North/South/East/West Xtra: Youth football programs design safety plan to combat decreasing numbers

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North Allegheny High School won the WPIAL and PIAA Class AAAA football championships in 2012 with an eye-catching 16-0 record. But at a time when the popularity of football would have been expected to be at an all-time high for the community, North Allegheny's youth leagues saw a sharp 15 percent decline in participation the following year.

North Allegheny is not alone.

Just about every community in Western Pennsylvania has witnessed a similar decline in participation and a lot of the reasons for this have been attributed to parents' concerns about injuries, especially concussions and other head injuries.

One of the area's largest youth leagues, with some help from the Steelers, is taking steps to solve the growing problem.

With an eye toward concussion awareness and an effort to rebuild participation levels, the Greater 19 Youth Football League joined USA Football and its Heads Up national initiative on player safety this year.

The Greater 19 league includes teams from Allegheny, Butler, Westmoreland and Washington counties. Bethel Park, Canon-McMillan, Keystone Oaks, North Allegheny, Norwin, Peters Township, Seneca Valley, South Fayette, South Park, Thomas Jefferson and Upper St. Clair have formed a competitive league with players who feed into some of the most tradition-rich high school programs in the WPIAL and the state.

Teams from those communities experienced a 15 percent decline in participation in the past year. As a result, its board voted to make it mandatory for all teams in the league to join USA Football this year. The hope is the Heads Up program will convince parents the league's coaches are well-informed and instructed on safety measures, including tackling techniques that reduce the risk of head injuries.

"We're trying to do everything we can to become a positive influence and make kids play football again," Greater 19 president Joe Scarillo said. "We're doing everything we can to make it a positive experience for players, coaches and parents."

In 2012, the Greater 19 league fielded 76 teams in all youth age groups (6 to 13). Last year the league was able to field only 66 teams. Enrollment is ongoing for this year, but the number is likely to decrease again.

When youth coaches ask parents why they are not signing their kids up for football, they tend to get the same answer. Parents, especially mothers, are concerned about head injuries.

"We see the numbers," said Pierre Khoury, the president of Seneca Valley youth football. "It's always a concern for us. That's why we're trying to be proactive and trying to raise awareness. I think we have an awareness issue. And until we address that, there really is no answer to it."

The Steelers are paying half the costs associated with getting Greater 19 coaches certified by USA Football. Hopewell, Monaca and Mount Pleasant were part of the Heads Up pilot program last year, but the Greater 19 league is the first "top 500" league in the area to join.

A top 500 league is representative of one of the 500 largest youth football leagues in the country. There are seven other top 500 leagues in Western Pennsylvania and the Steelers have committed money to helping those leagues if they join in the future.

Declining youth football participation is a nationwide trend. In March, the NFL allocated a $45 million grant to USA Football to support the growth of youth football. According to the NFL, more than 2,700 youth leagues registered for the Heads Up program, representing approximately 600,000 players and 90,000 coaches.

In the Pittsburgh area, some locales have experienced bigger declines in participation than others.

For the Keystone Oaks area, which has a Class AA high school program that serves Castle Shannon, Dormont and Green Tree, the association will not have a team for 6 and 7 year olds this season because they could not get enough kids to sign up.

Overall, KOA president Jeff Brown said there has been a 33 percent decline in its participation levels in the past year. He said his organization had 70-75 kids who played last year and he only expects around 50 this year.

"I run a flag football league with more than 200 kids in it and when I try to get the parents to sign up for the Greater 19 league, it's always the same thing," Brown said. "They don't want their kids playing tackle football because they're worried about head injuries.

"That's the biggest issue for parents. I've been a coach for five years and I have a good track record with the parents who have been with me for that time. But it's been difficult to convince new parents to let their kids play."

Brown and many of his coaches joined USA Football in previous years on their own and have already been instructed on the newest and best ways to promote head safety in the game. He said he has not had any head injuries in his program in the past three years.

"The program has definitely made us more aware," Brown said. "I think it has worked well. USA Football takes it very seriously. We're trying to change the perception of youth football."

Associations in larger school districts have not been immune to the decreasing numbers. Bernie Caputo, president of the North Allegheny Tiger Pride Football Club, said six years ago North Allegheny fielded 10 teams in its youth program and now only fields six.

One trend Caputo has noticed in recent years is parents holding their children out of youth football during their elementary school years and allowing them to play once they reach middle school.

"For us, my belief is it's the concussions," Caputo said. "In our area kids have access to other sports like soccer or lacrosse and parents perceive those as safer sports."

Caputo is trying to win back parents by taking additional measures, which he believes makes the game safer.

North Allegheny does not use helmets or shoulder pads that are more than five years old. His coaches have attended clinics where sports concussion specialist Dr. Mickey Collins has been a speaker.

Also, former NFL players are serving or have served as coaches in the program, including former Steelers defensive lineman Chris Hoke and Darnell Dinkins, a Schenley High School and Pitt graduate who played eight seasons in the NFL with four teams.

Caputo hopes those measures and the affiliation with USA Football will drive enrollment up in future years.

"Some of our coaches joined in the past," Caputo said. "They paid their own dues. The league made it mandatory, but we were going to institute it at North Allegheny regardless. We felt that strongly about it.

"It will help our coaches and it will give parents more comfort about the sport. It might take some time for the parents to see it and see how it works. But over time, we think it will help."

Khoury said his enrollment numbers have declined over the past five years, but not as steeply as other communities. He said that is likely due to the population boom in Cranberry more than anything else.

Khoury has partnered with UPMC to create a safety program that includes baseline concussion testing for all players as well as a clear set of guidelines for when a player can return to play after suffering a head injury.

Seneca Valley also has strict rules for equipment replacement and encourages parents to become more involved in the program.

Scarillo is hopeful the raised awareness will help the league restore its numbers in future years.

"Anything we can do to make it more attractive to play, that's what we're going to do," Scarillo said.

Ray Fittipaldo: and Twitter @rayfitt1.

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