MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) — In communities across Michigan, a mainstay of Friday nights in the fall is high school football. So, when a school decides to cancel a game, or even a season, that decision affects the student body, the community and, most importantly, the student athletes.

In recent years, there have been a number of cancellations in Michigan, with the issue affecting schools in both eight-man and 11-man football. In West Michigan, Fennville canceled its varsity football season, citing injuries. Hartford, too, canceled its varsity program due to a lack of players.

While the decisions can be disappointing to players and fans, they aren’t atypical.

“We have had two programs in the last couple of weeks decide, after the season had begun, that they can’t finish. But that really isn’t outside of the norm,” said MHSAA Senior Editor Geoff Kimmerly. “We had a few, I think we had four maybe before the season that had thought in May, when we asked if they’d be playing varsity football, they told us before the season started they wouldn’t be able to play. I feel like that is the norm or better than the norm.”

In addition to population decline in communities across the state, Kimmerly also noted concussion and other injury concerns contributed to a decline in participation that started around a decade ago.

But there is reason for optimism, according to Kimmerly.

“At first they were 2, 3, 4% decreases. We’d see those getting narrower and narrower, and that was something to celebrate. But finally it appears we’ve turned a corner, hopefully,” Kimmerly said. “Between 2021-22 and 2022-23, we saw a 5.2% increase in football participation. Obviously we’re building back up to previous numbers. But just the fact that we’re building back up in a positive way is of course good news.”

The U.P. has seen programs like North Dickinson, Carney Nadeau, L’Anse and Stephenson cancel all or part of their varsity seasons, while JV squads at Westwood and Iron Mountain have canceled games or remainders of seasons. While disappointing, these decisions are not made lightly, with players safety at the front of mind for athletic directors.

“You want to make the decision as early as you can, because you want to give that other team the possibility of having an opponent,” Westwood Athletic Director Jake Skewis said. “So, talking with our administration, our coaches, really revolves around player safety. You have a small amount of kids out there. And yeah, you get programs where kids play both ways. But then you’re playing both ways. You’re also on kickoff, you’re an extra point. On punt return. You never get a break, and that’s when kids start to get hurt bad.”

“Those are considerations a school needs to take to make sure that they’re putting athletes who are ready to play at that level on the field,” Kimmerly said. “Absolutely, there are some underclassmen who physically are ready to play varsity football as a freshman. And there are several that are not and that’s something that obviously needs to be decided locally. Safety is our number one priority, regardless of the sport, regardless of the activity. They are not going to be putting people out there who are not ready and, you know, I applaud them for that. That’s of course the right decision.”

While we have seen cancelations, there are comeback stories as well, with schools like the Mid-Pen Wolverines and West Iron County Wykons returning to the gridiron in recent years after canceling seasons. While there’s no one perfect fix, upticks in participation across the state and options for eight-man football and co-op programs are helping keep football in our communities.

“I would say our schools up there are doing a really good job of getting people on the field,” Kimmerly said. “We talked about making the decision to not have a program. … The tough decision five, six, seven, eight years ago was deciding whether you should be eight-player or 11-player. Crystal Falls Forest Park was a massive 11-player power for decades. You know, one of our first champions in football. And they made that move to eight-player. They’ve won an eight-player championship since, and that fits the size of their community now. There are others out there that have done the same. You know, that was the tough decision then. The tough decisions now maybe are a little bit different. But there are still opportunities there. And maybe that’s — at the end of the day, that’s the best part of the message.”