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More high schools switch to 8-man football as participation drops

Nov 17, 2016

On Friday night, a football state championship will be on the line when Deckerville High School and Powers North Central square off. The game will be played in Greenville, which is just northeast of Grand Rapids, and for those in attendance it will seem like your average high school football game. Except that instead of 11 players on each side, there will only be eight.

According to analysis by Brendan Quealy of the Traverse City Record Eagle, the state of Michigan has seen the second-biggest decline in high school football participation in the nation, and because of this, there is a growing number of schools that are electing to play eight-man football rather than the traditional 11.

Many would be quick to blame safety and the increased awareness and threat of concussions, because that's a legitimate concern. However, for some programs, it's just a numbers games with many schools seeing a decline in enrollment and not having enough kids.

Is there cause for concern about the future of the sport of football?

To help answer that question, John Johnson, the communications director with the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) and Kevin Bellefeuil, the head coach of the Powers North Central High School (Powers, Mich.) football team, joined Stateside to talk about it.
 

According to Johnson, concussions are an obvious concern for parents, but many smaller schools are dealing with drops in enrollment that have made it difficult to field full teams. There are also some anecdotal examples like a lack of motivation for student athletes and others where kids are focusing on just one sport. 

Concussions are being closely monitored by the MHSAA and there has been a significant increase in the number of players reporting them. Johnson says, in a way, this is a good thing, because it's not necessarily that there are more concussions then in past years. He says there is just more awareness and more players are reporting concussions to their coaches and trainers.

When Cynthia Canty talked with Coach Bellefeuil, he was in the process of traveling with his team from the Western Upper Peninsula to Greenville for Friday's championship game. He talked about his school's decision to move from 11-man to eight-man and some of the challenges with fielding a team at a school of roughly 115 students.

Bellefeuil also takes pride in one of the few schools in the state that have elected to go with "no contact" practices.

By not tackling each other in practice, it minimizes injuries along with the wear and tear of a high school football season. At Powers North Central, the kids are taught proper technique when they tackle. Some criticize the "no contact" approach because there's a difference between tackling another player and tackling a dummy or one of Coach Bellefeuil's "donuts."

Bellefeuil' disputes that notion based on what his players have done on the field. He says he receives plenty of compliments about how well his team tackles. And let's not forget, they've reached the state championship game, so clearly they're doing something right. 

Listen to the full segment above to hear more about the efforts to make football as safe as possible -- or if that's even possible -- and why we're seeing the rise in popularity of eight-man football.

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*This post was last updated on November 21, 2016.