Each summer, the Michigan High School Athletic Association issues several news releases that, together, help to inform us about the health of high school sports in Michigan. These include reports regarding participation and attendance.
The first of these releases will occur later this month when we report on participation and make comparisons to previous years. Later, there will be a report of how participation in Michigan compares to other states.
Without going into detail now, I’ll preempt the first release to provide its biggest news – football participation was down about five percent in grades 9-12 in 2016 compared to 2015.
The decline in number of schools sponsoring 11-player football is matched by the increase in schools sponsoring the 8-player game. So overall, the number of football schools is stable; but squad size is smaller.
Among other things, this predicts continuing growth in 8-player football, which expects approximately 60 schools this fall when the MHSAA 8-player tournament expands from one to two 16-team divisions.
The latest participation data also requires that those of us who love the game of football have much work to do; and that work has little to do with how either the 8- or 11-player tournament is conducted.
The focus needs to be on practice – including how early in August it begins and how much contact is allowed; the focus must be on personnel – including the importance of hiring on-staff teachers as coaches; and the focus must be on perceptions – including our narrative that our game has never been healthier for junior high/middle school and high school students and never more important for the unity and identity of schools and communities.
Like other sports, football is challenged by declining high school age enrollment, expansion in the number of sports offered by schools and increased single-sport specialization, as well as a largely misplaced concern for injuries.
On June 28, the leadership of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association is convening a focus group to help identify the themes that resonate best with parents and who the most trusted people are to deliver those messages. This is an important effort.
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.)