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October 20, 2014

Phillip Tutor: In prep football, consider the numbers

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  • Oxford at Southside

    Oxford's Jake Cook high steps past a Southside defender during the season opener at Southside Thursday night. Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star

Posted: Thursday, August 21, 2014 8:15 pm | Updated: 5:42 am, Fri Aug 22, 2014.

It’s convenient to wax eloquently about high school football and everything it represents: the community spirit, the making-men-out-of-boys cliche, the damnable and ever-increasing pressure of Friday Night Lights.

Instead, let’s deal in facts.

Americans love high school football, and it’s back. Alabama’s prep season began with a smattering of games Thursday night, and more are on tap tonight despite the awful timing of playing football during the hottest part of the Southeast’s irrepressible summer. What we’d give for an August sunset of about 60 degrees.

In lieu of that impossibility, consider these three points:

NUMBERS: Which is the more accurate statement:

Americans love high school football?

Or, Americans love to play high school football?

Answer: both, and that’s not a mealy-mouthed copout.

In 2013, 1,093,234 teenagers played high school football, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. That’s an increase of 6,607 from the year before — the first national increase in five years.

In Alabama, the numbers are easier to digest. Last year, 389 high schools played football in the Alabama High School Athletic Association, accounting for 22,841 players. While the mega-schools in the highest classifications garner most of the fame, smaller schools with smaller rosters account for a sizeable percentage of those 22,000-plus players. For every Hoover, Prattville and Oxford there are an innumerable Loachapokas, Isabellas and Autaugavilles. (Not to mention Raglands, Donohos and Spring Gardens.)

Here’s the unfair part: Texas so dominates national high school attendance records that it’s tough to use turnstile counts or ticket sales as a barometer of interest. Everything really is bigger down there.

Last year, the Dallas Morning News compiled an unofficial list of the top nine games, all-time, attendance wise in the United States. Seven of the nine took place in Texas. (That included the record attendance of 54,347 at a game at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, in December.) The two non-Texas games took place in New York state (in 1948) and Kentucky (in 2004).

INJURIES: This isn’t academic overreaction. This is real, and it’s scary.

Last year, the NFL sponsored a report from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies that literally blew the lid off the old-school approach to concussion concerns in the high school game. Researchers determined that prep players were twice as likely than a college player to suffer a concussion. (In the report’s language, college players have a rate of 6.3 concussions per 10,000 “athletic exposures,” which are practices or games. The rate for prep players was 11.2).

In other words, science has proven — again — that high school coaches who wave a smelling salt under a kid’s nose after he’s had his bell rung and send him back into the game endanger players’ long-term health. The days of Bear Bryant’s Junction-style approach are thankfully over.

It pains the purists among us, but a leading question for parents of teenage athletes today, Do I want my son to play a sport that could cause a serious brain injury? The numbers say parents, even if they’re concerned, aren’t preventing their sons from suiting up.

WHO’S BEST: By best, I mean, which cities are considered the best places for high school football?

Let’s start with the shocking part: CollegeStats.org, which uses data from the U.S. Department of Education, this year ranked the top 10 high school football towns. Only one of them — One! — was in Texas (Odessa, which came in second.)

The top spot went to Massillon, Ohio, where the local school owns 22 state titles and more than 800 victories. The Massillon Tigers play in Paul Brown Tiger Stadium (capacity 16,000 or so) and in bad weather practice next door in an indoor facility.

The cool part: Two of the top 10 high school football cities are in Alabama, No. 7 Prattville and No. 9 Hoover. Let the argument commence, however. Is Hoover there because of the MTV series? Would Prattville be on the list if it hadn’t gone on a state title spree in the last decade?

Closer to home, where’s Oxford?

From what I can tell, three things dominate the CollegeStats.org criteria for its top 10: state titles, stadium/attendance and community interest.

Well, Oxford owns three state championships (all since 1988, though none since 1993), its stadium is impressive and its community interest competes with the best in the state. At risk of sounding like a Calhoun County homer, is the rarefied air of a 35244 ZIP code that valuable?

Come to think of it, Oxford does have more than $70 million in cash reserves. Perhaps it’s time for City Hall and the Board of Education to plan a major expansion of Lamar Field. It’s football, after all.

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