For decades, football has had the greatest participation among high school sports. In recent years it’s become the greatest spectator sport as well. Today, MHSAA Football Playoff revenue exceeds that of Boys and Girls Basketball Tournaments combined. And if I ever want to generate comments to a blog, all I have to do is mention football.
I can write either the most inspired or inane words about most topics, and not generate a comment. But mention “football,” and opinions come fast and usually furious.
So it was with my eyes wide open that I challenged some “sacred cows” in my posting of March 20, questioned some of the standard operating procedures of high school football practice, and predicted that we will soon be making some changes in the sport I played through four years of college and coached in high school and to which I owe more of my character development than any other sport. I knew some readers would call me out of date and out of touch, knowing nothing of my past or my passion.
I knew some readers would challenge any comparison made with college and professional players, asserting that older players need fewer practices with less contact because they already have the skills and techniques of blocking and tackling. However, they miss the fact that it is the younger and still growing body that needs more care and caution, not less. Less hitting, not more. More heat and humidity acclimatization, not less.
I knew some readers would complain about diminishing time to develop young players, overlooking the proliferation of camps, clinics, combines, 7-on-7 leagues and the like which have improved skills and conditioning for many athletes prior to the official start of practice. If that were not true or if we would dial down the out-of-season demands, then I might not join the amassing advocates for reduced in-season practice demands. But sadly, it is true; coaches already have these kids year-round.
On the same day that I posted predictions of changes for football practice policies in Michigan, including more days before pads and fewer days with double sessions, the Georgia High School Association adopted policies that did just that, requiring five days of practice before the first with full pads and prohibiting two-a-day practices on consecutive days.
Such changes reflect the growing body of evidence regarding “best practices” for high school football, including the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Federation of State High School Associations. This train has left the station; and Michigan should be an early stop, an early adopter of practice policies modifications. We put our players, coaches and selves in peril if we ignore the evidence.
I’m embarrassed to say that for too long I avoided this topic because I knew it would bring ridicule. Then recently, a young but experienced head football coach told me that these are the kinds of changes that football needs. Needs to keep the game attractive to kids; and needs to keep the game safe for kids.
Separated by 527 travel miles – whether over Mackinac Bridge or around Lake Michigan, the Novara family celebrated nearly parallel football successes this fall.
At Portland, John Novara completed his 25th season as head coach leading the Raiders to a 12-1 record – their best since finishing Division 5 runner-up in 2018, and a second-straight Capital Area Activities Conference White championship on the way to reaching the Division 4 Semifinals.
At Kingsford, fifth-year coach Mark Novara led the Flivvers to a 10-2 record – their best since posting the same in 2004. Kingsford shared the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper title and won a Division 5 District title, its first District championship since 2009.
John Novara graduated from Iron Mountain in 1989, and younger brother Mark graduated from Kingsford in 1993.
Similarly parallel, both teams were quarterbacked by Novaras. Dominic Novara directed the Raiders’ attack, and cousin Nic Novara led the Flivvers. Both are juniors. (Mark Novara was a Division III All-American at quarterback at Lakeland College in Wisconsin.)
One more connection: Portland athletic director Kevin Veale quarterbacked the Iron Mountain teams with John Novara as tight end long before they worked together downstate. Veale’s nephew Garrett Veale was a standout two-way lineman for Mark Novara and Kingsford this fall.
Small gesture, memorable connection
Dante DeGrazia’s senior season was sadly short-lived this fall, as he suffered a season-ending injury during the first half of South Lyon East’s opening game against White Lake Lakeland at Michigan Stadium.
But an official provided a memory the DeGrazias will not forget.
Chris Curtis had begun his 16th season as an official earlier that day at U-M, and stuck around to watch the Lakes Valley Conference matchup. A month later, he was officiating the East/Warren Mott game, and made sure to check in with DeGrazia – a small gesture, but a meaningful one as well and another reminder of the interconnectedness of communities within educational athletics.
“When he heard my son wasn't able to play anymore, needed surgery and that he was a senior, he offered him kindness and a hug on the field,” Dante’s mother Dana DeGrazia wrote to East athletic director Greg Michaels. “As a parent whose son is going through a rough time dealing with losing his senior season, hearing this story from Dante means a lot to me and the support that was given to him and I wanted to reach out and tell him thank you.”
PHOTOS (Top) Kingsford football coach Mark Novara, far left, quarterback Nic Novara and Portland coach (and uncle) John Novara celebrate the Flivvers' District title. (Middle) South Lyon East's Dante DeGrazia (33) and official Chris Curtis meet for a quick hug during East's Week 5 game. (Photos courtesy of the Portland football program and DeGrazia family, respectively.)