In just the past decade, participation in high school football has fallen by close to 20 percent across the state. That has left many schools facing the tough challenge of figuring out how to maintain football programs that have been community fixtures for decades.
Under the Friday night lights of the football field near Ellsworth High School, junior Taylor Clark and sophomore Jocelyn Jordan have turned out with what seems like a good portion of the student body.
"Everybody comes out to this. This is a big crowd pleaser," Clark says. "Football games are the biggest events, pretty much."
The crowd erupts in cheers as the team of about 15 players dashes onto the field, clad in maroon. Ellsworth's high school football program is only about a decade old, but Jordan says it has become a big draw for the community.
"Oh, everybody. Everybody," Jordan says. "Even people who don't even have kids will come to watch the games."
But on the field this year, things look a little different. Instead of 11 players on each side, there are just eight. Ellsworth is one of ten schools in the state that have moved to a new, eight man football league because of declining school enrollment and waning participation in the sport.
“In some of our activities, we've seen a dramatic decrease, and football would be one of those, where we've seen the numbers decline over the years,” says Mike Burnham, the executive director of the interscholastic division of the Maine Principals' Association.
Burnham also cites growing concerns over injuries and the long-term risks of concussions. Some smaller schools, says Burnham, have only been able to recruit a few dozen students to their football programs. Some have been forced to keep players on the field nearly the whole game, or to look at playing underclassmen who may not be ready — potentially putting them at risk of injury.
“We saw some schools that were facing a crisis on whether or not they'd be able to sponsor 11-man football,” he says. “So that kind of led us to where we're at, with eight man football.”
Ellsworth High athletic administrator Josh Frost says that with just 15 players turning out for football this year, joining the new league was the best option, at least for the next few years.
“Yeah, it would have been eight man football, or play JV football, or not have any football,” he says. “And it just seemed a lot easier to make the decision to play eight man, bring the sidelines in, shrink the field a little bit, play that.”
Ellsworth parent Jessica Brown says a number of community members had worked for more than a decade to build up the program here. They raised money, launched a youth program and, eventually, a high school team. The school even added a homecoming game and dance each fall.
Brown says the transition to eight player football has helped preserve an important local tradition.
"It was really heartbreaking to think we'd worked this hard, watched this program develop. What it's done for these kids," she says. "It really, I feel like, built my son. There was something so bonding about it. His best friends are still his football player friends. There's just something you can't replace."
So far, students and coaches say the transition has been relatively smooth. The biggest difficulty, many say, has been the long drives to schools in Topsham and Yarmouth. Junior player Noah Hughes says that, initially, he didn't like the idea of having to play a new kind of football on a skinnier field. But he says he now thinks its more demanding in a good way.
"But now that I'm in eight man, I honestly like it better than 11-man. It is faster, more aggressive. It takes more of you. When you complete something, it's more of a personal respect," he says. "It's just in my opinion, way more fun, faster. It's better, in my opinion."
Just this year, two other programs in Maine have been forced to cancel their varsity seasons due to a lack of players. Jessica McGreevey is the athletic director for one of them, Dixfield's Dirigo High School. She says the school and town are considering future options, including eight man football or a co-op team.
“Eight man football is a different game,” McGreevey says. “We have other schools out there playing eight man football with fewer kids and doing it successfully. So we're going to have to take a deep look at what we want to do as a community and where we want to go from here."
Sitting along the 40-yard-line, parent Jessica Brown says for her and other members of the Ellsworth community, this year's new, eight man football team is a source of pride.
“Watching the first game here, looking around, I started to feel hopeful again,” she says. “I mean, our kids don't know anything else. This is their Friday nights, and I'd hate for that tradition to be gone.”
Originally published 5:38 p.m. Oct. 3, 2019