Is Vermont high school football going extinct?

MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) We're getting ready for another weekend of high school football, but a recent article by a national publication is using tough talk to describe the declining popularity of the sport in Vermont.

In its 10th season, Oxbow High School football cancelled its varsity schedule due to a lack of participation.

"They're really excited to keep playing, which is the most important part," said Brianne Barnes, Oxbow's athletic director.

Low numbers in the sport isn't just a growing trend in the state, it's a nationwide problem. "Football is under attack," said Bob Johnson with the Vermont Principals' Association.

However, a Wall Street Journal article out this month spotlights the Green Mountain State saying, "Yet almost nowhere is the game at risk of going extinct - but in Vermont that is actually an outside possibility."

"Is it going to be extinct? No. I don't think it's going to be extinct, but I do think, unfortunately, we're going to see other teams go under," Johnson said.

The story highlights data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. It says, "The number of boys playing high school football in Vermont has fallen 48-percent over the last 10 years, from 1,924 athletes to 993.

"I'm not convinced that that number is completely accurate," Johnson said. Although he's quoted in the article, he says statistics can be manipulated, but he doesn't deny the drop off. "Yes there are declining numbers. It's something that's been around for a while, and we knew it was coming."

Safety concerns continue to be the driving factor. The VPA has been taking steps towards addressing those issues, including flag football for all middle school students by 2018.

"I've played football since fourth grade, so I've always been big and tough and that's just the way it's always been," said Jimmy Hayes, a senior on St. Johnsbury's team. But Hayes realize changes need to made in order for the game to grow. "The refs have made more new rules on safety precautions, and we have to abide by those rules, and overall I think it's the best for everybody -- and get more players out here."

Just down the road from the VPA office is Montpelier High School. The Solons varsity football program stopped about five years ago. The intention was to just play a JV schedule until the numbers could improve. That never happened, and eventually the entire program completely folded.

"For us here, I think it becomes more of an opportunity issue. Playing when they're younger is a little more difficult, unless they want to go to a different town," said Matt Link, Montpelier's athletic director.

Unlike Montpelier, Oxbow has a feeder program. The school is confident that the Bradford Bulldogs will help boost the numbers back up in time for next season, and years to come.

"We're building that football culture here. We're still working on it. We don't want it to go away and so we want to take a step back and make sure we can rebuild and still have that program here," Barnes said.

Bob Johnson says the VPA doesn't keep their own records of how many students participate in football because some schools don't report them and the schools that do report them may not be accurate.

Saturday on The Weekend Channel 3 News at 6 t0 8 a.m., Scott Fleishman will have more on reaction to the Wall Street Journal article, and will talk about signs that things are not all doom and gloom when it comes to football in Vermont.