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.
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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.