For the past several years, the main event on select Friday nights in the fall in Westhampton Beach has been at the high school, with cars lining the parking lot and miles of surrounding streets to watch the Hurricanes varsity football team. The bleachers are filled with parents, students and fans, and more spectators of all ages line the fence surrounding the field, as throngs of children and teens chase each other around the grassy areas, throwing footballs and joining in the cheers during touchdowns.
Just 30 miles to the east, at a high school of similar size, there is no similar phenomenon on Friday nights, or Saturday evenings either. This season marks the third straight year there has been no varsity football team at East Hampton High School, and many are beginning to wonder if the program is done for good.
To try to puzzle out the answer when predicting the future success of any high school sports program, the first place people often look is at the youth programs in the town. The notoriety and excitement the Hurricanes have generated after making the playoffs for the last six straight years and 12 out of the last 13, winning both the Suffolk County and Long Island Division III titles in 2017, and making it back to the county final last year has been the biggest reason why its youth football teams have continued to attract plenty of players, from as young as 5 up through sixth-graders. Meanwhile, in neighboring towns, the story is different: There are currently no youth football teams in Hampton Bays, while there is just one — a fifth and sixth grade team — in Southampton.
But something interesting has been happening in East Hampton over the last few years, and it might hold the key to the future for towns struggling to fill their junior high, junior varsity and varsity rosters with enough players.
Flag football, touted in recent years as a possible new alternative for youth programs to address rising fears surrounding head injuries, has taken hold in East Hampton, despite the fact that the high school tackle football program has been fighting for its life.
Joe McKee, who was the head coach of the Bonac varsity team before it went defunct a few years ago, has been the catalyst behind the switch to flag football, and it’s hard to argue with the numbers. McKee started the flag program in 2016, with roughly 40 children from kindergarten through sixth grade signing up. The program added 30 more kids in 2017, was up to just over 110 kids last year, and this season, has had 160 players, male and female, competing in the league. The teams play against each other and do not travel, which surely adds to the appeal for parents, and McKee believes they are one of the only — if not the only — towns on the island to have a dedicated flag football league.
In this second article in The Express News Group’s series examining the state of football on the East End, we take a look at the dynamics of youth programs in the area: what trends are happening in terms of participation, what local coaches and community leaders are trying to do to bolster those numbers and maintain interest in the sport, and what specific challenges arise for youth programs on the East End.
The Success Of Flag Football
McKee desperately wants to see football make a comeback in East Hampton, even though he knows the odds are stacked against him. With football participation down nationwide, and fears about head injuries stoked by national news coverage, creating support and enthusiasm around the sport is an uphill battle he acknowledges. But the popularity of the flag football program, as well as the success of the school’s junior varsity team — which is currently 4-1 — has given him cause for hope, even as he stresses the urgency of making a return to varsity sooner rather than later.
It’s the reason he started the flag program four years ago, trying to test a theory he’s had for a while.
“I just felt like it was a way you could get more kids involved,” he said of his motivations for starting a flag football program. “I’ve never been a fan of contact football for really young kids.”
He said he has paid attention as schools and towns in other states have made the switch to flag football, and added that in some areas, there is no tackle football until players are in seventh grade.
Proponents of tackle football will argue that delaying tackling will set players back in terms of learning how to do it the right way, but McKee doesn’t buy into that theory.
“I think you have plenty of time to teach a kid how to tackle the right way,” he said. “A lot of tackling is natural. It’s just kind of a given instinct.”
Instead, he argues, the focus, especially at a young age, needs to be on safety and fun.
“My main motivation was I wanted to make football fun for all kids,” he said, adding that there are more than 20 girls currently participating in the program as well. “I want them to learn to enjoy the game without all the physicality. When they get old enough and strong enough and mature enough they can decide if they want to get into tackle.”
McKee said they still emphasize the competitive nature of the sport, but also try to focus on teaching the basic skills of throwing and catching, working on proper stances, and making the players aware of the different rules and guidelines in the game, such as awareness of the line of scrimmage, and the use of different formations.
The significant bumps in participation every year are the best proof that what McKee is doing is working, and parents seem to be on board.
Chris Carney is a 1988 graduate of East Hampton High School where he played multiple sports, including football. His sons, Casey, 8, and Jackson, 11, have been playing flag football since its inception in the town. He describes it as a “gateway sport.”
“It’s so community oriented and inclusive of everybody,” he said, adding that his youngest son, whom he describes as naturally shy, has gained a great deal of confidence from playing flag football, which he said has made him more willing to try other sports.
Like McKee, Carney is hoping to see football make a comeback at the varsity level in East Hampton, not only for nostalgic reasons, but because he believes in the power the sport has to make a positive impact on children and teens.
“I feel like it did a lot for me as a young man, just the structure of the sport,” he said, lamenting what he sees as a decline in popularity in East Hampton not just of football but in other contact sports that are characterized by physicality and that require a certain degree of aggression, such as wrestling and lacrosse.
When asked how he would feel about his sons playing tackle football if that were an option in the town right now, he pointed out that his oldest son did play on a tackle football team for one year, and expressed similar feelings as McKee when it comes to the value of tackle football for the younger players.
“I see all the positive things that can come out of it, but I don’t think they need to be banging heads around at 7 years old,” he said.
He pointed out that flag football is a better option not only for parents concerned about injuries, but also because it is vastly more inclusive, inviting children into the sport that likely would not consider giving traditional tackle football a try.
“When you have full contact football, it excludes a large section of the population,” he said.
“I think the success and intelligence behind it in terms of setting it up is that even if you don’t create future football players down the road, you’re certainly creating interest in the game itself. I’m sure there will be a lot of kids who will go on to play high school football because of this exposure to it, and if my kids choose to go that route, I would support them.”
Of course, for the children playing flag football now who intend to keep playing football as they enter middle school and high school, tackling is something they will have to learn eventually. Carney said that efforts to make the game safer and teach proper tackling technique will need continued emphasis, and he said the game could take a few pointers from another sport he’s very familiar with — rugby.
“There are some simple rules that football could adopt from rugby that would make the game safer,” he said. “I’m guessing they will eventually catch up.”
Is Flag Football The Answer For Everyone?
McKee isn’t the only leader in the athletic community who has warmed to the idea of flag football as a way to address dwindling numbers in the sport. Southampton High School Athletic Director Darren Phillips would like to see a similar program emerge in his town, especially considering there are currently no youth teams coming up behind the current fifth and sixth grade team.
“I personally think youth football should go to flag and not contact so you can build skills, have fun and sustain an interest in football to play as seventh graders,” he said.
Drew Walker, the athletic director at Hampton Bays, is also interested in flag football as a way to bring a youth program back in the town. Southampton Youth Services offers a flag football program in the fall that is open to Southampton Town residents, but Walker said maybe it could be an option within Hampton Bays.
“I think that program is something that we need to look at as a community and see if there is any parent interest to get something off the ground at the youth level for Hampton Bays,” he said.
Of course, not everyone is convinced that a switch to flag football is the answer. It doesn’t seem to be coming to Westhampton Beach anytime soon. The youth program there is thriving, thanks to the trickle-down effect of its successful varsity program.
Westhampton Beach PAL football coordinator Dick Herzing lends a certain degree of credibility and gravitas to the youth program, and has a unique perspective. He played football at Fordham Prep and then at Marquette University before a short career as a defensive tackle with the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants in the 1960s. Youth football has been strong in the town for many years, and Herzing gave credit to Jim Gohery and Ray Dean, who started the program in the mid 1990s.
Herzing believes that the success of the youth football program in Westhampton Beach can be attributed to a few key factors: strong and consistent coaching, a winning tradition at the highest level, and strong coordination and synergy between all the levels, from touch football for the youngest kids all the way through to the varsity squad.
“We’ve always had great coaching,” he said, referencing former varsity head coach Bill Parry and current varsity head coach Bryan Schaumloffel, who was Parry’s assistant for many years and has always been involved with the youth programs. He gave credit to Westhampton Beach Athletic Director Kathy Masterson as well, saying she goes above and beyond her duties to help the teams and coaches get whatever they need at the youth level.
It is perhaps not surprising that Herzing has not been swept up in the fervor surrounding head injury concerns. He does not have much hesitation about teaching tackling and using it in games at the youth level.
“I think it’s a little bit too much,” he said of fears surrounding concussions. “I don’t recall any concussions on our kids. I don’t think they generate enough speed and power at that age. They don’t really hit hard until junior high. I think it’s overplayed.”
He did acknowledge that the rise in popularity of other sports could also be a factor in any decline in football. While numbers are still strong for football in Westhampton Beach, he did cite a rising interest in lacrosse, saying it has “taken away” some football players. Coaches in Southampton and Hampton Bays have cited the rising popularity of soccer, which, unlike lacrosse, is played in the same season as football, forcing players to make a choice between the two at an early age.
Pierson Athletic Director Eric Bramoff has a unique perspective, as someone who played soccer in high school and then took up football in college. His young sons have played youth football as well, and he is aware of the pros and cons of participating in the sport. He says there are unique challenges facing programs on the East End, and acknowledged the difficulty of building up a youth program in the current climate surrounding football nationally, especially for towns where the varsity has not seen much success in recent years or has struggled to field a varsity team.
Bramoff agrees that it is best to limit hits and delay live tackling in games while players are still young, but said it is still important to make attempts to teach players the proper way to block and tackle when they are young, in as safe a way as possible. He agrees with Herzing that players at the younger end of the spectrum on youth teams likely aren’t moving fast enough to make big hits, but cautioned that once they reach fifth, sixth and seventh grade, they start to gain the ability to do that, yet still aren’t strong enough for it to be safe. He is a proponent of delaying tackling until eighth grade.
“You only get so many hits, so you want to limit the amount of them,” he said.
Is It Worth The Risk?
Westhampton Beach Athletic Trainer Scott Leogrande touts the many advances that have been made in recent years to make the sport safer, and says he has seen the difference. From better equipment, to changes in the way coaches teach players to tackle, to improved concussion protocol. Leogrande is dealing with fewer concussions than he did 10 years ago, he said. The only drawback, he joked, is the increase in paperwork and follow through protocols he has to do when he does treat a concussed athlete.
But, fair or not, the fears around head injuries related to football aren’t going to go away anytime soon. For parents considering whether or not to get their children involved at the youth level, sometimes the decision making has more to do with what’s happening at the higher levels than people may even consciously realize or admit. The question, essentially, boils down to: Is it worth it? It’s a lot easier to argue that, yes, it is, when it seems like the entire community is lining the high school field on Friday nights.
“This is a sport where only three kids really touch the ball on a regular basis,” Bramoff said. “And if your son isn’t one of them, why would they want to stick it out and get their head beat in to lose?
“Westhampton Beach has a strong program, so there’s a snowball effect,” he continued. “When you have success at the varsity level, then you have marginal athletes debating whether or not to play, and maybe the conversation with the parents is about risk and reward. Maybe it’s a risk [from a safety point of view] but the reward is so great because you can be part of something special. But you’re not going to take that risk if there’s no reward at the end.”
Next week, the final part of the series shines a spotlight on the Westhampton Beach football program and what it has done to become, not just the the most successful program on the East End, but in Suffolk County.