By Joe Scalzo
In 1987, when Boardman High School was in the midst of its greatest football season ever and its most famous graduate was on his way to becoming a franchise savior/folk hero/wacky uncle with the Cleveland Browns, a seventh-grader named Joe Ignazio would put on his maroon-and-white jersey and spend Friday nights at a stadium built when the outcome of World War II was still in doubt.
Back then, playing football was like breathing, something you did without even thinking, something essential.
Twenty-six years later, that same kid found himself calling dozens of Boardman sophomores, asking the same question facing coaches all over the Mahoning Valley:
“Why aren’t you playing football?”
“I don’t know what the heck is going on,” said Ignazio, a longtime assistant who was hired as the team’s head coach in the offseason. “I talked to the kids, I talked to some parents, I even had some guys on my staff call.
“Last year we finished with about 45 kids and I thought with me being young and being a Boardman guy and the kids being familiar with me, I’d get more out.”
He didn’t. Two years after winning a share of the Federal League and making the Division I playoffs, the second-biggest school in Mahoning County — a school with two graduates in the NFL and two more on Ohio State’s roster — is down to just 41 varsity football players.
The situation is so bad, Boardman canceled its junior varsity season this week due to a lack of players.
“We’re baffled by it,” Ignazio said. “It’s probably the toughest thing I have to deal with right now.”
He’s not the only one.
In 2011, more than 1.1 million boys played high school football — more than the next two most popular sports (outdoor track and basketball) combined. It was the 13th straight year that’s happened, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
But while athletic participation in all sports has increased for the past 23 years, cracks are starting to show in America’s most popular sport. According to the NFHS, Ohio lost 16 percent of its football players from 2007-11. Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota all saw their football numbers drop for four straight years.
Some of this is cyclical — national football participation actually peaked in 1976-77, plunged in the late 1980s and early 1990s and started rising again in the late 1990s — and some of it is due to the Midwest’s population loss, a big problem in Youngstown, which has lost 60 percent of its residents since 1960.
But some of the problems run deeper.
In 2007, Boardman was coming off a four-year stretch in which it went 5-35, yet the Spartans had 69 players on their varsity roster that season. Two of those players, sophomores Corey Linsley and J.T. Moore, would go on to earn scholarships at Ohio State.
By contrast, over the last four years, Boardman has gone 24-18 and made the Division I playoffs twice. But the Spartans lost 30 of the 39 players from last year’s freshman team, including 12 that were academically ineligible.
“The nine kids we have left are phenomenal — they’re all going to play,” said Ignazio, a 1993 Boardman graduate. “But you’d think when you’re at a high school with 550-some kids, you could get numbers out.
“I guess it’s harder to sell a kid on football than it used to be.”
Canfield coach Mike Pavlansky, who has led Mahoning County’s third-biggest school since 2001, can sympathize. He has 56 varsity players, down 10-15 from the mid-2000s when the Cardinals routinely made the playoffs and even made a run to the Division II state final.
“That’s a big deal — you’re losing maybe 20 percent of your roster,” he said. “You talk to anybody, whether they’re Division I or Division VII, when you lose people, it hurts.”
Poland, which has made the Division III playoffs in six of the last eight seasons, has just over 50 varsity players, “which is a little down,” Bulldogs coach Mark Brungard said.
South Range, which made the Division V playoffs an astonishing 12 times from 1996-2010, is down to 54 players, 12 fewer than a decade ago.
Lakeview, which hasn’t had a losing season since 2002, is down to 38 varsity players — about five below average under longtime coach Tom Pavlansky.
Columbiana coach Bob Spaite, who hasn’t had a losing record since 1996, had a career-worst 43 varsity players last season. (It’s up to 48 this year.) The Clippers’ junior high program has just 26 players — an all-time low.
These are not struggling programs with constant coaching turnover. These are some of the area’s best teams, yet they’re still losing kids.
Which begs the question: Why?
Reasons for the drop
There are countless reasons why a kid might not play football — he has to work, it costs too much, he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, etc. — but the coaches interviewed for this story mentioned four more than any others:
The era of the three-sport athlete isn’t quite over — particularly at smaller schools — but players feel increasing pressure to focus on one sport.
“There is more intense, year-round training,” said Brungard, a 1991 Springfield High graduate who quarterbacked Youngstown State to two national titles. “Kids think they need to specialize to get a scholarship and that saddens me because it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Poland’s three best football players during Brungard’s tenure — Luke Wollet, Darius Patton and Colin Reardon — all played three sports. All three earned Division I football scholarships.
Boardman graduate Steve Vallos (a seven-year NFL veteran now with the Broncos) was a state runner-up in wrestling and track and former teammate John Greco (now a starting guard with the Browns) lettered one season in basketball.
Mike Pavlansky’s best athlete at Canfield, Sean Baker, was a three-year letterman in both football and basketball and lettered one year in baseball. He earned a scholarship to Ball State and is now in camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“We think a multi-sport kid is a more well-rounded person,” Mike Pavlansky said. “Sometimes colleges will come through and if they notice a kid is only playing one sport, they’ll ask, ‘Why not another sport?’”
While specialization may indeed lead to a scholarship, no less an authority than Dr. James Andrews said focusing on one sport leads to more injuries, telling the Cleveland Plain Dealer earlier this year he started seeing a sharp increase in youth sports injuries beginning around 2000.
“I think if you could make any generalized comment it would be young men now do not grow up JUST PLAYING sports,” Spaite said via email. “We have over-organized to death our young men’s (and women’s) playing time.
“And I know this is a fact — we have FAR too many factories that force kids to play a sport ALL YEAR.”
Fifty years ago, there were four main sports for high schoolers: football, basketball, baseball and track. Now, in the fall alone, players can choose to play football, soccer, cross country and golf. They also can play fall baseball, join the marching band or get their football fix in front of the TV.
“Maybe more kids are just sitting at home playing Playstation,” Brungard said. “I hope not, but maybe that’s it.”
Here’s a famous (or infamous) Maurice Clarett story. Just before his freshman year, Clarett’s father, Myke, took him to his alma mater, Cardinal Mooney to meet with legendary coach Don Bucci. After vowing to break all of Ted Bell’s rushing records — the Valley equivalent of saying you’re going to out-write Shakespeare — Clarett insisted he play varsity as a freshman. Bucci explained that no one — not even Bell — played on the varsity as a freshman. Clarett opted to attend Fitch instead, where he set the school’s single-game rushing record in Week 3, then suffered a season-ending injury in Week 4.
That attitude — “If I’m not playing, I’m not staying” — has only gotten worse.
“We’re losing the kids on the fringe that may be asked to persevere for a year or two and maybe play [varsity] their senior year,” Brungard said. “We are an instant gratification society. We want it now and fast and we’re getting fewer kids that get to their senior year because they’ve thrown in the towel before then.”
It’s not just the kids. Ignazio said parents are often more interested in being friends than parents.
“Parents are letting 14-year-old kids decide what to do. At 14, I would have decided not to do anything either,” Ignazio said. “The bottom line is, a lot of them [kids] don’t have the drive. It’s hard to say that, but the game is still the game. It teaches values. It’s tough.
“I don’t know if kids buy into that anymore.”
Turns out, playing football isn’t great for your health. (See Kosar, Bernie.)
“I believe all those reasons ... may be the reason why some kids do not participate,” said Tom Pavlansky. “But I also believe they are also the reason why kids don’t do more things other than football as well.”
one in, One out
LaBrae senior Peyton Aldridge is generally considered to be the best basketball player from the Mahoning Valley since Desmar Jackson graduated from Warren Harding in 2009.
He’s also a pretty good quarterback, breaking into the Vikings’ starting lineup midway through his freshman year. But with more than a dozen Division I scholarship offers in basketball, Aldridge realized football’s risks finally outweighed its rewards.
So, like the rest of his teammates on his AAU basketball team, Team Work, he decided to spend this fall watching football instead of playing.
“It was a difficult decision — I love playing football and I enjoyed being with my teammates — but I decided I wanted to focus on basketball,” Aldridge said. “I was concerned about getting injured and I wanted to get bigger and stronger for the next level of basketball.”
Poland senior George Chammas made the opposite choice. He quit playing football after eighth grade and focused on basketball his first three years, then decided to play this fall. His biggest recruiter? Senior quarterback Jake Wolfe, another Bulldog whose best sport is basketball.
“I just didn’t want to live to regret it,” said Chammas, who has already drawn raves from Brungard. “I think it’s good when a school can share athletes. It helps out both squads and it’s a good experience for the kid. If you can play multiple sports, do it.”
Not every school is dealing with poor numbers — Division V Ursuline, for example, has 33 freshmen and 27 sophomores, its most in at least a decade — and it may be too early to tell if football’s vanishing act is just a trend, or a sign of a deeper problem.
Regardless, Mike Pavlansky said the worst thing coaches can do is overreact, because there’s one thing worse than a player who isn’t on the team:
A player who doesn’t want to be.
“At Canfield, we always think being part of a group is better than not being part of a group,” Pavlansky said. “But no matter what sport it is, it’s a grind.
“If you don’t have the desire to be there, that season just became that much longer.”