When the Great Neck North and Great Neck South High School football teams united into one program this year, it was an act of necessity, administrators said.
“Football is a game of numbers,” said Eamonn Flood, the athletic director of Great Neck North High School. “With two small rosters, we felt it was imperative for the safety of our kids.”
Over the last decade, the Great Neck Public Schools have witnessed a decline in participation in football. Retaining a junior varsity team for the last three or four years has also proven difficult, administrators said.
This follows a nationwide trend of declining participation in high school football. It decreased 4.5 percent in the last decade, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The decision also came, Flood noted, as safety concerns continue to rise. One study, for example, examined the brains of 111 N.F.L. players and found that 110 had CTE, a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated head injuries.
David Zewatson, director of the Great Neck Public Schools’ Department of Recreation, noted that it takes 18 students to play a game. But the teams’ numbers sometimes got so low that it “was not uncommon” for them to have to forfeit because of a lack of players.
In other cases, this could mean students were playing excessively or in positions they weren’t familiar with, thus increasing the risk for injury, Zewatson said.
“It’s not really a game where you can afford to be thinking too much during the course of play,” Zewatson added.
Now there are 37 students on the team roster. While the ideal is having somewhere in the 40s, administrators said the fusing of the teams intends to preserve football, student safety and the opportunity to specialize in certain positions.
“We were mismatched in many ways with our opponents,” Zewatson said.
This has led to the football team alternating practice sites between North and South high schools. While traveling can take away some practice time, Flood said it helps they’re in the same district and that it hasn’t been too problematic.
“They really handle the logistics quite well,” Flood said of the students.
The decision also isn’t without precedent, Zewatson noted, because the middle schools combined their football programs into one junior varsity team, also because of declining participation.
At the same time, Flood said interest in other sports like soccer, badminton and volleyball have seen a significant increase. Each of those programs has a stable junior varsity team.
“Kids vote with their feet … The boys are just choosing to play other sports,” Flood said.
Great Neck’s schools were not the first to combine their teams on Long Island, Flood noted. Carle Place and Wheatley fused their football teams, for example, while Malverne and East Rockaway combined their soccer and lacrosse teams.
Ultimately, Flood and Zewatson said it is up to the community whether it wants to continue the sport. For now, they said Great Neck will provide the opportunity to play for anyone who wants to.
“The community, the parents, the kids, the people who live here, they have to decide that’s what they want,” Zewatson said.
So far this year Great Neck’s football team is 1-1.