21st Straight Year: More Than 1 Million High School Boys Played Football in 2019

By Terence P. Jeffrey

September 9, 2020 6 min read

In the fall of 2019, 1,003,524 American high school boys played 11-man tackle football, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, or NFHS.

That made 2019 the 21st straight year in which at least 1 million American high school boys played football.

No other sport comes close.

According to annual surveys conducted by the NFHS, at least 1 million high school boys have played football in every season from 1999 through 2019.

From the 1988-89 school year through the 1998-99 school year, the number of high school boys playing 11-man tackle football ranged from a low of 886,940 in the fall of 1992 to a high of 983,625 in 1998.

Then, in the fall of 1999, the number climbed above a million to 1,002,734. In 2008, it hit a high of 1,112,303.

In no year from 1999 to 2019 did the number of high school boys playing football drop below a million.

It is indisputable: Football is America's game.

In the 2018-2019 school year, which is the last year for which full high-school sports participation data is available, 1,006,013 high school boys played football, according to NFHS. The second most popular sport for boys that year was outdoor track and field. It had 605,354 male participants.

The rest of the top 10 male high school sports included basketball (540,769 participants); baseball (482,740); soccer (459,077); cross country (269,295); wrestling (247,441); tennis (159,314); golf (143,200); and swimming and diving (136,638).

No male high school sport — except football — came close to attracting 1 million participants.

In fact, when the total number of both high school boys and girls participating in a sport are counted together, only one sport — outdoor track and field — had more participants than the number of boys alone playing high school football.

In the 2018-2019 school year, the 605,354 boys and 488,267 girls participating in outdoor track and field equaled a total of 1,093,621 participants. That edged out the 1,006,013 high school boys who played football that year.

But the 1,006,013 boys playing high school football in 2018-2019 beat out the combined 939,836 boys and girls who played basketball and the 853,182 boys and girls who played soccer.

Football was the most popular participation sport for high school boys in all regions of the country — including 43 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

(The seven states where football was not the top boys sport in 2018-2019 were: Alaska, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont. In Nebraska, the 8,579 boys who played football were edged out by the 8,767 who played outdoor track and field.)

In the 2018-2019 school year, football was the most popular boys sport in Massachusetts, where 18,019 boys played. In that state, outdoor track and field was the second most popular boys sport, with 14,751participating.

Football was the most popular boys sport in Connecticut, where 9,017 boys played on their high school teams. In that state also, outdoor track and field was the second most popular, with 7,749 boys participating.

Football was the most popular sport in Illinois, where 38,366 boys played on their high school teams. In that state, as in Massachusetts and Connecticut, outdoor track and field was the second most popular sport, with 24,047 boys participating.

Football was the most popular sport in Florida, where 40,361 boys played for their high school teams. In that state, basketball was the second most popular sport, with 21,652 boys participating.

Football was also the most popular sport in California, where 91,305 boys played for their high school teams. As in Massachusetts and Connecticut, outdoor track and field was the second most popular, with 55,335 boys participating.

Texas led the nation with 165,641 boys playing football in the 2018-2019 school year. The second most popular sport for high school boys in that state was also outdoor track and field, which had 74,522 participants.

When it published the number of boys who played high school football in the fall of 2019 last week, the NFHS noted that the latest number indicated a shifting trend — in favor of football.

"After annual declines of 23,311, 20,540 and 30,829 the past three years, participation by boys in high school 11-player football in 2019 dropped by only 2,489 — from 1,006,013 to 1,003,524," wrote Dr. Karissa Niehoff of the NFHS.

"These numbers suggest to us that parents are appreciative of the risk minimization efforts that have been put in place," wrote Niehoff. "Every state has enacted rules that limit the amount of contact before the season and during practice, and every state has established concussion protocols and laws.

"Participation in 11-player football reached an all-time high of 1,112,303 in 2008-09, and except for 2013-14, has declined every year since; however, this year's decline is the smallest in 10 years," Niehoff wrote.

"The continued enthusiasm for football has been evident this fall — even amid the COVID-19 pandemic," she said. "State associations have worked with government, education and health leaders to do everything possible to offer the sport at some time during the 2020-21 season."

This fall, according to the NFHS, 34 states are playing high school football.

The COVID-19 virus may have turned 2020 into one of the strangest years in the recent history of our country. But it did not kill the sport that has done more than any other to define the high school experience of this nation's young men.

Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor in chief of CNSnews.com. To find out more about him, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: jp26jp at Pixabay

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