Friday will be the final day of the high school football regular season.
It will be the final day of Platteville’s football season unless the Hillmen beat River Valley (7 p.m. on 1590 AM, by the way) and they get picked for the WIAA football playoffs. History says that if the former happens (which would give the Hillmen a 4–4 Southwest Wisconsin Conference record), the latter probably will.
The preseason predictors had the Hillmen contending for the SWC title. That was before one player, wide receiver/defensive back Derek Schambow, missed three games with a knee injury. Football is a team game, so it’s unusual to see a season teeter on one player’s injury. Then again, ask yourself where the Packers would be without quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
This has so far been a pretty wild high school season other than for the leaders of the three area conferences — Lancaster of the SWC, Darlington of the Southwest Wisconsin Activities League, and Black Hawk of the Six Rivers Conference — which have pretty much crushed their conference opposition. (Although Black Hawk had more difficulty than expected against Belmont last week, which you will read about in our Sports section.) When Platteville lost to Dodgeville 48–45 six weeks ago, few probably figured the Hillmen could turn around and shut out the Dodgers five weeks later. And then they did.
I thought that first Hillmen–Dodgers game was about as crazy a game as possible. (For one thing, thanks to the 45-minute lightning delay at the half and the large number of passes, the game was literally as long as a Super Bowl.) Then came last weekend, where I announced two different types of games with similar outcomes — Galena 15, Lena–Winslow 14 (winning touchdown and two-point conversion with 3 minutes left) Friday and Cassville 48, Shullsburg 47 (winning score with 90 seconds left, a touchdown and extra point kicked by a foreign-exchange student) Saturday.
Football has supplanted baseball as America’s favorite sport for many reasons. One of them is its one-game-a-week schedule. If you lose a basketball game, unless it’s in March, there’s always another in a few days. (That’s the case in high school baseball or softball too, unless you played this past “spring,” in which case who knows when your next game would be due to the “spring” weather.) Every game is therefore important — a junior starting a high school season will play no more than 18 regular-season football games in his life. Another is football’s spot on everyone’s schedule — high schools on Friday nights, college on Saturdays, and the NFL on Sundays.
Participants in a good football program — as with participants in other well-run sports teams, or such extracurricular activities as music — learn valuable lessons that aren’t always taught in classrooms, such as teamwork and having your own role in a team, the team’s being more important than any one individual, the necessity of overcoming adversity (including pain and injury) and coming back at the next opportunity, and the importance of doing good work whether or not you get credit for it. Competitive activities such as football teach that on this planet we all must compete, and how to deal with success (particularly success where you didn’t do all that well but were better than your opponent) and failure (including when you did as well as you could but weren’t good enough).
Football is under attack, though, from two different directions. One is over football’s injury rate, including players who die practicing or playing football. However, perspective is important. We know more now about heat injury and how to prevent it. Colleges and high schools are required to be more cautious before clearing football players and other student–athletes to return after concussions. Gregg Easterbrook, the creator of ESPN.com’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback, wrote that a teenager driving a car for one hour has a 1 in 1 million chance of dying — a death rate six times higher than that teenager has practicing football for an hour. Daniel J. Flynn, author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, observed that more Americans die in bicycling crashes in one week than in the past three football seasons combined, and that 1,000 times more Americans die while swimming than while playing football, yet no one calls (or should call) to ban bicycling or swimming.
The decline in high school enrollments across southwest Wisconsin is making it increasingly difficult for small schools to field football teams. Boscobel ended its season early last year due to low numbers, and Seneca, which played for the state championship two seasons ago, canceled its 2013 varsity season the first week of practice because of not having enough players. I would suggest that co-op football teams are in football’s future were it not for the distance between many high schools in southwest Wisconsin.
Platteville’s Homecoming is this week. My broadcast partner claims that 85 percent of high school football coaches hate Homecoming. Given that Platteville beat Dodgeville on the Dodgers’ Homecoming and Cassville beat Shullsburg on the Miners’ Homecoming, you can see why coaches might feel that way. (I suspect the distraction lies not in in-school activities, whether or not they occur during the school day, but in such activities as, shall we say, distribution of disposable paper products other than in their intended purpose.)
I’ve never really coached (and I never played because I have no discernible athletic talent to apply to football or any other sport), so this may be out of line to say this, but it seems that blaming losses on “distractions” or whining about “distractions” is a bad thing for a coach to do. “Distractions” are what non-sports people would call “real life.” Dealing with things that go wrong (such as losing all but two of your wide receivers to injury, as happened to the Packers Sunday) or things that interfere with your focus is one of the life lessons athletes should learn from athletics.