High School Football

Have injury concerns affected high school football participation in Whatcom County?

Blaine’s Riley Fritsch, left, stiff-arms Nooksack Valley’s Jeremy Dykes on Friday, Sept. 2, in Blaine.
Blaine’s Riley Fritsch, left, stiff-arms Nooksack Valley’s Jeremy Dykes on Friday, Sept. 2, in Blaine. eabell@bhamherald.com

Despite nationwide headlines raising questions about the safety of the game the past few years – particularly when it comes to concussions – high school football participation in Whatcom County remains strong in 2016.

Whatcom County’s 11 programs listed 536 players on their Week 1 varsity rosters, a 0.56 percent increase over the 533 players listed in 2015. Those numbers do not include junior varsity or freshmen players not listed on varsity rosters.

Six of the 11 schools – Bellingham (four players), Blaine (nine), Ferndale (five), Meridian (three), Mount Baker (four) and Lummi (11) – had larger varsity rosters than they had a year ago.

“Football, and high school sports in general, remain strong due to the level of competition we have up here and due to the interest of our communities,” Ferndale football coach Jamie Plenkovich said. “You look at any sport up here, and participation has been really good.”

Plenkovich said football coaches in the area have done a good job of putting the safety of their players first.

“It’s really not a fair comparison between guys playing high school football and guys that play long careers in the NFL,” he said. “In reality, we have very few concussions in a year. Hopefully, parents understand we’re trying to do a good job of keeping their kids safe. There are risks of injury when you play any sport, but the benefit of playing team sports, and particularly football, far outweigh the risks.”

Mount Baker coach Ron Lepper said he’s seen the turnout for his program stabilize the past few years at between 55 and 60 players – a number he feels good about.

“At our preseason parent meeting, we explain that we’re going to be coaching their kids to be as safe as they can,” Lepper said. “Maybe we’ve lost a couple of kids the past few years because of injury concerns, but I haven’t had anybody come up to me and say they were worried about concussions. ... We tell our kids that if they have an issue, they have to tell us, and we tell the parents if they see an issue at home, they have to tell us about it. We take these things very seriously.”

So does the Mount Baker School District, which invested in new “five star” helmets this year, Lepper said. Other area districts and programs have taken similar steps to protect student-athletes in recent years.

Perhaps because of efforts like those, Whatcom County has seen participation in football remain stronger than the state average.

According to statistics released by the National Federation of State High School Associations, 21,164 student-athletes participated in high school football in Washington state in 2015. That number is down 4.19 percent from the 22,090 it reported playing in 2011 and 4.66 percent lower than the 22,198 it listed in 2006.

The NFHS has not yet released its 2016 participation statistics.

Whatcom County’s 533 players listed on varsity rosters in 2015 is 1.48 percent below the 541 listed in 2011 and 3.09 percent below the 2006 number of 550.

The county’s participation rates more closely resemble the national averages. The NFHS reported that 1,083,308 players nationwide participated in high school football in 2015, 1.16 percent below the 2011 tally of 1,095,993 and 1.92 percent lower than the 1,104,548 in 2006.

“Football is something I’m passionate about,” Lepper said, “and I’d like to see participation stay the same, if not increase. I don’t think it’s as much of a safety issue as it is there are a lot of other things for kids to do. ... Kids are being pulled in a lot of different directions, and as long as they’re getting out and being active, I think that’s great. There are a lot of great things you can get out of this game, but you can also get great things out of other games.”