District plans to combine high school football teams

Some New Jersey high school football fields are in danger of missing a key part of the game — players.

Nationwide, fewer kids are playing football by the tens of thousands. In New Jersey, that downward trend holds, and Ken Mason, athletic director for the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional District, says his schools are experiencing the football drought first hand.

“Mercer County football is in serious trouble, in my opinion,” said Mason. “In West Windsor, we’re surrounded by Princeton, who didn’t win a game this year and only had about 30 kids tops. Robbinsville didn’t win a game this year, same numbers, didn’t win a game. I think they only scored three touchdowns in a whole year and had some bad injuries.”

So next year, West Windsor-Plainsboro will be carrying the ball on a radical new idea of combining the football programs of the north and south high schools. Changing demographics and the concern over the dangers of the game are cited as the top reasons for football’s decline. The district will also combine the hockey programs.

“High School North and High School South would merge as one. Some ideas include changing the helmet and change the uniform,” continued Mason.

Mason says one of the key ways to improve safety on the football field is to make sure kids play kids of the same size and skill level, and combining football programs is one way to make that happen.

“We did see a rise in concussions at West Windsor South because their numbers were low and they played schools that were very good and getting beat 40-0. We had kids getting hurt,” said Mason.

The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association opposes combining programs as currently structured.

In a statement, the group said: “Removing any oversight or review will give districts the green light to create all-star teams from a combined school district talent pool. Every student, parent, administrator and coach should be very, very concerned.”

State Sen. Shirley Turner, who has a miniature signed Giants helmet on her desk, is sponsoring a bill that would allow the schools to combine programs when there aren’t enough kids to field a team. She says it’s time for a new approach after at least two schools cancelled their programs this year.

“I think the athletic association is use to going by the book. Those were the days of yore when we had so many students interested in team sports. But things have changed and we have to change with them in terms of the rules and regulations that we have today,” said Turner.

The bill has passed the Senate and the Assembly takes it up early in January. More likely needs to be done to stem football’s decline.

In Syracuse, the schools are experimenting with eight-man football. Mason says all ideas should be fielded to tackle the coming crisis in one of the nation’s most popular sports.