Novato High School is in the process of dropping its football program. Some alums are confused and concerned… but they’re trading on nostalgia, not facts.
To try to understand Novato, California is to try to understand any small town experiencing growing pains as it attempts to transition into this century. The mostly white (76 percent), mostly families (12,411 out of 18,524 households), mostly affluent (median income $91,477, 67 percent homeowners), community started its current life as the ranchero of Fernando Feliz. Feliz called the town Novato in tribute to a Miwok Indian chief who shared a name with Saint Novatus post-baptism. Novato, with a current population of 51,904, is exactly 30 miles north of San Francisco and scrapes the southern border of Sonoma County.
The biggest local employer is the school district. It is home to the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art. And, for the longest time, Novato had the sole remaining Taco Bell, with an actual bell, in the county.
Because of its roots as a farm town and later an affordable and sprawling place where SFPD and SFFD workers raised their families, Novato even today has a decidedly blue collar approach. Its narrative is threaded with bake sales, Little League parades and racist chants at basketball games. All these, plus a landmark home powered by wind and bisected oil barrels, are hallmarks of the oak-studded brown hills that roll over cul-de-sacs and cow pastures.
At some point, every kid in Novato swears he will leave and never come back. For most, that’s untrue. Some stay forever, taking over the insurance company or matriculating into the family business as first responders or law enforcement. Others learn a trade or open restaurants and auto shops. Others do leave, for college, for work, but often they return as well. Novato is, they discover, a good place to raise children with good neighbors and has good enough access to a world-class city if you’re willing to put up with a world-class commute.
And so, it can be said, there is nothing wrong with Novato even if what’s right about it may take a bit of surface scratching.
This week, Novato is making regional headlines as its eponymous high school is dropping its football program after 60 years. The school, which has preliminarily decided not to field a varsity team this year, recently petitioned the league to bow out. Summer practices attracted only nine participants with a minimum of sixteen required. The team’s coach, Jason Searle, turned in his resignation on July 25 saying he wanted to focus on raising his young family.
If Novato High School stays out, the Marin County Athletic League, which includes Napa’s Justin-Siena, reportedly scheduled to drop after this season, would be left with Marin Catholic, Drake (San Anselmo), Redwood (Larkspur), San Rafael, Terra Linda, Tamalpais (Mill Valley) and San Marin (Novato).
Of those teams, Terra Linda, Tam, Drake, San Rafael and Redwood have in recent years moved in the same direction as Novato High. Along with a dip in general student interest and parent and booster participation, these schools are also getting used to scraping by with just above the minimum number of players required to field a team. Both Redwood and Drake have already dropped varsity football and restarted their respective programs over the last decade with varying degrees of success. And the conversation about whether prep football is an endeavor worth the health and financial risk has been introduced in every Marin County school district.
Within the next decade, it is not hard to imagine that the town of Novato, home to the county’s remaining active Pop Warner youth contact football program (the San Marin Youth Football and Cheer which supplies the talent to its namesake school as well as Marin Catholic and currently touts Rams quarterback Jared Goff as its most notable alum), will also be home to one of two varsity football teams in the county.
Why? Start with injuries and fatalities. More than two dozen high school athletes have died since 2015—13 alone that season—because of high school football-related injuries. Last season, Andre Jackson, 17, was hurt during a kickoff play in which he may have been kicked or kneed by another player while going after the ball. Jackson, a fullback and outside linebacker for Euclid High School in Euclid, Ohio, walked off the field after the play, went to the hospital that night with abdominal pain and was released.
That Sunday, the high school junior went back to the hospital, was treated, and died. The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office said the cause of death was a blow to Jackson’s abdomen, which led to a small bowel laceration and peritonitis—an inflammation of the membrane lining the inner abdominal wall.
Such catastrophic events are uncommon, yes, but they exist. And injuries in general (fractures, sprains, dislocations and concussions) are rampant in high school football. A 2009 study revealed from the 1.5 million prep football players in America, there were a staggering 1.2 million reported football-related injuries annually.
Or think of it this way, the waiver a parent signs for their child to play is basically a golden ticket to at least one visit to the ER per season.
Some high school football injuries heal with casts and crutches but most are not manifest until later in life. Long-term harm, including neurological damage/chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as well as injuries to the mid- and lower body, can force players to live with chronic pain or recurring knee and back problems as they age.
No other prep sport has such a high risk-to-reward ratio and the more we learn about football injuries, especially CTE, the more is revealed that even minor, unreported concussions due to constant collisions, in practice and in games, leads to damaged brains.
Twenty years ago, we did not know this. Ten years ago, we were starting to get the idea. Ten years from now, statistics will be even more alarming.
A small group of parents and alumni are gathering students to play in a last-ditch to save Novato High School’s football season. They’ve gone on Facebook to preach the value of prep football on Marin County’s northern edge. Novato High School class of 1980 alum Scott Dennison even made a shirt (one that appears to have parroted the Frankie Say Relax movement of 1984) to support the cause.
Novato, it should be noted, isn’t the only Anytown USA grappling with losing football. Last year, the number of preps playing football nationwide shrunk to just over one million. Though numbers of programs, like Novato’s, which fall away annually are murky, the attrition rate of players year over year is around 2.5 percent. According to Sports Illustrated, Midwestern states, once prolific football incubators, are the region in the country most dramatically down in numbers this decade. Ohio is down 12,797 players since 2008, Wisconsin is minus 4,565, Illinois 4,060, Missouri 2,342, Minnesota 2,224 and Iowa 2,190.
In contrast, there are now more than 3 million youth soccer participants in the U.S. with more than 400,000 in California alone. NFL players and coaches so frequently discuss their unwillingness to ever let their children suit up that it barely makes headlines anymore. And last fall, Clark County (Nevada) school board candidate Russell Davis ran on an anti-prep football platform (he lost.)
So change is happening, albeit slowly. Across town, San Marin High School, my alma mater, won approval in May to install lights on its football field which will help many alums realize their childhood dreams to watch prep football on Friday nights. Unfortunately, this dream will come true for them 30 years too late and ostensibly may only illuminate intramural match-ups in the decades to come. Or maybe the drama department can get together and do a Summer Stock-style performance of Friday Night Lights or Dazed and Confused on the field.
That, at least, will remind many of their prep football glory days at no risk to the community’s children.
Andrew J. Pridgen helps run sister site Goner Party and is the author of the novella “Burgundy Upholstery Sky”. His first full-length novel will be released in November. He also used to run around his high school gym wearing a Papier–mâché Mustang head but hopes for a better fate for his own son.