Numbers Game: Iowa Schools Fighting to Save Football Season Before it Begins

MARTENSDALE, Iowa -- With a football stadium less than ten years old, at first glance, Martensdale-St. Marys looks the part.

"The facilities are awesome.  We’ve got an awesome football field and turf field, locker rooms are great, weight room is really nice," said Martensdale-St. Marys football coach Derek Wharton.  Weight rooms yield bigger athletes, but Wharton says the Blue Devils' roster is razor thin.  "Eleven people are going to be on the field at a time and we had 13 young men here at camp, which was not mandatory."

The past few years haven’t produced many wins for the "Class A" school, but now their season is in danger before fall camp even begins.  Wharton said, "We’re in a situation where we are fighting for a season."

Martensdale-St. Mary’s isn’t alone.  "It’s a struggle across the state of Iowa," said Wharton.  A state run in baseball proves athleticism is not the problem but sports specialization may be.  Wharton said, "We have great baseball, great basketball and great wrestling. A lot of kids have decided maybe two sports is enough for them."

Long-term effects from concussions have also been a concern.  "I think everybody has to make their own decision. I believe football is safer today than it has ever been," said Wharton.

Big schools aren’t immune either.  2014 Class 4A state runner-up Cedar Rapids Washington fielded just 37 players last year.  That is nearly 40 less than 2018 4A champ Dowling.  "With 37, you can still play the game.  With our numbers right here, we can’t even play the game," said Wharton.

In the last 15 years, the National Federation of High School Associations says participation in Iowa for 8-man and 11-man peaked at the start of the 2007 season with over 23,000 athletes. In 2017 there were 5,284 less players on Iowa rosters than ten years ago, a 13 percent decline. It's a downward trend that’s occurred in nine of the last ten years.  "We’ve all got to step up and do the best we can.  Today is a different world than it was back then and it’s a different society."

It's a society Wharton hopes does not give up on the game he loves.  "Especially the juniors and seniors. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of these kids, and I just don’t want them to miss out," Wharton said.

Grand View Christian was scheduled to play the Blue Devils but has already cancelled their season.  Martensdale-St. Marys is scheduled to open the season with a home game August 23 against GMG.

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