Mitten, the School Board president. “I think the students have really embraced the concept of soccer becoming the focus of homecoming.”
After two consecutive years of low student interest, the School Board cut the football program at the high school earlier this year. Fewer than a dozen players had signed up for the fall 2015 season. The Missouri State High School Activities Association recommends a minimum of 23 players on the roster.
Around the country the number of male high school football players has fallen to about 1.08 million players, a significant number but a slight decrease from previous years, the National Federation of State High School Associations says.
Maplewood-Richmond Heights High isn’t the only educational institution to scrap its football program. Ridgefield Memorial High School in New Jersey also cut its varsity football program this year because of a lack of student interest.
There have also been concerns about safety. Last year, five high school athletes died from football-related injuries, National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research says. This year, at least three have died.
Experts say high school players may be at more risk of death than even college or professional football players because still-developing teenage brains are more susceptible to injury, a lack of quality equipment, or inconsistent safety standards.
But parents and school officials say the primary reason Maplewood-Richmond Heights no longer has a football team is that students simply don’t have a love for the game.
“We’re always trying to meet the needs and interests of our kids,” said Brian Adkisson, the district’s communications director. Adkisson said that the school had added about a dozen new clubs over the last five years and that an interest in soccer and cross country had overtaken the allure of football.
The extracurricular activities at the school, Adkisson said, are “much more broad and inclusive so a lot more students are involved.”
But, Adkisson emphasized, “it’s still homecoming.”
Tracy Shatto, 49, a parent of a freshman at the school, said her daughter and many other children who eventually attend Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School are raised playing soccer, basketball and other inexpensive sports that are supervised by parents.
“The only reason we don’t have interest is the kids didn’t grow up playing it,” Shatto said, referring to football.
Mitten, however, has said that the board will continue to monitor student interest in football and leave open the possibility of rebuilding the program.
The high school’s football squad went 4-16 the last two years. But between 2007 and 2011, the Blue Devils went 59-9, won four district championships, made three Class 2 state semifinal appearances and were the 2010 state runner-up.
Dawson Cordia, 17, a junior at the school who plays for the varsity soccer team, says that doing away with the football team was a hard adjustment, especially for the parents.
“It kinda hit the community really hard at the beginning,” Cordia said.
But now most are rallying around soccer, Cordia said.
“This is the first time we’ve had such a good team.”