The state’s dominant program has seen a drop in youth participation that might not recover.
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.