Despite all the talk about concussions and stories about scores of parents holding their children out of football because of safety concerns, participation numbers are trending upward among East Bay high school football programs.
Mirroring a nationwide cycle, several local programs have rebounded after recent declines.
"Numbers are actually much better than they have been in the past," San Leandro coach Brad Bowers said.
Football had 103,464 participants statewide in 2013, a slight increase over the previous year, according to the California Interscholastic Federation. Nationally, numbers were up for the first time in five years, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
"We've seen a big drop-off in recent years, but this year it's kind of leveled off," said Miramonte coach Jack Schram, whose varsity squad has 34 players, up from 30 last year. The junior varsity and freshman teams have also shown increases.
Schram said the concussion issue is a "big problem" with regard to the decline in football participation but added that specialization in a single sport and growing academic demands are other factors.
The rise in cost of simply playing football also has impacted numbers in less-affluent areas.
"Definitely," Schram said. "Coming from the years I coached at Encinal, those are big factors in that kind of community."
Though happy about his program's growth, Bowers is uncertain about the reason for it.
"I'm not sure, I think the new field, the new facilities," said Bowers about the renovated Burrell Field. "I think it goes in waves."
Granada coach Tim Silva said his varsity numbers are down at 38, but his freshman team's numbers are up, at 72. California coach Eric Billeci, whose team advanced to the North Coast Section Division I championship game in 2013, has seen no drop-off whatsoever.
"This is the biggest group of freshmen I've had," Billeci said. "We have over 60 freshmen, so I don't know if that's attributed to last year's success or just a random thing. Our numbers are pretty much the same as where they've been over the last five years."
Regarding parents' fear of concussions, Schram said that there are dangers in all sports. In fact, the worst concussions he's seen were in basketball.
"There's a hardwood floor with no protection on the head," he said.
Pittsburg coach Victor Galli's program continues to flourish in his one-high-school city.
But Galli believes the CIF is undercutting his efforts to attract incoming ninth-graders to the program by not allowing him to make presentations at junior high schools in Pittsburg, which he had done for 12 straight years before this past spring.
"I was told by NCS that was considered recruiting," Galli said. "I wasn't allowed to go to junior high schools this spring. Normally, I have 90 come out for the freshman team; this time we had 60. I wasn't going to Antioch or Concord, I was going to Pittsburg junior high schools, and I was told that was recruiting. I have a problem with that."
NCS commissioner Gil Lemmon said the CIF two years ago revised its bylaw dealing with enrollment and undue influence. Now only a high school administrator or athletic director can visit feeder schools.
"I think there is legitimately a concern within CIF that there are individual coaches, such as, say, a football coach, going down to the middle school and not focusing on the entire athletic program, but only focusing on their program," Lemmon said, speaking generally.
"That's not right. The concept is you're imparting information about the athletic program, not down there to secure athletes for your one sport."