It’s Week 1, or if you’re confused because of last week’s games, 1B, since Week Zero is now firmly a part of high school football math.

The math changes but the game stays the same. 

Well, sort of.

It’s still helmets and pads, cheerleaders and bands and all that goes with Friday Night Lights, but look closer.

There is a difference.

Nationally, high school football participation has declined for five consecutive years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Officials point to safety concerns as the number one reason behind the decline.

“That is the reason, for all the changes,” said Hilldale coach David Blevins. “And it’s impacted everything about the game.”

Yet, over the last five years, measures have been taken to remedy those concerns. Equipment has changed, tackling rules have changed. Contact time during practice has been reduced. 

But football is a violent sport. There’s no changing that reality. To remove it totally would be like taking cars out of auto racing.

It’s gotten better though. 

Muskogee head coach Rafe Watkins remembers his playing days.

“You would get your bell rung, but that wasn’t a concussion. You had to get knocked out,” he said. 

And he did, once time his sophomore year.

“I took smelling salts, got back in eight plays later and it was like I was in a dream,” he said. “That’s one time I can say I shouldn’t have been playing.”

And today, he wouldn’t have. In those bell-ringer hits, there likely would have been a protocol for assuring there isn’t any issues.

“I graduated in 1989 and if you got dinged you didn’t say a word because you might not get to play,” said Vian coach Gary Willis. “You can see how many of those went unreported then that affects some of these older guys from studies they’ve done in the NFL.”

That’s where the concern began.  Obviously, with today’s contractual investments, liability insurance has skyrocketed, and that in turn trickles down the various levels.

The cost of the game is increasing at all levels, a trend that will continue.

“I think in 20 years you could see parents of kids paying for their own insurance and equipment and should that happen, that will wipe out a lot of programs and basically make it a country-club type game for the wealthiest,” Watkins said.

Or the truly committed, those from towns where winning football provides a community pulse.

“I have friends who say numbers are down around the state. Ours are still good from first grade up. But you’re talking about a Vian, which is a football community,” Willis said.

“Down the road, that’s a point I haven’t put much thought in.”

But hearing Watkins’ thoughts about a situation where the strong or rich survive, Willis added this. 

“He’s got a point there,” he said. “My son will graduate college next spring to become a coach. It’s become a different game than even he played five years ago. I’m not smart enough to figure that out, but it is changing and there’s no telling what kind of game he will see.”

In the meantime, there’s the navigation around penalties for incorrect hits like horse collars and using the helmet, which includes penalties and even ejections.

It’s changed the style of play to what Watkins equated to 7-on-7 with full pads, which makes the 90-minute contact rule easier to navigate with much of it dedicated to passing, pass blocking and pass rushing.

Recalling Oklahoma’s revamped defense going against Houston’s wide open attack, Watkins made this observation: “They covered better. They didn’t tackle better.”

And that’s a growing trend all the way up into the pros, where they’re getting paid much more on the dollar that the old-school guys suffering from hits today.

Fort Gibson coach Greg Whiteley said there’s still fundamentals that remain the same.

“The whole point is getting people to the football — two on one, three on one, gang tackling,” he said. “The offenses you face with so much open space, it’s tough, but you just have to get yourself in the right positions. It’s not so much about big hits. It’s lowering your center of gravity and wrapping up and holding on.”

It can’t be about big hits so much anymore. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has implemented a rugby style tackle that’s become known as hawk tackling, taking aim at the lower body and wrapping up the legs. 

Which has led to a problem of its own, said Willis.

“You’ve got the objective of stopping concussions, but now kids are hawk tackling and tearing up (more) knees,” Willis said.

Either way, Watkins sees one preventive measure that should be in play.

“When you have to take and put the kids where they are supposed to be, that’s too early to start them in helmets,” he said. “I don’t think kids should play contact before the fifth grade. You’ve got plenty of time to teach fundamentals.”

It’s a changing game, and one headed in all likelihood for more change.

“I’m not sure we’ll even recognize the game in 20 years,” Watkins said. “But by that time, I’ll be on a boat somewhere.”

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