Rural Communities Struggle to Adapt to Life Without Football

Declining participation has led some high schools to cancel their football seasons, and players aren't the only ones feeling the loss.

An empty football field at night.
Darrin Kilmeck / Getty

Last fall was supposed to be the capstone of Braden Morris’s high-school football career. The previous year, his tiny southern Illinois school, Bunker Hill High School, which has fewer than 200 students, joined forces with a neighboring school so they’d have enough players to field a varsity team. As the starting quarterback, Morris led the combined 38-player team to a playoff berth. But heading into his senior year, he was one of only 24 boys who had signed up to play—far fewer than the 35 to 40 players that Brian Borkowski, the team’s coach, considers ideal for a school that size. Then, in the first game of the season, Morris broke his wrist, and his younger brother, Evan, the starting tailback, dislocated his hip. “They were out for the season, and that kind of started the train of injuries rolling,” Borkowski says.

By the fourth week, the team was left with just 17 players, most of whom were freshmen and sophomores. That Friday night, the game was called off during the third quarter for safety reasons—by then, the team was losing 68–0. The next week, Borkowski broke the news to his players: Their season was over.

“It was tough,” Braden Morris told me. “Part of me didn’t want to accept that this was the way I would go out.” The cancellation packed a triple punch in his household—Braden and Evan’s stepbrother, Garrett, was the team’s starting center and defensive tackle.

Similar situations played out around the country last fall as a shortage of players led teams to cancel their seasons. There are no official data on season cancellations, but Kent Johnson, a former high-school-football coach who monitors local media coverage, told me he’s aware of 61 teams that did so in 2018—nearly double the number he counted from the year before. Twenty-one of those teams made the decision midway through the season. While the cancellations happened from California to New Jersey, Johnson’s data show that about half the schools that called off their season this year were in rural areas, where the loss of football doesn’t just affect players and families, but ripples throughout the whole community.

When their season was shut down, Braden and his brothers had little to do after class other than their daily chores. A teammate, Trent Bertelsmann, was able to pick up more hours at his job making pizzas in a neighboring town, but as his mother, Lisa, told me, relatively few local businesses offer teens after-school jobs. “It’s a very small rural community—there’s not much here for the kids to do,” she said.

Indeed, Bunker Hill doesn’t have a lot of other extracurricular activities or weekend events: Football was the only boys’ sport offered at the high school last fall, and the closest movie theater is about 15 miles away. Adults also felt the sting after football went away; they “were bummed because that’s what they did on Friday nights,” Evan Morris told me.

It’s no big shocker that fewer boys are playing football: According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS)—the main governing body for high-school sports—participation peaked at 1.1 million players in the 2008–09 school year, and has since declined by 75,000. That dip might be linked to the growing awareness of the long-term risks of playing football. It’s not just the pros who have to worry: Starting to play tackle football at an early age puts kids at a heightened risk of cognitive and behavioral problems.

A major driver behind last season’s cancellations is that having fewer football players on a team causes a pernicious cycle in which the remaining players are at greater risk of getting hurt. “We had freshmen on the line in positions they never should have been in,” says Bryan Heflin, Garrett’s father and Braden and Evan’s stepfather. That led to injuries among not only the younger players, but also the more experienced ones, such as those in Heflin’s household, because being on a small team translates to more time spent on the field. Recent research has found that from 2005 to 2017, high-school players on smaller teams were injured at twice the rate of players on larger teams.

At some point, without enough players, it’s just not feasible—or safe—to field a team. “The risk is there, no doubt,” Bob Colgate, the director of sports and sports medicine at the NFHS, told me. “At what point does that number get too low to field a team?” Colgate said the group is looking into the issue, though any decisions about minimum roster levels would have to be made by state associations.

Last summer, fewer than 10 players showed up to preseason practice at Trimble County High School, in Bedford, Kentucky, about 45 miles northeast of Louisville. “We were counting on all these players, and it just didn’t happen,” says Will Kunselman, a senior who played multiple positions on offense and defense. Even a social-media push that prompted several more kids to sign up wasn’t enough: The school held to its decision to cancel the season.

To keep playing football, five of Kunselman’s teammates made the tough choice to transfer to a rival high school. That includes Logan Rodgers, a defensive tackle, who now spends an extra hour getting to and from school in the neighboring county. “I’ve been going to Trimble County [schools] ever since I was in preschool,” Rodgers told me, “so growing up with everybody there and then leaving my senior year was kind of rough.”

As in Bunker Hill, the loss of high-school football in Bedford was keenly felt. It was “something for the community to rally around,” Brigette Kunselman, Will’s mom, told me. “Win or lose, you go.” She missed the cheerleaders and the band, she said, as well as “the opportunity to see and be seen, to catch up with your neighbors.”

That sentiment is echoed by Bedford’s former mayor, Todd Pollock, whose two sons played on the Trimble County High School football team. Home games usually draw “a heck of a crowd,” he told me. It wasn’t just the camaraderie that was lost; Pollock points out that home games brought fans from neighboring communities, who then spent money at local businesses.

For the schools, too, the loss of games came at a cost, given that ticket sales can help fund athletics and other school programs. In Bunker Hill, for example, a typical home game would bring in $1,500 for the school, the principal, Matthew Smith, told me, with concession sales netting an additional $1,500.

Homecoming football games can be a focal point each fall for students and alumni, and after season cancellations, some schools scrambled to make alternative plans. Clarenceville High School, in Livonia, Michigan, had its soccer team play that night instead. Bunker Hill also still managed to hold a homecoming—a game of flag football played by the school’s female students. Braden Morris sang the national anthem beforehand and helped his younger sister prepare for her role as freshman quarterback.

Of course, despite the spate of season cancellations, high-school football isn’t on the verge of a death spiral: More than 14,000 schools fielded teams in 2017, with more high-school boys playing football than any other sport by a substantial margin.

However, Tom Farrey, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, told me that small, rural schools will continue to be more vulnerable to cancellations unless they embrace different models of football. One option, he said, is flag football, which surpassed tackle football in popularity among 6-to-12-year-olds for the first time in 2017. As these players enter high school, this could help set the stage for a corresponding shift to flag football.

A major hurdle to change is that “people are just stuck on the traditional idea of what football is,” Farrey said. But for small schools, adopting alternative models might help them avoid having to eliminate the sport altogether, preserving the role that it serves as a community gathering point. As noted in the Aspen Institute’s recent white paper on the future of youth football, which Farrey co-wrote, the games “are seen by many as a useful and even essential venue for students and adults to come together for a shared purpose, especially in small towns.”

Neither Bedford nor Bunker Hill has announced whether high-school football will return next year, which leaves players and adults alike pondering the future. “What can we do to fill the void?” Pollock asked. “That’s the $64,000 question.”

Next year, Braden Morris’s brothers have the option of transferring to another school if football doesn’t come back to Bunker Hill. But for Braden, the loss of his senior season still hurts. “You want to play, to get in front of the entire town and run into the end zone and hear everybody scream for you,” he told me not long after his season was canceled. “I wish I could still hear that.”