COVID-19 continues to impact high school football programs

On the first day in shoulder pads and helmets, the Jefferson High football team looked very different.

Well, not necessarily in quality. It was way too early to tell. The players mostly stood and listened on Thursday while the coaches pointed out special team formations.

The difference was in their helmets: out with the traditional Jefferson gold, in with a glossy matte green.

“Pretty good color,” said senior kicker Oscar Silva, examining his helmet.

Coach Jason Grant also liked the color and had more than 50 helmets refreshed with the fresh color.

Not too many, for most programs. But he wishes he had the heads to fill them all.

“That would be the kind of problem I would want to have at this point if I run out of helmets,” Grant said, “because that would mean I’d have enough players.”

As a new football season approaches for the CIF City Section, officially marked by players pulling their hats, programs are still struggling with turnout in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Inner-city schools have been hit hardest — Jefferson and Manual Arts each go into the season with about 30 players, not enough to field a junior varsity team.

With those few players, there’s no room for error, Grant said. It brings with it concerns about fatigue because many children are forced to play both offense and defense. It brings fear of injury. During this time, it brings concerns with positive COVID-19 tests.

“It’s always in the back of my mind,” Grant said.

Jefferson High School football players at practice on July 28, 2022.

Jefferson High School football players at practice on July 28, 2022.

(Luca Evans/Los Angeles Times)

But assistant coach Michael Moore recalled when this time last year only he, Grant and about eight stragglers roamed the field for the Democrats.

“We’ve been trying to get a full roster,” Grant said. “We’re going to be fine this year.”

A quick scan of some City Section schools heading into Thursdays found other rosters would be fine. Indeed better.

Narbonne are down to the bottom of last season’s playoff run with just 55 players out of 22. Taft had around 25 in his first game last season; Now the team will field 60 in its first week. Garfield’s numbers are up more than 10 at both the varsity and JV levels, and El Camino Real have 10 more on the schedule than they did this time last year. A negative response came from Wilmington Banning coach Raymond Grajeda, who said it was down about 10 from last year.

Jefferson had to do some community recruitment to increase the numbers. Last season, Silva was in class when he overheard a player on the team talking about needing a kicker. Silva, who has played soccer since childhood, attended a training session soon after.

“He was walking around the hall joking around, trying to keep his cool and saying, ‘I can kick!’ said Grant. “I thought, ‘Okay, then come out.’ ”

Now the first kicker and punter, he has a leg that could attract collegiate interest. At Thursday’s Democrat practice, the highlight of the afternoon wasn’t a quarterback firing a long touchdown pass or a defensive back hitting an impressive pick, but Silva breaking through three consecutive field goal attempts.

“Damn, he’s got a foot!” exclaimed a trainer after a long Silva punt.

So yes, the numbers are low, Moore said. But they are not super low. The hope is there. COVID-19 continues to impact high school football programs

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