Are you ready for some (deflated) football?

You should be if you’re a kid or fan in Portland, where the city’s two high schools are considering combining their teams due to shrinking participation.

Football in The Forest City is in tough shape. The Portland Youth Football League, which covers grades 2-8, went from 190 players in 2015 to 97 last year; only 14 eighth-graders donned uniforms last season.

Across the state, participation in high school football declined about 17 percent from 2008-2017. As a result, the Maine Principals’ Association is proposing to shrink squads from 11 players to eight starting next season. Schools had to respond by Jan. 25 to indicate whether they’d implement the reduction.

It’s funny that a region that cheers the exploits of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the New England Patriots is having trouble fielding enough players to fill local school teams. It’s especially surprising that two of the more storied programs in the state, Portland and Deering high schools, are having trouble finding enough kids to play. Every other kid I see is wearing a Brady or Gronkowski T-shirt, but they don’t want to play?

On Super Bowl weekend, as we gather around our high-def, streaming windows on the world, the future of local football is as fuzzy the old square over-the-air screens we used to watch. And that’s a shame.

Portland vs. Deering is one of the oldest football rivalries in the country. Combining the football programs would bring an end to the 107-year-old Thanksgiving Day match-up. Yes, we’d continue to have the basketball, baseball, softball and other cross-town sporting rivalries, but there’s something extra special about a football game. It’s a dirty gladiatorial sport, especially on a cold, soggy November day – heroic and pathetic, depending on whose side you’re rooting for, all at the same time.

I wanted to play football back in my school days, but my mother didn’t let me. But there were 100 other kids whose mothers would allow it. They wanted to be the next Joe Montana, Tony Dorsett, Bo Jackson or Doug Flutie.

There was never any worry the Pee Wee or high school football team would shut down. Now there are a lot more children who either don’t want to play or whose parents won’t let them. They’re often worried about concussions and impaired cognition.

I think the media coverage of ex-NFLers’ struggles with brain disease has everyone in a tizzy, and falling participation numbers in Maine football is a direct result of this frenzied fear. The many benefits of playing football are being overshadowed by this unrealistic fear.

Reducing football programs to eight-man teams might work, but for how long? Will we eventually see six-man squads, and then four and then two with just a quarterback and receiver out there running plays? The game suffers when a full team isn’t on the field.

Cognitive worries are just an excuse. We have too many kids afraid to compete in a tough sport where they may get hurt. They’re influenced by over-protective “helicopter” parents. Young people are also too engrossed with their adult pacifiers (a.k.a. smartphones) to care about such things as football.

And this is how a long-held tradition such as the Portland-Deering rivalry ends. As FDR said, the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself. An overblown fear of brain injuries, in this case, is needlessly killing football.

John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.


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