Eden Prairie High School is the epitome of a football dynasty, winning the past three big-school state titles and a record nine championships, all since 1996.
But troubling signs within the program — numbers are down from high school to youth levels — indicate that no program is immune from the problems that currently plague football.
Eden Prairie opened its season with a 48-6 victory over Minneapolis South on Wednesday, but there are other numbers that tell of an ominous future for Minnesota’s premier football program. Mike Grant, the school’s iconic coach, said there are 10 percent fewer players this year on his varsity team. And there appears no return to normal anytime soon.
Coach Scott Hugdahl said that this year’s sixth-graders — who as third-graders had enough football players for eight teams — now have only enough for four. Rustin Ekness, president of Eden Prairie’s youth football association, declined to provide specific numbers but said the main feeder program for Grant’s high school teams was down at least 8 percent this year.
In many ways, Eden Prairie can be viewed as a microcosm of the sport’s problems. High school football faces competition from other sports, such as soccer and lacrosse, and also the growing trend of elite athletes to focus on a single sport. And concussion fears have dampened the enthusiasm of many parents.
“The whole concussion thing has just put a scare in people,” Grant said.
In addition, Eden Prairie’s football program is facing the challenge of changing demographics that in recent years has reduced football numbers for Minneapolis City Conference schools dramatically. Eden Prairie, with a large immigrant population, has seen the percentage of minority students in the district increase from 30 percent in 2011 to nearly 37 percent this year.
On an overcast Wednesday evening, as another football season in Eden Prairie began, there were feelings of concern along the sidelines of the city’s youth football program.
Joe Rorke watched his sixth-grade son at practice and later acknowledged that the family has talked about soccer as an alternative. He said his wife, Linda, remains “a little nervous” about football. And even Rorke, who still marvels at getting knocked unconscious himself as a teenager and then playing in the next game, is in a different mood these days.
“You’re nervous anytime you see a kid on a football field,” he said.
Another father, standing next to Rorke, said he would only allow his son to play this year provided he no longer carried the ball. The reason: His son was taking too many hits. His son, wearing bright yellow shoes, instead lined up at safety.
“I’m not the typical parent,” the father said. “I may be overprotective, but life’s too short.”
Ekness, meanwhile, had his players go through a series of drills in helmets and shoulder pads as daylight faded to twilight.
“What we don’t want to see is a lot of press about how [football’s] dangerous, and all that type of stuff,” he said as his players were reminded to keep their head up to prevent injury. “That drill there, [we] never did that drill growing up” as kids.
The reasons behind the drop in football numbers in Eden Prairie are complicated — this fall, Eden Prairie youth soccer and lacrosse are also experiencing flat or declining participation numbers. The school district’s shrinking student population is seen as a factor, as is the suburb’s relatively large minority population.
Grant, the son of Hall of Fame Vikings coach Bud Grant, has 84 varsity players — but the years of having 120 players on the sideline are gone, he said — and only 60 freshmen.
“We’ve been as high as 100” freshmen in years past, he added.
The Eagles roster is evidence of Eden Prairie’s changing demographics: Seven of the 84 varsity players are Somali, Grant said.
But Grant is quick to add that the immediate outlook is not exactly bleak.
“Every kid that we were counting on — everybody’s here,” he said. “No one’s feeling sorry for us.”
It is difficult to tell whether the downturn in Eden Prairie and elsewhere is permanent. The National Federation of State High School Associations last week said that high school participation in sports had in fact increased for the 25th consecutive year, and was in part fueled by the first increase in boys playing football in five years. The group’s executive director quickly lauded the health precautions now in place, particularly for football, and added that “the risk of injury is as low as it ever has been.”
Fighting for talent
For obvious reasons, Grant is a key player in Eden Prairie’s youth football program. He is an adviser and, Sunday he will headline the 12th annual fundraiser for football at the nearby Bearpath Golf and Country Club.
“Come and join your grade’s table to hear Mike Grant talk about Eden Prairie varsity football,” a promotion for the event stated.
Meanwhile, there are 1,600 school-age children playing soccer this fall in Eden Prairie, and another 400 playing lacrosse.
But though soccer registrations have likewise dipped in the suburb, the sport more fully has reflected the city’s growing diversity. Mayank Amin, who is coaching 6-year-olds this year, said last year’s team of roughly a dozen players included at least eight minorities. Amin, whose parents are from India, said his own son, Nikhil, is also playing soccer.
“I had the interest to play football, but never did,” Amin said. “There were so many kids probably bigger than me. [I] started playing soccer. I think my parents had a lot of influence.”
The Eden Prairie Soccer Association, which offers noncompetitive soccer and is one of two youth leagues in the city, said that despite the influx of minorities, its registrations have fallen. In 2009, nearly 3,000 school-age children played spring and fall soccer in the city. This year’s total will fall short of 2,400.
Many soccer officials in Eden Prairie blame the increased popularity of lacrosse. “I see people playing [lacrosse] out in the fields all the time when I drop my kids off at soccer,” said Uptal Shah, an Eden Prairie youth soccer coach from India.
But an official with the Eden Prairie Lacrosse Association said that while its registrations have increased, the jump has not been significant. And Hugdahl, the youth football coach who is also the treasurer of the youth lacrosse association, said it is largely a myth that lacrosse is causing boys to quit playing football. Hugdahl said that while more Eden Prairie football players are playing lacrosse, they in fact are playing both sports: Lacrosse in the spring and football in the fall.
“I don’t know where they are going,” Hugdahl said of the decrease in football players in Eden Prairie. “I don’t know what they’re doing.”
For now, Eric Lembke is worrying about his youth football team in Eden Prairie.
“We’ll work on exploding from our hips,” Lembke said at one practice to his young players, who crouched into a football stance. “I want you launching up — straight.”
As his players took a break, Lembke took a moment to peer into the future. Though concussions are a problem for every contact sport, he said, “football’s more of the poster child for it.” And though there are some bright spots — fifth-grade youth registrations are holding steady, he said — football in Eden Prairie now has to work harder to find players.
“Everyone’s fighting for the same kids,” he said.