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Pop Warner numbers down, spirit still high

CARMEL VALLEY — Once a thriving local sports program with as many as 650 kids participating in its football and cheer teams, Torrey Pines Pop Warner football has seen a major decline in enrollment over the past decade.

Catering to youngsters in the Del Mar, Solana Beach and Carmel Valley areas, the association supported 14 tackle teams and three flag football teams in 2009. And today? Just two Falcon Pop Warner football teams grace the program’s home field at Torrey Pines High School.

Parent, volunteer and former Torrey Pines Pop Warner board member Chris Hendrickson worries that the decrease in enrollment spells the end for the local football program, which was established in 2002. His son, Benjamin, has participated in Pop Warner football for six years — he is currently one of 20 players on the Junior Varsity team. Benjamin plans to play Torrey Pines High School football next year — along with several of his current teammates.

For the Hendricksons, moving on from the program will be an emotional experience.

Josh Saier, No. 55, leads a group of Falcons’ teammates. Pop Warner football is considered by many as “a family affair,” but there are growing concerns about having enough players to field future teams. Photo via Facebook

“It’s been awesome,” Hendrickson said. “I could probably cry thinking that it’s coming to an end.”

The experience has allowed the Hendricksons to form close ties with a number of other local families. He calls game-day Saturdays “so joyful.”

“We’ve really built up a good bond with several families over the years, and hopefully my son has some lifelong friends from the experience,” Hendrickson said.

Benjamin, who qualified as a Pop Warner Little Scholar in 2018, wrote in his application essay that Pop Warner helped him “overcome (his) communication and self-confidence struggles,” showing him the meaning of determination.

Rene Flohr, president of the Torrey Pines Pop Warner program, said that despite decreased enrollment, current participants are “really engaged.”

And their commitment shows — the Junior Varsity team won every game save one in the 2018 fall season, and is headed to the “Best of the West” championship in Northern California in mid-November.

Flohr, as well as the Junior Varsity team’s coach, Adrian Monteiro, mentioned a few possible reasons for why the program has seen a downturn in popularity. They attribute the change to an increase in competition from local flag football leagues and football organizations such as American Youth Football & Cheer, as well as a wider gauntlet of activities available to kids in the area.

“With so many options, traditional football and cheer — like having only three channels on TV in the ‘70s – don’t get much market share,” Flohr said.

Monteiro said safety concerns among parents play a prominent role in decreased enrollment. These concerns are reflective of the nationwide debate regarding the potential dangers of the sport.

Numerous studies across the country have documented the link between high-impact sports such as full-contact football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease believed to have contributed to the death of Oceanside native and Los Angeles Chargers Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau.

Citing the risk faced by youth football players in their critical years of brain development, two California State Assembly members introduced the “Safe Youth Football Act” in early 2018, a proposal that would ban players under the age of 12 from participating in tackle football. The bill has since been shelved.

Torrey Pines Pop Warner is far from the only association taking a hit. In 2013, ESPN reported that nationwide Pop Warner participation dropped 9.5 percent between 2010 and 2012, after a record height of 248,899 players participated in the program in 2010. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, American Youth Football and Pop Warner are estimated to have seen as much as a 30 percent decrease in the number of teams in the last decade, in San Diego and southern Riverside counties.

Falcons battle at the line scrimmage. Courtesy photo by Chris Hendrickson

Flohr, who has been on the board for four years and has two children in Pop Warner, said the program is “highly regulated,” with rules being reviewed and updated every year to ensure safety. Players are required to recertify their helmets every two seasons, and coaches are responsible for attaining concussion training and certification with USA Football. Coaches also instruct on specific methods of blocking and tackling to mitigate the risks of collisions at high speeds.

“We want to curtail anything that’s going to be more egregious,” Flohr said.

Torrey Pines Pop Warner participates in the Palomar Conference with 15 other associations from San Diego and Riverside counties. The nonprofit currently has 40 kids on its two football teams — Pee Wee and Junior Varsity — with 50 in the cheer program. The program once had seven divisions with one or two teams in each division — from Junior Mitey Mite (ages 8-9) to Varsity (ages 13-14).

Although the Pop Warner program has often provided a direct conduit to the Torrey Pines High School program, Monteiro said that many kids are now waiting to start playing football until their freshman year of high school.

Ron Gladnick, the head coach for Torrey Pines High School Football, said the school’s program, which currently attracts roughly 150 student athletes, markets to the younger flag football community through programs like Friday Night Lights and NFL Quarterback Drew Brees’ new local league, Football ‘N’ America. As a result, the program hasn’t seen a decline in enrollment in the same way Pop Warner has, according to Gladnick.

Coach Monteiro, who calls the organization “a family affair,” said he is sad to see the drop in participation, and has concerns about having enough players to field a team in the coming years.

According to Flohr, the board is starting to look at ways of ensuring the future survival of the program, whether that means considering a combination of nearby associations, making Pop Warner more attractive to a multicultural audience, or “spread(ing) the word with more vigor.”

“We’re here to serve the community, if there’s an interest,” Flohr said. “We won’t simply walk away.”

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