About five or six years ago, Bryan Gray started to see the changes.
Whereas his earlier East Hall High football teams fielded more than 80 players, the Vikings’ roster was quickly dwindling. Fewer students were coming out for football, while more and more were calling it quits before graduating.
“Every year, a couple kids disappear from sophomore to junior years,” Gray said. “You could maybe have a senior competing for a position but not really entrenched there, and a lot of times they hang it up. As coaches, we make every effort to retain kids as much as we can.”
Even so, it has been an uphill battle for Gray and his Hall County colleagues.
The nine county football teams have seen a significant drop in roster sizes over the past decade, despite the area’s growth and several schools climbing classifications. In 2007, Hall County squads featured an average of 68.4 players, a figure that has dropped to 56.9 this season.
“My best guess would be even more than that,” Gray said of the drop-off in participation. “ … I’d say that’s accurate, if not an even larger number, even with schools here all having several hundred more kids than they did back then.”
Five clubs have weathered double-digit decreases in player totals over the last 10 years, while only two teams — Lakeview Academy and West Hall High — have experienced growth over that span of time.
The Lions, however, were just beginning their second year having a football program in 2007 and currently field just two more players than they did that season.
West Hall, which coach Tony Lotti said had only 23 football players when he took over in 2012, is the only Hall County team to see its roster swell amid the recent widespread reduction of high school football players in Northeast Georgia.
“We’ve been able to get kids out and work on the program, starting with the youth and middle school and simply talking to kids in the hallway,” Lotti said. “You have to constantly work your own hallways to get kids out. You’ve got to recruit your own kids.”
That’s one way coaches are combating this trend, which they largely pinned on a culture of “instant gratification” they see in the younger generation.
Local coaches also pointed to kids specializing in a single sport at the youth level, a practice they strongly discourage for high school athletes.
But for all the concerns that concussions and studies linking football to brain disease have produced in the NFL, the issue may not be as pronounced at the prep level. Gray, Lotti and Gainesville High coach Bruce Miller all said they don’t think head injuries are directly correlated to the decrease in roster numbers.
“Some of the influence is from concussions, but I don’t think it’s a major cause,” Miller said. “ … Everybody is reactionary right now, even though the equipment is better and the rules become safer every year.”
Miller said this season — the Red Elephants’ second as a Class 6A team — is the first time he has noticed a decline in his own roster numbers.
He agrees with other coaches in asserting the main reason for fewer players participating in football is what they perceive as a lack of commitment to the year-round work the sport requires for excellence.
“Just being honest, a lot of kids are not willing to work hard enough to be as good as they need to be in football,” Miller said. “We live in a ‘microwave’ generation — we want to put it in for 30 seconds and have it be good. Football is kind of a crockpot sport; you put it in and let it simmer and get better.
“You’ve got to be in the weight room, in the classroom and doing things. A lot of kids don’t want to wait on things anymore and are looking for other sports where that can happen and they can be an instant success.”
Gray, though, identified at least one silver lining in fielding a smaller team. He said East Hall’s total of 58 players is just about the optimal number for giving every kid some playing time from ninth grade to junior varsity to Friday nights.
Though coaches aren’t convinced decreasing roster sizes portend the demise of football in the near future, it’s not a trend they’re particularly fond of.
“As a person that played football for about 17 or 18 years, I can say the benefits of playing football and being on a team set you up for the future long after your finish playing,” Gray said. “I wish everybody had 200 kids because they’d benefit greatly.”