John Griffin held the shiny dark blue helmet high into the air so that all the parents sitting in the bleachers could see. "We're giving them the very best helmet," Griffin said, squinting into the evening sun. "Can you get hurt? Sure."
With that, the tryouts began. Scores of young boys did push-ups and ran sprints, and another year of youth football in Woodbury had begun. "Dude, after this season, you're going to see my helmet all cracked up," said one boy, inspecting his new helmet.
But this is an uneasy summer in Minnesota, and elsewhere. Football concussions are now a major story line, even in youth leagues, and administrators like Griffin are worried that the headlines surrounding the NFL over lawsuits, debilitating head injuries and even suicides are making parents reluctant to sign up their sons for football.
The ripples have been felt in communities such as Eagan, Osseo-Maple Grove and even Eden Prairie, where youth football was expecting another spike upward after the high school last year won its seventh state championship since 1996. Instead Jay Hansen, the youth football president, estimates a 20 percent drop in signups for the 800-player association -- and believes that parents scared off by concussion worries are playing a part. That has come despite the association replacing 650 helmets two years ago and now having emergency medical technicians on the sidelines at games.
"We didn't anticipate the concussion hype," said Hansen, who said he believes the concerns, while legitimate, are "overblown." Even more worrisome, he added, is that the program's entry-level teams -- focused on third-graders, and meant to give players and parents a first taste of the sport -- have had some of the largest drop-offs.
Even if other factors are in play, administrators agree the concussion concerns are not helping. In Eagan, the $80,000-a-year youth football program had 523 participants in 2010, 497 players a year ago and will have 450 players this fall. "[In] third grade, we're seeing it the most," Ken LaChance, the president of the Eagan Athletic Association, said of the falling participation.
The statistics are similar nationally. Overall football participation for all age groups decreased from 10.1 million in 2006 to 9 million in 2011, according to the National Sporting Goods Association.
The number of high school boys playing 11-man football decreased slightly in both 2009-10 and 2010-11 after 16 consecutive years of growth, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
After finishing a talk to youth football parents in Woodbury on the sports injury services offered by Summit Orthopedics, Karie Ayers switched to what was going on in her home. Her 11-year-old son, Peyton -- named after NFL star quarterback Peyton Manning -- is not playing football this year after having a concussion a year ago. "Hard hit, helmet hit the ground. He definitely was not himself for a couple of weeks," said Ayers, who said the mild concussion produced "lots of headaches."
"He says that he's not afraid [to play], but there's a piece of me that wonders," added Ayers, referral and outreach specialist at Summit.
This year's youth football signups in Woodbury took on an almost carnival atmosphere, with officials from the Riddell football helmet maker, Summit Orthopedics and Minnesota Orthodontics offering parents everything from free mouthpieces to directions to a new clinic for bone and joint injury care. The mouthpiece, explained Gwen Veldhuis of Minnesota Orthodontics, "cushions the blow. You still might get a concussion, but it'll be more slight."
Standing next to a small table, Tom Menke tried to interest parents in a padded cover that fits over a helmet and costs $69.95. He had three helmets on the table, one with a silver-padded cover, another with a red one and a third with a black cover. "I sold my red one," he said as the evening ended.
"It's not the be-all and end-all," said Menke, who is a linebacker coach at Prior Lake High School. "It's a matter of prioritizing safety, and that's the kind of pitch that we give out."
Dr. Angela Voigt of Summit Orthopedics stood to the side and was asked whether she would let a son of hers play football. "If they wanted to play football, I would say it's OK," she said. "Yeah, football is riskier. I'd rather have them play football than rugby -- there are worse sports."
It's not the NFL
Griffin said that Woodbury's youth football signups, despite the concussion fears, were holding roughly steady after a late surge in registrations, with 275 players this year in tackle football and 135 in flag football. "Tackle is down maybe a half a team to maybe a team per grade," he said. "It wasn't overly exciting two to three weeks ago when we were at ridiculously low numbers."
As parents gathered in the Woodbury High School bleachers, Griffin tried to distance his program from the NFL.
"What you're talking about in the NFL, here's a guy making $3 million a year in his paycheck, and he's launching himself like a human missile at people," he said. "We're [just] a developmental football league."
Griffin was joined by Andy Hill, Woodbury's high school football coach, who is also interested in keeping youth football registrations from falling and tried to interest the parents in a series of local football camps. "Give Coach Griff a big hand," he said. "It takes a lot of fortitude to step up and say that we're going to spend $20,000 on improving our helmets." The crowd clapped loudly, and some parents whistled their approval.
Afterward, there were smiles -- and lingering concerns.
"I worry about it quite a bit," said Dave Washenberger, who signed up Blake, age 9, for a second year of youth football. "My wife's really worried about it." The night before the signup, even Blake, recalling some of the hits he took last year, said that "I don't know if I want to do it," his dad reported.
Leaning against a chain-link fence, Kate Malec looked for her oldest son, Sam, 9, who was making his way through nine evaluation stations, including one for a vertical jump and another for a 20-yard dash. "He wanted to play for a long time," she said. "I did not want him to play."
Malec said she consulted a friend who was a youth football coach. "[I asked], 'Isn't he too small to play? Just tell me. Give it to me straight,'" she said. "He's tiny."
Ryan Pacyga coached a third-grader in Woodbury last year who had a concussion during practice that left the player nauseated but not vomiting. The player sat out two weeks and is registered to play again this year. "We never want to ruin a 9-year-old," he said.
"I'm not in favor of blowing this up into such an issue where we all have to be afraid to have contact [in practice]. I think that some people kind of want to take it to that level," Pacyga said. "Let's get real about it."
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673