MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Standing five rows from the top of Milan Puskar Stadium as the West Virginia University football team charged onto Mountaineer Field Saturday afternoon, I was reminded of another time growing up.
Before me the marching band had formed the outline of the state of West Virginia while sharing the show with cheerleaders, majorettes, dance and flag teams and baton twirlers.
Fireworks exploded as the team took the field.
The atmosphere was electric.
I could not remember the last time I saw baton twirlers. It made me smile.
It was the same football pageantry I had grown up with in high school, and now I was revisiting it with my son, who is a student at WVU.
In my school days, the grassy hillside overlooking our small-town football field was filled for every home game, and boys like me dreamed of wearing the blue and gold.
In my town, football was not only king, it was the only game in town — at least in the fall.
For the girls — these were the days before Title IX — there were no sports options, but they could be part of the halftime show.
This was the center of a community centered around the realities of a polluted river and factories that ebbed and flowed with the economy.
Being a football player was a big deal at our high school. We didn’t think about athletic scholarships, we just wanted to be part of the show.
In West Virginia, and many other college towns around the country, that community lives on and is celebrated.
It is part of their identity.
If the home team is winning at Mountaineer Field, the fans don’t leave. They must stay to the end so they can hear John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” while the team circles the field, thanking everyone as students and strangers alike lock arms and sway to the music while singing along:
“Almost heaven, West Virginia
“Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River
“Life is old there, older than the trees
“Younger than the mountains, blowing like the breeze.”
It is moving, really, even if you are not from West Virginia.
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The next day, The New York Times published the story, “Inside football’s campaign to save the game.”
It cited statistics that football participation at the high school level is down 10 percent over the past decade, even in places like Texas, where high school “Friday Night Lights” are still celebrated. In Ohio, which has produced the fourth highest total of NFL players, participation is down 27 percent.
Despite its position as being America’s most popular sport, NFL owners and leaders were concerned enough to launch a public relations campaign to show the league is paying attention to safety concerns. They have spent nearly $2 million on that campaign over the past two years.
The concern over head injuries is at the root.
The NFL depends on college football for players and college football depends on high schools for players, but fewer boys are taking up the sport in high school.
A week before the West Virginia game, I saw a local running back flipped up in the air in a local playoff game and watched his head snap back and hit the turf. He immediately grabbed at his helmet as if in pain.
He stayed in the game.
A few players later, he took another hit and appeared disoriented as he tried to find his way back to his position.
He gained 15 yards on the next play, then broke away for a 40-yard touchdown run after that.
He played the rest of the game, too.
Statistics show that high school football players are almost twice as likely to suffer a head injury than players in other sports, so it has quickly become a safety issue for many parents.
While declining school enrollment has played the most prominent role in mergers and the loss of junior varsity teams locally, high school athletes have plenty of safer options if they want to play sports.
My concern is that a behemoth like the NFL is now playing a role in crafting the safety message about the sport.
The Times commissioned a poll of 1,000 14-to-17-year-old boys who identified themselves as football players and found that 9 percent said their parents had voiced concerns over head injuries.
The Times article reported that the NFL launched the campaign #FootballMatters in May 2018 to promote rule changes it has made along with safety advances.
It generally promotes the benefits of having played football.
I loved playing football.
I love watching football.
But knowing what I know now about head injuries and micro-concussions, I’m glad my son did not play.
There is part of me that feels guilty about watching the violence on weekends and the toll it will take on so many young athletes.
I’d prefer it if the NFL paid more attention to better health care and salaries for its players than trying to convince parents there is nothing to see here.
Ken Tingley is editor of The Post-Star and may be reached via email at email@example.com.