Player turnout still a problem for some inner-city high school football programs

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Jefferson High School kicker Oscar Silva (40) huddles with the team during practice on July 28, 2022.
Jefferson High School football kicker Oscar Silva (40) huddles with the team during practice on Thursday. (Luca Evans / Los Angeles Times)

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

Well, not necessarily in quality. It was far too early to tell for that. Players mostly stood and listened Thursday as coaches pointed out special-teams formations.

The difference came in their helmets: out with the traditional Jefferson gold, in with a shiny 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 refurbished with the fresh paint.

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

“That would be the type of problem I want to have at that point, running out of helmets,” Grant said, “because that would mean I had enough players.”

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

There’s no room for error with that few players, Grant said. It brings worry about fatigue because many kids are forced to play both offense and defense. It brings worry for injury. It brings worry, in this era, 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 remembers when, at this time last year, it was just him, Grant, and about eight stragglers roaming the field for the Democrats.

“We was scraping to get a full roster,” Grant said. “This year, we’re gonna be all right.”

A quick scan of some City Section schools heading into Thursday revealed that other rosters would be all right. In fact, better.

Narbonne is up to 55 players from 22 at the end of last season’s playoff run. Taft had around 25 for their first game last season; now, the team will field 60 in its first week. Garfield’s numbers have increased by more than 10 at both varsity and JV levels, and El Camino Real has 10 more in the program than it did this time last year. One negative response came from Wilmington Banning coach Raymond Grajeda, who said he was down about 10 from last year.

Jefferson has had to do some community recruiting to boost 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 he was a kid, visited a practice soon after.

“He was walking the hall, joking around, trying to be cool, saying, ‘I can kick!’ Grant said. “I was like, ‘All right, come out then.’ ”

Now, he’s the starting kicker and punter, and has a leg that could draw college interest. At the Democrats’ practice Thursday, the highlight of the afternoon wasn’t a quarterback firing a long touchdown pass or defensive back notching an impressive pick, but rather Silva knocking through three consecutive field-goal attempts.

“Damn, he got a foot!” one coach exclaimed after a long Silva punt.

So yes, numbers are low, Moore said. But they’re not super low. Hope persists.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.