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In a Midwest football hotbed, an economic divide

In a Midwest football hotbed, an economic divide

طوبیٰ Tooba 55 years ago 0 0

As tackle football declines across the Midwest, it remains huge in many parts of Dayton. Where it thrives depends largely on money.

Dunbar cheerleaders perform for the crowd at Welcome Stadium in Dayton, Ohio, on Oct. 6. (Megan Jelinger for The Washington Post)

DAYTON, Ohio — The 50-yard-line of Welcome Stadium, the home field of Dayton’s five public high school football teams, sits just a few Hail Marys from the west bank of the river that bisects the city. The Great Miami River — overwhelmingly Black on the west side, overwhelmingly White on the east — has long symbolized Dayton’s acute divisions by any number of metrics: race, income, life expectancy, access to healthy food.

These days, you can add football to the list. Across the Miami Valley, once a cherished hotbed of football talent, the landscape is increasingly divided into haves and have-nots. And the latter group seems to grow in number every year, as urban and rural programs wither and football power concentrates in the suburbs.

Sitting near the geographic center of Dayton, Welcome Stadium — a pristine facility that underwent a nearly $30 million renovation before the start of this season and that is also home to the University of Dayton’s team — could be considered the heart of the area’s football scene. But it is not a healthy heart.

On a Thursday night in September, two city schools, Belmont and Ponitz, met here in a matchup of have-nots. Belmont was 0-3 and had been outscored by a combined 171-0; Ponitz was 0-4, outscored 227-13. Belmont dressed 31 players for the game; Ponitz dressed 20. After a local health-care system pulled out, a retired spinal surgeon was the only medical provider on hand, tending to injured players on both sidelines. Around 150 people were on hand for the opening kickoff, in a stadium that seats 11,000.

Both teams played just as hard as any others might. From the sideline, the sounds of plastic helmets popping each other rang out in the mostly empty stadium. And when Belmont secured a 20-6 victory — its first points and first win of the season — they dumped the cooler of ice water on the head of their rookie head coach, Marcus Vaughn.

“I’ve tried to get every kid I could get,” Vaughn said of the struggle to piece together a roster. “In basketball, they have tryouts. We pretty much take whoever we can get and then try to build ’em up.”

By the end of October, the victory would stand as Belmont’s sole win in a 1-8 season; Ponitz would go 0-10, outscored by an aggregate 472-40.

High school football participation in Ohio had been steadily declining for years until an increase last year, according to The Washington Post’s analysis of data from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). Before the recent rebound, which mirrored what many other states saw as the country came out of the pandemic, Ohio had lost more than 8,000 high school football players as its participation rate fell 14 percent from 2010 to 2018, a decrease larger than the nation’s as a whole. Over the past decade, many Midwestern states have had similar declines, with the region’s overall participation rate dropping 12 percent.

But the decline has been anything but uniform, and at least on the surface, the scene here defies in many ways the larger trends observed by national experts and The Post’s analysis. Nationally, youth tackle football is surviving, even thriving, in some of the country’s poorest states. But here, tackle football appears to depend almost entirely on having enough money to run a program that typically ranks as a school’s most expensive; to lure (and even recruit) inner-city athletes; and to keep the pipeline full with well-funded flag football programs that cater to the middle and upper classes, assuaging suburban parents’ fears about starting too young. Meanwhile, schools in the urban core and the rural outskirts — the common denominators being poor people and poor schools — are struggling to survive.

The Belmont-Ponitz game had been shifted to Thursday night, in fact, after two Cincinnati private-school powerhouses, St. Xavier and Moeller, paid to rent Welcome Stadium for their game Friday night, because there was no stadium in the area big enough to contain their massive fan bases. Moeller’s 2023 roster showed 99 players; St. Xavier’s showed 92.

“You can see the difference on the sidelines,” Al Powell, the former longtime head coach at Dayton’s Dunbar High, said of the dichotomy between well-funded suburban and private-school programs and the poor ones from the inner city. “They’ve got the medical tents, the fancy scoreboards, the [coaches with] iPads. And we’re still out here drawing [plays] up in the dirt — literally.”

As in many places, Dayton’s football traditions run deep. It was the site of what some consider to be the first-ever NFL game, the Oct. 3, 1920 meeting between the Dayton Triangles and Columbus Panhandles of the American Professional Football Association, the precursor to the NFL. Over the years, the city schools have sent a pipeline of players to Ohio State and other top collegiate programs, then on to the NFL, including running back Keith Byars, defensive end Marco Coleman, wide receiver Peerless Price and defensive lineman Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson.

But Dayton has lost nearly half of its total population since 1960, going from a peak of 262,332 residents to 137,644 in the 2020 census. The shuttering of a nearby General Motors plant in 2008, which eliminated more than 5,000 jobs, didn’t help, nor did the NCR Corporation’s move of its headquarters to Atlanta in 2009 after 125 years in Dayton. Along with its withering population and economy, Dayton is one of the country’s most segregated big cities, and it has struggled with high rates of poverty and opioid addiction.

“We were a city of 260,000. We lost GM, NCR, all these manufacturing jobs,” said Dayton Mayor Jeffrey Mims (D). “We had redlining that cost people the opportunity to buy and insure houses at a decent rate. For years, we led the nation in foreclosure rates. … Reversing all of those things takes time.”

A few decades ago, there were 12 Dayton public high schools. Now, there are six, five of which — at least for now — field football teams. None fielded junior varsity or freshman teams last season.

“It didn’t get that way overnight, and it’s not going to come back overnight,” said Byars, a product of now-defunct Roth High in Dayton, who went on to be the 1984 Heisman Trophy runner-up at Ohio State and a veteran of 13 NFL seasons. “Our youth programs have to get better. You need a freshman team, and you need a JV team. When you have freshmen playing varsity, you’re in trouble. There’s a big difference between freshmen and seniors.”

These days, people around Dayton wonder if a Keith Byars would even stay at his city high school. The smart money says he would leave for the greener pastures of the suburbs or one of the nearby private schools.

ON A COOL SATURDAY morning in September, the scene at Meadowdale High School was a reminder of what football still means here — and what it still aspires to be. Under clear skies, perhaps 1,500 people turned up for the youth football matchup between the visiting Wee Vikes of Miamisburg, a prosperous suburb south of town (and east of the Great Miami River) where 92 percent of the population is White, and the Meadowdale Pee Wee Lions from Dayton’s west side.

Four games’ worth of youth tackle football, beginning with the “Bantam” division — first and second graders. Impossibly small children banging helmets and running around like bobblehead dolls. Food trucks dishing up barbecue and shaved ice. A DJ spinning hip-hop. The grassy hills on either sideline packed with parents in folding camper chairs, under pop-up tents.

The Meadowdale program, the largest youth football organization on Dayton’s west side, has around 155 kids, the vast majority of them Black, and league president Lenton Boyd said there are enough interested families that he could easily double in size if they could scare up enough volunteer coaches.

Though the Pee Wee Lions are affiliated with Meadowdale High — one of the five Dayton city schools with football teams — Boyd figures only a handful of his youth players will go on to play there. The rest will be lost either to attrition as they age up — choosing another sport, choosing a job or falling into the streets — or will take the pathway that, Boyd and others here say, has decimated the public schools: transferring to a wealthier school, where they can get a better education and play for a program where they are more likely to be noticed by college recruiters.

“People ask me, ‘Where should I send my kid to high school?’ ” Boyd said. “I’m a proud supporter of Meadowdale. But being honest, if you want your kid to go to college, I can’t tell you to go to Meadowdale.”

Families are often helped by Ohio’s “EdChoice” program, launched in 2006, which allows any student in the state to receive a voucher to attend a private school, with children from lower-income families getting more money.

“It’s a lifesaver,” said Howard Walker, a Dayton resident who moved his children from the Dayton Public Schools to Chaminade Julienne, a Catholic school, with the help of EdChoice. Walker, who helps run Eagle Youth Football, a tackle football program affiliated with the school, said he now helps other families navigate the application process for EdChoice.

“Dayton Public Schools consistently rank near the bottom in the state,” Walker said. “I don’t really see much of a solution right now. So I tell people: What people like me do is, we take our kids out of the public schools and either move them to a suburban school … or send [them] to private schools.”

An even bigger threat to Dayton’s public programs is the suburban public schools that openly recruit athletes in Dayton, facilitated either by open-enrollment rules or by illegally relocating the athletes’ families to their district. And it’s not as if those schools have to work hard to find city kids willing to move; in many cases, kids or their parents are shopping their talents around the region.

Earl White, formerly the head coach at Belmont, now at Chaminade Julienne, called it an “AAU” mentality, where all the best athletes maneuver to join forces.

“You talk about the NCAA [transfer] portal? We’ve got a high school portal,” White said. “In the city, if you can get out, you get out. And if you can’t get out, you stay. We’re losing a lot of our best students. And what are we left with? People who maybe don’t have the highest expectations.”

When White coached at Belmont, he faced some of the same problems the coaches have now with small roster sizes and schedules that, for lack of suitable competition, featured plenty of big-time private or suburban schools.

“I’d look over there, and Upper Arlington would look like the University of Iowa coming out of the locker room, with 100-something kids,” he said of the suburban Columbus powerhouse. “And I’d be scraping the barrel for 40 kids — and I mean, scraping. To get a city kid to play, you got to find him. You got to talk him into playing football. You got to adopt him like he’s your own son. You got to feed him. You got to drive him home at night. That’s what it was. That’s life in the city. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to have a team.”

Head coaches at Dayton public schools, many of whom are also teachers, earn an extra-curricular stipend averaging $8,000-9,000 per season, with assistant coaches making about $4,000-5,000 — figures roughly in line with most suburban schools, according to area coaches. By Ohio law, these stipends must be renewed each year; there are no long-term contracts. In Dayton, administrators sometimes struggle to find anyone to take the job, and they struggle even more to get them to stay. At Ponitz, for example, first-year head coach Gabe Brown was the school’s fourth in six years.

“It takes a toll on you when you’re barely getting paid and you’re taking care of five or six [players] outside of your own kids,” said Darran Powell, a father of seven and offensive coordinator at Dunbar High, a powerhouse by city standards that went 7-4 this season. “There’s only so much we can do with our hearts, without facing the reality of, ‘Okay, I got to get a real job. I got to get some money from somewhere.’ … You just could never get over the hump. Motivate these kids? We [as coaches] got to motivate ourselves to motivate them, because it’s draining.”

A little bit of investment would go a long way toward turning a program around, as demonstrated by something that happened at Ponitz High in 2015.

That year, Ohio legend Jim Place, who spent most of his 51-year coaching career at private schools or suburban powerhouses around Dayton and Cincinnati, decided to finish his career in the inner city, taking the head coach’s job at Ponitz. He had a total of nine returning players, and when he started looking around for more, he ran into one central issue: transportation. Nobody could promise they would be able to get rides to and from practices.

So Place found a wealthy businessman to donate 100 passes for Dayton’s city bus system, and he announced on the school’s public address system that he was giving them away free to anyone who came out for football.

“The first day, I had 40 kids sign up. We went from nine kids to 80 — and we went from 3-7 to 7-3 in two years,” said Place, 76, who lives in the well-off Dayton suburb of Kettering. “For the kids at the inner-city school, there are hurdles on the track. And if you take the hurdles off the track, they’re going to play and they’re going to succeed. Simple as that. What did we do at Ponitz? We took a hurdle off the track for those kids. …

“If you coach in the inner city, once you get to the field, the job is easy. But to get the kid to the field, you have to understand everything those kids have to go through. It’s overwhelming.”

ON A FALL FRIDAY night at Northmont High’s Premier Health Stadium, in suburban Clayton, Ohio, the stands were packed, and so were the sidelines.

The Northmont Thunderbolts listed 72 players on their official game roster, with the visiting Centreville Elks dressing 92. A local radio station broadcast the game from the press box. The marching bands dueled from opposite corners of the stadium. It was a scene that could have come straight out of “Friday Night Lights,” with suburban Dayton standing in for West Texas.

Around Dayton, the suburbs are the seat of power in high school football. Wealthier residents equal healthier athletic teams. The voting precinct in which Northmont resides also went for Republican incumbent Donald Trump by 23 points in the 2020 presidential election; polling by The Post found attitudes toward tackle football for children to be starkly divided by political orientation.

Northmont has thriving junior varsity and ninth-grade teams, plus youth and middle-school teams that feed into the high school. A football-specific booster club, the Northmont Thunderback Club, holds fundraisers and lines up sponsors to keep the machinery humming.

“We try to make financials not be a reason somebody won’t come out for football,” said Micah Harding, Northmont’s athletic director.

Harding, who is in his eighth year at Northmont, has seen a vast demographic change sweep through school. Twenty years ago, he estimated, Northmont was less than 10 percent Black; this year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, that figure is 24 percent. The majority of newcomers, in his observation, have come from the city of Dayton.

“A lot of people, when they’re moving into the area, I’ll ask them, ‘Why are you moving in?’ ” Harding said. “And they’ll say, ‘We want our kids to have a better education.’ ”

Harding was clear about two things: Northmont doesn’t have open enrollment, and it doesn’t recruit athletes. The school district, in fact, has strict residency requirements and enforcement officials who do home visits to make sure new students live where they say they do.

“There are rumors that schools in our area will put [an athlete’s family] up in an apartment,” Harding conceded. “Obviously, that’s illegal by Ohio State Athletic Association rules. Do I think that’s happening? Yes. Can I prove it? No. But we go through a very extensive process here to verify residency.”

Aside from money, one other factor separates suburban football from the brand played in Dayton: the feeder system for young athletes. In the suburbs, “youth football” often means the kind that doesn’t require pads. It is part of the new paradigm for youth football in America: Where there is money, there is flag football.

Over the past 15 years or so, flag football has exploded across Ohio, with Flag Football Fanatics, a Columbus-based organization, becoming the major player in the Dayton area’s youth football scene. It is a rise being seen all across the country, with flag surging in popularity since the onset of football’s CTE crisis, which some researchers believe may be more acute among those who started playing tackle football as kids.

Participation in youth flag football surpassed tackle in the United States for the first time in 2017, according to data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, and more than 1 million children ages 6 through 12 played flag football on a regular basis in 2022, compared with about 725,000 in tackle.

Flag Football Fanatics debuted on Dayton’s youth football scene in 2009 with 82 kids, according to founder Goey (pronounced “Joey”) Mueller, a number that has grown to 1,400 this year. FFF operates three site-specific programs, all of them in Dayton suburbs: Beavercreek, Centerville and Kettering. Those towns each have populations that are at least 82 percent White and median household incomes that exceed the statewide mark, particularly Beavercreek at more than $100,000 in 2021. The organization also runs leagues in suburban Cincinnati and Columbus, but it has no plans to expand into the city of Dayton, according to Mueller.

“When we first started, flag was viewed as a niche sport, kind of like soccer,” Mueller said. “I never expected it to get this big.”

Despite what the flag/tackle dichotomy may look like from the outside — a choice of one or the other, subject to factors such as access and opportunity — the reality is more complicated, according to Mueller. He estimated as many as 65 percent of FFF participants will also play tackle football, either in the future, as they age into middle-schoolers or high-schoolers, or simultaneously.

“Over half of my team is also playing tackle,” said Joshua Pike, who coaches his 7-year-old son’s teams in both FFF’s Kettering league and in the nearby Fairmont Wee Firebirds tackle league. “Some of our kids play tackle in the fall and flag in the spring.”

There is, meanwhile, only a small but growing flag football presence in the inner city. For the past few years, the city of Dayton has offered a flag program overseen by NFL Flag — which, with the powerful league’s backing, claims to be the largest flag football operator in the country. Games are played at Centennial Field, a turf field built at the NFL’s expense and opened in 2020 on the site of a former housing project.

Jermaine Isaac, the city of Dayton’s recreation program director, said turnout for this fall’s flag football season was the best in the program’s brief history — around 120 participants, around two-thirds to three-quarters of them Black. There are now plans underway to run a spring flag football league for the first time in 2024.

“Parental involvement has been very high,” Isaac said, voicing a notion that contrasts Lenton Boyd’s struggles to recruit parents as coaches for his Meadowdale youth tackle program. “It’s been very easy for us to find volunteer coaches.”

AT MILTON-UNION HIGH SCHOOL, in semirural West Milton, about half an hour northwest of Dayton, head football coach Bret Pearce tells the story of his program by pointing to the team photos that line the walls of his office just off the Bulldogs’ locker room.

His 2007 league championship squad had 70 players, filling five rows of bleachers in the stands of Memorial Stadium for the team photo.

This year’s team is less than half that size — 34 — and the team photo, without the necessity of a wide-angle lens, is tighter and closer.

“We’re even struggling to field a JV team this year. That’s never happened before. Around here, the teams that have good numbers are the outliers. Everyone is down,” Pearce said.

Asked what is behind the drop-off at Milton-Union, Pearce posits multiple reasons, echoing some of the theories by football die-hards around the country. Among them: a shrinking population base in the mostly rural area; kids who are less willing to put in the work or who have to hold down jobs to help their families make ends meet; and parents who don’t push their kids to do after-school activities.

“It’s kids not doing anything. They’re not in clubs. They’re not in marching bands. They’re just not being pushed at home,” said Pearce, whose first year as the Bulldogs’ head coach was in 2000. “People ask me, ‘What’s different about the kids from when you started?’ I say, ‘The kids are the same. It’s the parents who are different. Parents no longer make their kids do things.’ ”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the population served by the Milton-Union Exempted Village School District, for which Milton-Union High is the only high school, is 96 percent White. The median household income of about $50,000 for the town of West Milton is 20 percent below that of Ohio in general, and 28 percent below that of the United States.

In 2012, when his own kids were teenagers, Pearce resigned from his job as Milton-Union’s head coach to be at home more, returning to the position in 2016. The years in which he was gone coincided with the height of football’s brain-injury crisis, with a constant flow of news about the links between playing football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the progressive brain disease associated with constant blows to the head.

Now, there was another reason for kids to stay away from football. As he prowled the hallways of school in search of players, Pearce, who also teaches at Milton-Union, started to hear about parents refusing to allow their sons to play. In two cases, he said, the moms were emergency room nurses who had seen firsthand the effects of concussions.

Years ago, Pearce might have accepted that stance. But now, he said, football is “safer than ever” due to advances in technology, tackling technique, coaching and officiating.

“The way we teach tackling now, the way officials enforce the rules, the technology in the helmets — everything is focused on safety,” Pearce said. “The concussion protocols — if a kid comes off the field and says his head hurts, boom, the trainer is all over him, and he’s probably out at least a week.”

The science is divided on whether the game is truly safer, with some studies showing reductions in measurable “head impacts” and concussions through better safety protocols. Other experts, however, say the brain damage comes not from violent, concussive collisions, but the accumulation of “subconcussive” impacts that are inherent to the game and that can be only marginally mitigated by advances in equipment and technique.

Whatever is causing the decline, the story is the same all over the outlying regions of the Miami Valley: declining numbers on football rosters, programs struggling to field teams. In some cases, schools have been forced to cancel games or even entire seasons due to a lack of players.

As other states have done, Ohio recently launched an eight-on-eight football division, designed specifically for schools that have had trouble fielding 11-man teams. This fall marked the first state championship tournament for the division. But only six schools fielded eight-on-eight football teams this year, and Pearce said he has heard those schools see it as merely a stopgap solution until they can get their numbers back up.

In 2018, Mississinawa Valley High, a tiny school an hour northwest of Dayton best known for producing former Penn State all-American Curtis Enis, managed four wins from a roster of 16 players. This year, with 21 players, the Blackhawks went 0-10.

In 2022, Bradford High, in a town of about 1,800 that sits another 20 minutes beyond West Milton, school administrators were forced to cancel the varsity football season less than a month before the opener because they didn’t think it was safe to field a team of 15 players, many of whom had no prior football experience.

“Covid affected our numbers tremendously for a couple of years — kids getting jobs, parents worrying about their kids’ health,” said head coach Nick Bandstra. Hired before this season, he got the roster back up to 30 players, and the Railroaders played a full schedule, going 5-5. “I try not to think about the covid year. But it set us back, no question. It’s taken us this long to bounce back, but we’re 100 percent trending up.”

Pearce, the head coach at Milton-Union, is not as optimistic about what the future holds for football in this rural part of the state. From his office desk, he can watch an encapsulation of the sport’s decline, simply by looking up at the wall of team photos, the number of red uniforms in each getting progressively smaller.

“I don’t see a reason for it to rebound and get better, not right now,” he said. “I could see football no longer being a scholastic sport one day — football maybe becoming a club sport. I can see something being forced to happen, [maybe] the state allowing co-ops — two schools joining together.”

“Something has to be done to keep football alive.”

To measure tackle football participation rates, The Post collected data from the National Federation of State High School Associations’ annual reports. The NFHS doesn’t require state associations – which include public and, depending on the state, some private schools – to follow a specific process for collecting this data, and states have varying approaches to account for schools that do not submit their roster sizes. In the Post’s analysis, only boys who participated in 11-player football are included.

In general, years refer to the fall of an academic year, so football participation in the 2022-23 school year is described as 2022. Most participation rates are adjusted based on public high school enrollment, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The values for 2022 are projections. When The Post analyzed trends that began before 2010, numbers were adjusted based on the U.S. population, according to intercensal estimates from the U.S. Census.

Information about city-level socioeconomic trends is from the five-year American Community Survey in 2021. The Washington Post poll measuring whether Americans would recommend or discourage children from playing football was conducted by telephone April 28-May 3, 2023, among a random national sample of 1,006 adults, with 75 percent reached on cell phones and 25 percent on landlines and have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Data reporter Emily Giambalvo, polling director Scott Clement and polling analyst Emily Guskin contributed to this report. Editing by Joe Tone. Copy editing by Ryan Romano. Photo editing by Toni L. Sandys. Design by Andrew Braford. Design editing by Virginia Singarayar. Projects editing by KC Schap

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