Once a Youth Football Mecca, L.A. Now Struggles to Find Kids Who’ll Play

LOS ANGELES — Susan Miller Dorsey High, a public school tucked away in one of Los Angeles’s historically Black neighborhoods, was once a high school football powerhouse in the city. The program bred N.F.L. talent like Keyshawn Johnson and captured five conference championships from 1982 to 2001.

But Coach Stafon Johnson estimated that before his first 2021 team meeting, he had five players on his roster. After the meeting in July, it was about 17, he said.

“There was no interest,” Johnson said in an interview. “Our history and tradition lives up to themselves, but we’re in the business of, ‘What have you done for me lately?’”

The roster eventually ballooned to 51, enough for Johnson to successfully complete his first season coaching his alma mater. But the numbers were in drastic contrast to the golden days, when as many as 80 players dressed in green-and-white uniforms on Friday nights.

Dorsey’s challenges illustrate the struggle, along with the promise, of youth football in Los Angeles. A survey conducted by the LA84 Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports youth sports programs, found that 17.1 percent of children ages 6 to 17 in 2019 played either tackle or flag football in Los Angeles County. That is a 2 percent increase from 2018, and officials said they have seen a boost during the pandemic in participation in youth leagues.

Stafon Johnson, once a star running back at Dorsey High, is now its head coach.Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times

But although football is growing, it still lags compared with other sports. Only 15 percent of boys played tackle football, significantly trailing basketball (34.5 percent), soccer (29.5 percent) baseball (25.4 percent), swimming (24.5 percent) and running (18.5 percent).

Changing demographics and parents’ concerns about safety are among the factors that drive football’s modest numbers in one of the country’s marquee markets. But coaches and officials hope the return of the Rams and the Chargers and the excitement of the Super Bowl in Inglewood, Calif., will continue to fuel kids’ interest in the game.

“If you have two clubs there, you want the football affinity to be high,” said Roman Oben, the N.F.L.’s vice president of football development. “It’s a travesty if football is not important in one of the biggest cities in the world, despite everything that’s going on.”

Programs such as the one at St. John Bosco High, a private boys’ school east of Los Angeles, consistently feed colleges with top-ranked recruits, and 170 players on N.F.L. rosters in 2020 were California natives, ranking the state third-highest in the country. But the overall health of youth football in the Los Angeles region is complex, said Renata Simril, the president and chief executive of LA84.

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Affluent schools with rich football histories, she said, seem to remain firm in their participation. Schools with less means, like Dorsey, may experience roadblocks.

Johnson, Lewis, Allan Meeks, 14, and Revels at the end of their training session. Participation in youth football has been growing modestly in Los Angeles.Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times

Simril grew up in Carson, a Los Angeles suburb, and remembers Dorsey at its peak. A stark shift over decades has prompted wide changes in the entire youth football landscape, she said.

Many in the African American community migrated away from urban areas, and the county increasingly became Hispanic. And while football’s appeal with Hispanics is accelerating, soccer is still that culture’s dominant sport.

The cost of living in Los Angeles rose and the price of pads and other equipment made football unattractive compared with sports that require just a ball. All of the activities vie for limited playing space, with some areas are reserved for a specific sport. Add the other things Los Angeles can offer, such as the beach and the entertainment industry, along with parents’ concerns about head injuries, and you have a challenging environment to sustain consistent participation levels of youth football.

“It’s just a matter of demographics,” Simril said. “I think that traditional American football in Los Angeles, given the demographics in the surveys that we do, will take a while to get into the top five as soccer continues to grow.”

Flag football is a good way into the sport for boys and girls, Simril said, and can ease parents’ concerns about safety. Last month, the Rams and the Chargers partnered to create a girls’ flag football league and submitted a proposal to have it sanctioned as a high school sport for girls.

Johnson running drills with his nephew, Lewis.Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times

Simril was on the committee that pitched Los Angeles as a Super Bowl city to N.F.L. owners during a 2016 meeting in Charlotte, N.C. Simril hinged part of her pitch on the story of Caylin Moore, who grew up between Compton, Calif., and Carson, in an abusive household. He played in a youth football league, crediting his coach as a father figure, then competed in high school and in college at Texas Christian.

He became a Rhodes Scholar and is now a doctoral student at Stanford. Simril, in her pitch, said the added visibility of a Super Bowl could attract more children to play football, allowing coaches to help them develop similar positive character traits.

After Los Angeles was awarded the game, the Rams and the Chargers relocated to the city and began financially supporting youth leagues and hosting camps and clinics for players and coaches. Though the Lakers and the Dodgers are seen as the premier professional sports organizations in the market, Johnson said he felt that the clubs’ efforts could help motivate young players. In the two decades that Los Angeles lacked a franchise, U.S.C. was the nearest thing the city had to an N.F.L. team, he said.

“Having them here, it helps,” Johnson said. “I think the realities of where football can take you is coming back to the inner city.”

Recruiting Efforts

Johnson starred at Dorsey as a running back, rushing for 5,777 career yards, and later at U.S.C. While Johnson was bench pressing during his senior collegiate season, the bar slipped, landing on his neck and crushing his throat. He recovered and signed with the Tennessee Titans in 2010 as an undrafted free agent, but he never played a regular season snap in the N.F.L.

He latched onto Dorsey as an assistant in 2014 and was promoted to head coach in 2019. The Dons won only three games the season before and interest in football at the school was consistently dwindling, Johnson said. Then, three months after he was hired, the coronavirus pandemic struck, and the California Interscholastic Federation, the state’s regulatory body for high school sports, eventually canceled the championships for fall sports.

As conditions improved, the state adopted a shortened football season for spring 2021, but Dorsey opted out. Johnson Johnson said the short timeline would have made it difficult to cobble together a team and adequately train, which also could have led to injuries. also could have led to injuries.

“I feel like I wasn’t able to put my print on these kids,” Johnson, 34, said. “If I were to rush it in and get this started then, it would have gotten out of whack.”

At the July team meeting, Johnson and the athletes knew they needed to recruit. Javaun Lewis, a freshman running back, was particularly worried about the slim corps of offensive lineman. He and other players reached out to friends in their immediate circle and others who they felt could be swayed. But he did not beg.

I just really focused on being myself,” Lewis said of his recruiting pitch. “I didn’t have too much time to chase after people.

The roster swelled as the school year inched closer, but Dorsey could not play in the season’s first game because the school did not have enough nurses to handle players’ physical exams and conduct Covid rtesting. After that hiccup, the Dons completed the season. The play at times was sloppy — against Crenshaw high, Dorsey’s main rival, the teams fumbled a combined eight times — but the Dons finished with a 10-3 record.

“It should only go up from here,” Lewis, 15, said. “From where we began until now, that was a strong start.”

For now, Johnson is preparing for his second season, hosting workout sessions for players at a public field across the street from Dorsey. Lewis expects he will have new teammates.

“I’ve heard some things through the grapevine, but I haven’t seen anything yet,” he said. “When the season comes around, we’ll see.”

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