Winning has been hard for East Chapel Hill’s football program since its inception in 1996.
The Wildcats have made the playoffs just four times. They’re 44-182 overall in school history. Their best season was a modest 5-6 in 2012. In 2014, while still a 4A team, the school had to forfeit three games due to a shortage of healthy players.
East Chapel Hill had graduated more than half of a team that went 1-10 in 2016 – 13 of its 24 players – and was returning only one senior. The prospects of lining up a handful of players, including a number of freshmen and sophomores, to play a varsity schedule against the state powers and tradition-rich schools like Hillside, Southern Durham, Orange and Northern Durham, were grim.
Faced with a yearly struggle to field a team due to a lack of interest and growing health and safety concerns that included fears about the danger of concussions, East Chapel Hill made a dramatic decision. The school would not play a varsity schedule this fall, hoping a possible restart next season could right the program.
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Athletic director Randy Trumbower made the call in March to support only a junior varsity team when it was clear there were not going to be enough players to safely field a varsity team this season. Since the North Carolina High School Athletic Association does not allow schools to merge teams, the school’s options were limited.
“It really comes down to nutrition and numbers,” Trumbower said. “Even if you’re competitive, you can’t survive because you don’t have the numbers to give kids rests, and what happens if they get tired and they get hurt? Or it’s a compound effect, and they get hurt later down in the season, and you lose more and more.”
East Chapel Hill’s decision to eliminate varsity football this season would impact the athletic department’s finances, athletes and the community. What would it mean for the school to go a year without varsity high school football?
The cost of not playing
High school football helps fund athletic departments.
On the varsity level, the sport can regularly draw thousands of fans. The state championships, which will be played Saturday, routinely draw about 10,000 for each of the eight title games. Money collected from regular-season home ticket sales – at East Chapel Hill, that’s a gross of about $2,500 per game – can go a long way toward funding a high school athletic department.
JV games don’t generate the same kind of interest – the average gross was about $750. East Chapel Hill hosted six varsity games (one was an endowment, in which the home gate is split with the state association and the visiting team) in 2016 and four JV games in 2017, which means the drop to JV cost the department almost $10,000.
Trumbower moved varsity soccer and field hockey games to Friday to soften the financial blow, hoping to draw bigger crowds by playing on a non-school night.
“It’s going to hurt me a lot financially. It was tough. Football is usually your cash cow, and we didn’t make any cash. It’s not so much what it does in the fall, it’s really how it affects the spring and winter,” Trumbower said. “It made enough to pay for its season. Usually makes enough to pay for its season and all of the fall. It was unable to do that this year.”
Changes from the start
The school hadn’t planned on going into this JV-only schedule with a new coach, but head coach Ryan Johnson left the Wildcats three days before the season’s first practice to return to his alma mater, Cummings High in Burlington, as defensive coordinator.
Trumbower liked his assistant coaches, but they were mostly 30-and-under. He needed experience, so he called Mr. East Chapel Hill himself, Ray Hartsfield.
Hartsfield, 61, is the only varsity boys basketball coach the school has ever known, and he guided the Wildcats to the 1997 state championship in their first season. He was the school’s athletic director for 19 years, but hadn’t coached football since 1995, when he was an assistant at Riverside High in Durham.
“ ‘You know I’m not going to tell them no. I’m going to do it,’ ” Hartsfield told his wife. “ ‘I know I’ll be fatigued by the time basketball season rolls around, but I’m not going to turn my back on East Chapel Hill.’ ”
Hartsfield agreed to do it for one year.
“I had a lot of young coaches who knew football, but I needed someone to guide them in what to say, what not to say and how to handle some situations and not let raw emotion take over, and that’s where he was really invaluable,” Trumbower said.
“We made our practices kinda like college practices,” 29-year-old offensive coordinator Joseph Embree said. “We prepared them like they were going into college next year, and I think that’s going to help them going into next year. We have the blueprint.”
Hartsfield managed the game and set the foundation for the return of the program.
“Even with less experience, size and talent, they did a great job preparing us,” rising senior fullback and linebacker Grayson Clements said. “I think we could’ve gotten a (varsity) win or two just off the job they did.”
One of the growing concerns about football from pee wee leagues to the NFL has been increasing awareness about the danger of concussions.
“It’s the first thing they (parents) say,” Embree said. “It’s the buzzword around here. It makes things difficult.”
East Chapel Hill, home to a number of students whose parents work at UNC-Chapel Hill and in the medical industry, was particularly sensitive to concerns about the dangers of concussions.
A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association and related stories in July in the New York Times and on “60 Minutes” on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a condition linked to football-related concussions that can lead to dementia and death, seemed to ratchet up parents’ concerns about the sport.
“When (the CTE report) came out, I think it was probably always an issue, but that kind of threw a little salt in the wound. That hurt us bad. Chapel Hill is a really educated place, lot of parents working in the health fields,” Embree said. “So when that came, it probably stopped a couple kids. We even had some kids whose parents still didn’t agree with them playing, but they let them out of love and passion. I think that really hurt this area more than it might a Durham or a Raleigh.”
Quarterback Will Donaldson, a rising senior, said he suspects some classmates aren’t allowed to play football because of concussion concerns, but didn’t want to say it outright.
“It’s just kind of Chapel Hill culture, if you know what I mean,” Clements said. “The program has had a negative image around the school. ... Even more so here than at Chapel Hill or Carrboro High School, it’s not really a football town. A lot of people play soccer or lacrosse, and also there’s a lot of parents who don’t like their kids playing football. ... If your parents won’t let you play, there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Looking for teammates
East Chapel Hill is not the first school in the area to struggle to field a football team. Chapel Hill hasn’t had a JV team in a few seasons and it, like East Chapel Hill, has more than 1,400 students. Carrboro, which has just 861 students, went from being the 2AA state runner-up in 2012 to forfeiting two games in 2015 because it didn’t have enough healthy players.
Players like rising senior Clements and Donaldson said they were saddened by the announcement to skip the season.
In the hope of increasing the JV team’s roster size, they tried to “recruit the hallways” at ECHHS last spring, with limited success. Donaldson got two players to give it a shot, but for the most part, when they ask other students to play they’re met with resistance. Years of on-field struggles had taken a toll on the popularity of the sport.
“We get rejected pretty harshly sometimes by some people just because they don’t have any respect for the football team,” Donaldson said. “They’ll say East Chapel Hill football sucks, that the coaches don’t know what they’re doing. ... Some of the best athletes in our school would rather play lacrosse or basketball rather than football.”
The JV team put together a strong season, going 6-3-1 overall. The team won its homecoming game and tied Chapel Hill (there is no overtime in JV football) which was a major win for team morale considering the Tigers have won the last 12 head-to-head varsity meetings.
It was different, having to wake up to go to school the day after Thursday games, but the Wildcats created a little buzz.
“We competed in every game,” Clements said. “There wasn’t really any games like last season, where last season, there were some games where after the first play you knew it wasn’t going to go well.”
And, perhaps more importantly, the season that started with 31 players ended with 26.
The coaches held the Wildcats to a high standard. Defensive coordinator Stephen Davis was upset when the opposing team scored on the final play of a 23-6 victory.
“We practiced like it was varsity, the coaches prepared like it was varsity,” Davis said. “Winning six JV games, versus winning one varsity game, when you’re 14-15 years old, I call it ‘the feeling.’ You get that feeling of winning more, versus getting it that one time. That’s why we didn’t downplay it. We knew that confidence would be the biggest thing.”
East Chapel Hill’s games were shortened so the Wildcats could get through games with a minimum amount of injuries. Practices had to alternate – offense one day, defense the next – but it worked.
“Wins and losses-wise, it was a good decision. I think it was more than about wins and losses. Truthfully, it was more about putting our kids in a situation where we could build a program and hopefully keep them safe,” Trumbower said. “Across the board, it gave the kids an opportunity to play football who love football and those who had never had the chance, an opportunity to play.”
The numbers game
Trumbower will be interviewing candidates for the head coaching job over the next two weeks. Whoever he hires will know that East Chapel Hill’s future in football will be dependent on the numbers.
It takes at least 25 players to return to varsity play. It would take 60 to institute a JV and varsity for all 11 games.
If the numbers are somewhere in the middle, around 40 or so, there’s a chance the team could still have JV and varsity, but only play the seven JV games in conference play. That would allow the new coach to recruit the hallways and get more players onto the field by the time the first JV game starts in late September. Selling the opportunity to play on JV to underclassmen is more appealing than varsity.
“As a parent, I get it,” Davis, 24, said. “I don’t want my 14-year-old son going to high school and going straight to varsity and playing – because they’re only 30 out there – out there on the field at 160 pounds soaking wet playing offensive line, going against a 330-pound lineman.”
Donaldson brought in a few starters last year, now those players are working to get more to come to offseason workouts.
“We definitely gained some players who are really committed, and they’re also recruiting more people, so it’s a domino effect,” Clements said. “After the success we had this season, and with a good offseason, we can have more success next season even though the competition will be a lot tougher.”
It may be the new normal for East Chapel Hill and its neighboring schools, surveying how many players are on the way before deciding whether they can safely bet on playing varsity football come fall.
“I don’t like living week-to-week trying to figure out if we have enough kids to play. Is anybody sick? Did anyone get hurt real bad?” Trumbower said. “Our population of students are smart. They read a lot, they listen a lot. A lot of kids who are on the fence about playing don’t because they’re scared about getting a brain injury. It’s a real fear. Not everybody can do it.”