Duncan Drapeau was looking forward to his senior year of varsity football at Boothbay Region High School. A quarterback and team captain, he started playing in fifth grade and grew up with a group of buddies who played together through youth football and their first three years of high school.

But something happened this summer. A basketball injury to one player. A dirt-bike injury to another. Summer jobs that pay well in a tourist town. The tight-knit group began to unravel.

Other boys expected to play dropped out, a total of seven upperclassmen. Boothbay opened practice in August with barely two dozen players, down from a roster of at least 40 in each of the previous three years. Within a week, school officials decided to forgo varsity football for the first time since the school opened in 1955.

Boothbay principal Dan Welch cited player safety as a major concern.

“There could be situations where we were going to be overmatched by larger, more physically mature students,” he said.

Boothbay became the fifth Maine school in the past four years to pull the plug on varsity football. Telstar High of Bethel and Camden Hills did so last fall, as did Sacopee Valley of Hiram in 2013 and Calais-Woodland in 2012. All four, like Boothbay, played in the state’s smallest enrollment classification.

Such casualties raise questions about the viability of high school football in Maine, particularly at smaller schools. Over the past decade, participation in high school football dropped by 9.6 percent – a steeper decline than for boys’ fall sports such as soccer (8 percent) and cross country (7.1 percent), according to data from the Maine Principals’ Association. The state’s high school population declined by 12.9 percent between 2006 and 2015.

Decreasing overall enrollment is the biggest factor for the decline in football participation in Maine, said Dr. William Heinz, a Portland-based orthopedist who has served as a medical adviser to the MPA and its national counterpart.

“Especially when you look at Florida, Georgia and Texas, places where football is religion,” he said. “They’re continuing to play at the same level.” Nationally, there was a 1.8 percent decline in high school football participation from 2006 to 2015.

Others attribute the decline to heightened awareness about the dangers of head injuries. Football players were injured more frequently than kids playing any other high school sport in the 2014-15 school year, according to the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Survey. Concussions accounted for about a quarter of the injuries among all high school athletes, the survey found.

“The thing I’m constantly talking about is that we need, as a group, to educate people on this concussion thing,” said Greely High coach Dave Higgins, who started the season with 27 players – about 10 fewer than last year. “Parents are worried.”

Dave Higgins, head coach of the Greely High School football squad in Cumberland, sets up a special teams drill at a recent practice. Decreasing overall enrollment is the biggest factor behind the decline in football participation in Maine, though others attribute the diminished participation to heightened awareness about the dangers of head injuries.

Dave Higgins, head coach of the Greely High School football squad in Cumberland, sets up a special teams drill at a recent practice. Decreasing overall enrollment is the biggest factor behind the decline in football participation in Maine, though others attribute the diminished participation to heightened awareness about the dangers of head injuries. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

‘A LOT OF IT IS’ PARENTS’ CONCERN

The trend in Maine isn’t confined to the smallest schools. South Portland, Massabesic and Greely high schools all decided to eliminate junior varsity competition this year because of fewer players. Windham and Cheverus dropped their freshman football schedules.

“I think Maine football remains strong,” said Michael Burnham, an assistant executive director of the MPA. “There are some schools, particularly smaller schools, that have struggled with numbers but we also saw a number of new programs and we expanded to four classes.”

Indeed, in 2006, Maine high schools fielded 67 teams competing in three different classifications. Today there are 72 varsity programs eligible for postseason play in four classifications. In all, 3,663 boys played varsity football last fall – 409 fewer than a decade earlier.

The five schools that dropped varsity football did so for varied reasons. All five continue to field teams, albeit at the club or junior varsity level.

Woodland-Calais, Telstar and Sacopee Valley all had fledgling programs, only to have difficulty competing with more established programs – typically suffering lopsided defeats.

Boothbay, by contrast, is a five-time state champion that played in a state title game as recently as 2007.

“It’s difficult for us,” said Drapeau, the quarterback, “because we’re one of the smaller schools in Maine to have a varsity program.”

In fact, Boothbay was the state’s smallest school, in terms of enrollment (215), to field a varsity football team.

Camden Hills, with an enrollment three times that of Boothbay, has a vibrant soccer program as well as fall sporting options of golf, cross country, sailing and mountain biking.

“We’re not a long-term football culture,” said Steve Alex, athletic director at Camden Hills, which, like Boothbay, will continue its JV schedule. “A lot of it is that parents are concerned about injuries. That holds some things back. But the kids we have are working hard. I’m very much encouraged by the direction this is heading.”

Alex said the school won’t begin any game without a roster of at least 20 active players. The program has 27 this fall.

Freshman Naveen Caron gets set to receive a kick during a special-teams drill at Greely High School football practice. Greely joined South Portland and Massabesic in eliminating junior varsity teams this year; Windham and Cheverus dropped their freshman football schedules.

Freshman Naveen Caron gets set to receive a kick during a special-teams drill at Greely High School football practice. Greely joined South Portland and Massabesic in eliminating junior varsity teams this year; Windham and Cheverus dropped their freshman football schedules. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

NO ROSTER MINIMUMS, BUT …

The MPA’s Burnham said there are no roster minimums required for varsity football programs in Maine. Informally, the bar for most schools is 20, he said.

“Obviously, when you get below 20 you can’t hold a practice of 11 on 11,” Burnham said.

Traip Academy in Kittery is a Class D program that has teetered on the cusp of viability for several years, enduring one stretch of 51 games without a victory. Head coach Ron Ross said Traip has competed with as few as 13 available players. When the Rangers reached a regional championship game in 2011, their roster stood at 19.

Now, after three seasons of rosters in the low 20s, Traip has 28 players.

“It’s actually been strange,” said Ross, in his 16th season. “Coaches don’t have to hop in on (our) scout team to play quarterback or wide receiver anymore.”

Ross said the surge can be explained by large freshman (11) and senior (10) classes. He believes the program will rebound in the long run, thanks to a reinstated youth football program in Kittery that had been dormant for the previous three years.

On the other end of the spectrum is Thornton Academy in Saco, which boasts a thriving youth football system. Thornton has won three of the past four Class A state titles with a program that had at least 80 boys each year and currently stands at 93. Other Class A schools with large rosters this fall include Scarborough (80), Sanford (78), Deering (62) and Portland (52).

Gorham dropped down in classification from A to B in 2013 when the MPA expanded to four classes. Athletic Director Tim Spear said that move was critical.

“I think if we had stayed in Class A, we wouldn’t have football anymore,” Spear said. “Our 30 kids certainly were not going to compete with the Class A programs that have 60 kids.”

After hovering just above 30 players in two of the past three years, Gorham is up to 45 this fall, thanks to an influx of freshmen, and is playing full varsity and JV schedules.

CONCESSIONS TO SAFETY

Heightened awareness about head injuries has led coaches to spend more time teaching proper tackling techniques, manufacturers to design safer equipment and organizers to tweak rules that, for example, limit contact in preseason practice and allow for running time in the second half of lopsided games. Protocols have been put in place to detect concussions and prevent concussed players from returning to action too early.

“We very rarely go live in practice,” said Jim Walsh, assistant principal and football coach at Sacopee Valley in Hiram. “We do a lot of teaching and a lot less hitting and I think that’s a concession to safety.”

Some physicians, however, wonder if parental concerns about concussions are keeping too many kids on the sidelines.

“Concussions are a life injury,” said Dr. Paul Berkner, director of the Maine Concussion Management Initiative at Colby College, an effort he co-founded with Heinz in 2009 to better diagnose and prevent head injuries. “They happen in a broad array of both organized activity as well as unorganized activity.”

“Football has a role in the development of young men specifically. I believe it has a value in terms of participation, in terms of physical activity, in terms of organization and structure in these young men’s lives.” Berkner cautions that there isn’t reliable data on how many concussions are occurring in a wide range of sporting activities.

“Parents are making decisions without good information,” he said. “The problem is, there isn’t good information available yet.”

This is where his MCMI colleague, trainer Hannah Willihan, comes in. As administrator of the Head Injury Tracker, or HIT, project, Willihan visited 141 Maine high schools over the past year to ask for assistance in tracking concussions. She said about 80 schools agreed to take part.

“We’re essentially taking a survey about each individual concussion,” said Willihan, who stressed that no information identifying specific students or even specific schools will be gathered. “Activity in which they injured themselves, birth year, gender and then we’re also interested in things from their medical history that may indicate a longer recovery.”

Berkner said the HIT project needs three to five years of good data from a broad cross-section of schools to be able to draw reliable conclusions.

WALKING AWAY ISN’T EASY

Xavier Mills, a senior at South Portland High, isn’t playing football this fall after suffering a third concussion last season. At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, he had played on offense and defense as a lineman.

“We told him that we just did not want him participating anymore,” said Meryl Mills, Xavier’s grandmother and legal guardian. “You only have one brain. He knew how serious it was.”

Xavier had been playing football since elementary school. His closest friends still play. Walking away has not been easy.

“He’d always identified with football,” she said. “That was his group. I think he felt like an outcast, but he’s learning how to hold his head up in spite of not being able to do his favorite sport.”

Nate Ingalls walked away from football after playing quarterback in junior high, in large part because he and his parents thought his frame wasn’t big enough to compete against more physically mature high schoolers. Ingalls continued to play other sports before returning to football as a senior last fall at Cape Elizabeth High.

At 5-foot-11, 145 pounds, Ingalls played an injury-free season at wide receiver and free safety.

“That football season was his most enjoyable season at Cape,” said his father, Andrew Ingalls. “He loved it. In football, there’s just that special camaraderie, an all-for-one attitude that you don’t find in any other sport. He must have said a hundred times, ‘I’m so glad I did this.'”

EXPERIMENTING WITH OPTIONS

One idea floated by the MPA five years ago was for smaller schools to consider eight-player football. In the eight-player version, two interior linemen (usually the tackles) and one back or flanker are removed from the offense. Defenses also drop to eight players from 11. The field is often shortened and scores generally run higher.

It’s a version of the sport popular in the Midwest and tried in Aroostook County, whose independent teams in Madawaska, Houlton and Presque Isle transitioned to traditional football three years ago. Vermont dabbled with it but discontinued the experiment after the 2004 season.

“We did away with it because it never grew,” said Bob Johnson, associate executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association. “What it came down to is that schools were going to play 11-man football or they weren’t going to have a team.”

Johnson said Vermont has two cooperative teams but also allows schools to accept up to 20 students from another school that doesn’t offer football.

“I would say at least 50 percent of our teams participate in the member-to-member program,” Johnson said. “No one else has that in New England.”

Maine has four cooperative teams, including an Ellsworth-Sumner squad likely in its final year as partners. That’s because the combined enrollments of the two schools would place the team in Class B, but in order to be competitive the team plays in Class D and is thus ineligible for playoffs.

This year’s roster of 32 includes only two Sumner students. After stumbling through an 0-25 stretch, Ellsworth-Sumner went 5-3 last season. The team opened this season with a freshman at quarterback and two lopsided losses.

“That’s what you get when you’re in Class D,” said Josh Frost, Ellsworth athletic director. “We have a lot of freshmen and sophomores going against seniors. While it can be scary, that’s what you have to do.”

Boothbay had planned to be a fifth coop team, inviting students from Wiscasset to join the football program, but none came out for the team.

The door remains open, said Boothbay athletic director Allan Crocker.

“I fully anticipate we’re going to be back to varsity,” Crocker said of the future. “I think Boothbay needs football. We may have to look at this trend and maybe get a fifth (classification) or maybe look at eight-man football. I know a lot of people are attached to the idea of traditional football, so that might not be an easy sell, but for us smaller schools, maybe that makes sense.”

Drapeau, the Boothbay quarterback, knows the Seahawks won’t be taking part in any playoff games this fall. Then again, Boothbay was out in the first round the previous three seasons.

“One of the reasons we’ve come together,” he said of this season, is that players “haven’t been discouraged by the whole club-team deal. It’s nearly exactly what we’ve been doing. We still have our Friday night games under the lights. The school has been sticking by us. They’re still going to fund us and do all the events of the past.”

Boothbay opened its club season with a 39-6 victory at Camden Hills. Other opponents include Telstar, Lincoln Academy’s club team and a developmental team from Berlin, New Hampshire.

“The only difference is the teams that we’re playing,” Drapeau said. “Those teams are going to be closer to our level and more competitive for us.”

Staff Writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.