"We got a lot of crap from the football players last year," says Jason Bell, a soccer sweeper who played football three years ago. On the eve of the '97 school year, in fact, the senior football players challenged the soccer team to a game at their "sissy sport," as they called it. After the soccer team won 11-3, one football player tackled a soccer player as if he were a running back. A rumble broke out, until Bell finally streaked over and kicked one of the football players in the head. "That pretty much ended the fight," Bell says.
Soccer may have won that day, and it may be winning over the kids in western New York, but it isn't triumphant with everyone. "Football is an American sport, and it brings the community together," says Ellicottville coach Tim Bergan one night at a meeting of area football coaches. "You can't believe how many people in Ellicottville are down because there's no Hinsdale game this year."
Rick DeKay, the coach at West Valley (N.Y.) High, nods in agreement. "You can't rally around a soccer team," he says.
But as soccer gains in popularity, football in western New York continues its slide. Chuck Pollock, the sports editor of the Olean (N.Y.) Times-Herald, says, "We have 31 football-playing schools in Pennsylvania and New York in our coverage area, and I'd say 75 to 80 percent of them have declining numbers [of players]."
There's a reason for this, says Mike Kane, the football coach at Olean High: "We haven't tried to make the sport easier. You still have to run and lift weights and block. Kids can play Nintendo football now, and they don't have to do those [other] things. They don't see the point."
The point, of course, is that much more than sports is at stake. If a boy would rather play football by himself on a TV screen than sweat with a team of his peers, will he ever be an active member of his community? DeCarli, Hinsdale's superintendent, asks himself questions like that all the time. "I'm looking down the road at the impact of this on the lives of young people here," he says. "I want them to be good citizens, and sports is a part of that."
Lonnie Williams is the football coach at Martin Luther King Jr. High in Chicago, which is a lot like being the head rabbi at the Vatican. King, after all, is one of the country's preeminent basketball powerhouses. Every year more than 100 of the school's 550 students try out for coach Landon Cox's hoops team, which travels to tournaments all over the Midwest.
Williams almost canceled the varsity football season this fall. Six players showed up for the first two weeks of practice in August, and there were only seven kids out for the team five days before the first game in September. Thanks to some last-second recruiting by players and coaches, King had 15 players on the sideline for its opener. Lately the varsity has been carrying 22, but only five of them played on the team last year. "I have to teach kids football like they're six years old," says Williams, who's in his 28th year at King. "They don't even know how to put their pants on."
It wasn't always like this. Over the past three decades more than 300 of Williams's players have received college football scholarships, and he keeps photos of nearly all of them on a wall in his office. In 1990 and '93 King qualified for the Illinois state playoffs, although no one really noticed. The basketball team went undefeated and won the state championship those years. "We never had a numbers problem before the '90s," says Williams. "From '72 until about '93 we had 40 to 50 kids out. We actually had a shortage of equipment. Now we have the equipment, but we don't have the kids."
More and more, sports at King are a hoops-or-bust proposition. If kids don't make the basketball team, Williams says, they go directly to the streets. "It's like a disease," he says. "Everybody thinks he can be like Michael Jordan, and he can't. When kids don't make the basketball team, they just quit [sports] altogether. Two of my top players were just released by the basketball team this year. They'll be Division I football players, but I had to go way out of my way just to recruit these guys."