I had the opportunity to play football on every level – from Pop Warner to the NFL – and for me, there's nothing like high school football.
What makes it so special goes well beyond the Xs and Os. It reflects in the genuine love and passion that players, coaches and fans exhibit for the sport and for each other.
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Once athletes and coaches get beyond high school football, the game becomes more of a business. Factors such as scholarships, salaries, facilities, apparel contracts and TV deals help decide what takes place on and off the field, how the game is played from the player’s perspective and how it's perceived by fans.
In high school, these things are a pipe dream for most participants, and far off enough not to impact the classrooms, weight rooms and fields where coaches and players prepare for Friday nights. It’s about school and community pride, playing alongside friends, many of whom have known each other since kindergarten.
When the Friday Night Lights illuminate across America, entire cities shut down and everyone convenes at the local high school football game. Players and coaches pour it all out on the field in an effort to prevail. Fans pack the stands to support and cheer on student-athletes they know and have relationships with. There's a genuine love and desire to see the team and players do well.
In college and the pros, fan passion is most often directed at the schools or franchises. Players have celebrity status, but no real connection to those in the stands, outside of their own family and friends. And as the relationship becomes more impersonal, the connections between fan and player stretch even further apart.
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The bonds and relationships formed in high school typically last a lifetime. For me, college football was similar, but the business aspect dominates the professional locker room. Many of my best friends in life today are guys I played with in high school and college. I can count on one hand the number of guys I still keep in contact with from my pro days.
This isn't a reflection on the game itself. Tens of millions of Americans love football at its highest level, and for good reason.
This is a plea for high school coaches, administrators, players, parents and fans to recognize this reality and help teenagers understand the opportunities football is giving them right now, whether they play a single down after their senior year or not.
I'm concerned some high school football programs are starting to take on the business mindset of college and professional football. Apparel contracts and long-distance travel are tearing away the fabric of what high school football is and should be.
Coaches at powerhouse schools are beginning to garner the salaries of college coaches, and winning is the sole bottom line over developing athletes as people.
In time, I fear the true essence of high school football will be lost if we continue down this path.
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High school football has always been about building a solid foundation for a young person’s life, based on principles and experiences that can only be taught through the game. It's about cultivating genuine relationships between players, coaches and a community of fans.
There's nothing like high school football. Let’s do a better job preserving it.
Work hard. Be great.
Travis B. Key was a four-time Academic All-Big Ten safety for Michigan State University and co-author with former teammate Ashton Henderson of “Beyond the Gridiron: How to successfully transition into collegiate football,” a detailed account of what it takes to be a Division I college football player and successful in life. To learn more about their mission and purchase your copy today, visit www.beyondthegridironllc.com.
This is an updated version of a blog that originally published April 20, 2016.