By Karissa Niehoff
NFHS Executive Director
When the annual High School Athletics Participation Survey was released by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in August, many headlines across the country focused on the drop in the number of boys playing 11-player football. After all, the report showed 30,829 fewer participants than the year before. However, perhaps the most important number was overlooked – 14,247.
Yes, 14,247, the number of high schools with 11-player football teams. While there was a slight decline in the number of participants in many states, the number of schools sponsoring the sport was the highest in five years. In fact, the number of schools last year with 11-player teams has only been topped twice in the survey’s history – 14,262 in 2013-14 and 14,279 in 2010-11.
In addition, smaller schools in some states have shifted to 6-player, 8-player and 9-player football and have had good responses. The survey indicates an additional 156 schools and 1,594 participants involved in these alternate forms of the sport; and, in the past 10 years, participation by girls in 11-player football has doubled, with more than 2,400 participants this past year.
These numbers express the desire by high schools to keep alive one of the oldest and most treasured traditions in our nation – Friday Night Football Under the Lights. Although there are many options today for the entertainment dollar, nothing surpasses supporting the local high school football team on Friday nights. The No. 1 fan base in America? The answer is that number again – 14,247.
In Week 2 of the National Football League season, just under 1.1 million fans attended the 16 games. While impressive, it doesn’t come close to the number of fans who watched high school football during the corresponding week. It’s all in that number – 14,247.
With approximately 7,123 games every Friday night (14,247 divided by 2), and with a conservative estimate of 1,000 fans per game, there are more than 7 million fans in high school football stadiums every week. An unofficial attendance survey conducted by the NFHS in 2011 indicated about 165 million fans attended high school football games during that season, which included up to five weeks of playoffs and a weekly average of 11 million fans. Either way, the number of fans at high school football games dwarfs the numbers attending professional football games.
Early season crowds have been strong in many areas of the country with terrific fall weather – filled by current and former students; parents, grandparents and friends of players on the team; and longtime fans and supporters in the community. Unlike crowds at the college and professional levels where fans have little, if any, identity with the players, there is a connection between the players and fans at the high school level.
With concussion protocols and laws in place in every state, with a reduction in contact levels before the season and during practices, and with teaching of proper tackling skills at lower levels, we believe people, including parents of high school student-athletes, are seeing and believing that the sport of football at the high school level is as safe as it ever has been.
We urge you to support your local high school football team this Friday night.
Dr. Karissa L. Niehoff is in her second year as executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in Indianapolis, Indiana. She is the first female to head the national leadership organization for high school athletics and performing arts activities and the sixth full-time executive director of the NFHS, which celebrated its 100th year of service during the 2018-19 school year. She previously was executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools-Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference for seven years.
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.)