The number of players on the field for any Minneapolis South football practice can vary, from the low 30s to a possible 40 or more, but never reaches the full 49 listed on the official roster.
“Forty-seven now,” said coach Rodney Lossow. “We had two more kids quit.”
Participation in Minneapolis Park Board football has declined significantly and tackle football at Minneapolis middle schools has dried up. And the effects are being felt by high school teams.
Most suburban teams inherit a large percentage of their players from community youth programs. Those players often come equipped with a basic knowledge of football: positioning, technique, verbiage. Basic fundamentals.
But in the city, many are recruited by coaches simply through perceived athleticism. Often, the high school program is their first exposure to the rigors of football.
With already limited rosters, Minneapolis high school football coaches are frequently left shorthanded, without viable substitutes in game situations.
“A good 30 percent of our roster is new to football,” said Roosevelt coach Adam Flanders, who is in his eighth season at the school. “They help with numbers and roster size but they aren’t really able to help you on the field. Too often, you’re putting in a player who’s had just two games and 15 practices in his life.”
The roster challenges come even as one city public school — Minneapolis North — has asserted itself as a championship-caliber program in recent years. And Lossow’s team has something to celebrate as well: A new field where, on Friday night, it will play the first homecoming game in school history under the lights.
While the circumstances add to the thrill of the game, they don’t make up for game experience. Lossow is always wary of substitutions. Should a varsity starter be unavailable to play, putting a young, untested backup into the game gives him pause.
“He might be a first-year freshman who weighs 120 pounds,” Lossow said. “That kid doesn’t deserve to go up against someone who outweighs him by 100 pounds. If we don’t have a suitable replacement, I’d rather forfeit than risk injury.”
The culprit, coaches say, is a dwindling feeder system in the city of Minneapolis. Middle school tackle football is long a thing of the past. And Minneapolis Park Board football has witnessed a significant decline in numbers, particularly at the seventh- and eighth-grade levels, due a confluence of concussion worries, sport specialization and the influx of immigrants for whom football holds little interest.
“We have a very unique cultural background,” Edison coach Anthony Minus said. “We have a strong Hispanic influence, an East African influence. We have a female football player. Our team is a reflection of the cultural diversity that makes Minneapolis great. But we don’t have a group coming up from youth football that’s ready to play.”
That, Flanders said, is “why the Eden Prairies and Eastviews and East Ridges are successful. The kids know the system, the checks and balances, the vernacular, when they come in. I’ve got guys who try hard but don’t know simple football vocabulary.”
In the city’s park board football program, the number of tackle football programs has dwindled from 41 in 2014 to just 18 this year.
At the same time, however, the number of flag football programs has exploded, with 48 flag football teams sponsored by the Park and Rec program this season.
“We’ve held a lot of community meetings and use the feedback we get to make decisions regarding sports,” said Tim Grate, athletics program director for Minneapolis Parks and Recreation. “One thing we heard is that a lot of young kids are concerned about the physicality. They don’t want to get hit. So they pushed real hard for the flag program, hoping that when they older, they’ll move on to tackle football.”
But turning that hope into retention at the high school level, where the game is more physical, is not a certainty.
“I think it’s a societal thing. A lot of kids just aren’t interested in playing football,” Washburn coach Ryan Galindo said. “For all the hard work you put in, you only get to play a different colored jersey one day a week. In other sports, you get automatic positive reinforcement. In football, you get tough practices. It’s a grind.”
Many parts of the city have large immigrant populations, which don’t have a historical connection to football. “We have large Hispanic and Somali communities on the southside and culturally they’re not used to it,” said Lossow.
The city picture is more promising on the north side. Minneapolis North has played in five consecutive state tournaments, won the 2016 Class 1A state championship and has compiled a 61-4 record dating back to the start of the 2014 season.
It’s no coincidence that youth football is thriving on the northside at parks such as North Commons, Farview, Harrison and Creekview. The Police Athletic League’s seventh- and eighth-grade programs, which call the northside home, have been enjoyed success as well.
“Winning is a huge recruiting tool,” North coach Charles Adams Jr. said. “When we played [Minneapolis] Henry, I had to go to the bathroom at halftime. I had so many parents come up to me, even from the other team, who said they wanted to meet with me. It was kind of overwhelming.”
The south side also has pockets of stability. Pearl Park has 22 players on its seventh-grade roster and 25 playing eighth grade. “Our numbers have actually picked up,” said Robert Tesch-Stevson, who runs the seventh- and eighth-grade programs.
But the overall decline in feeder programs has prompted talk of other solutions, including creating cooperative football teams between city schools.
“We’ll take a really close look at it, but we’re looking a number of things,” said Antony Fisher, Minneapolis Schools’ director of athletics. “We want a laundry list of creative solutions.”
Flanders, who grew up in Minneapolis and played high school football at South, would prefer not to co-op with another school, but said he isn’t sure he’ll have a choice.
“I don’t know how we’ll survive,” he said with resignation. “This year, I’m going to lose 10 seniors out of 43 players. Next year, I’m looking at 33, maybe 35 if we pick up a couple of freshman. And it’s tough when you have numbers in the low 40s.”
Lossow, another Minneapolis native and the longest-tenured coach in the conference, said the handwriting is on the turf.
“I don’t see it coming back all the way,” he said. “I see a co-op as a change that might be necessary, but I’m not sure it will work. You don’t know until you try. Merging programs is not simple.”
The answers are complex, but all agree football worth saving.
“Football is a community builder,” Fisher said. “Friday nights are very important to high school communities.”