By Paul Burton

NEWBURYPORT (CBS) – The high school football season kicks off in just a few weeks but practice is well underway. For some teams their first big challenge is filling the team roster.

At Newburyport their goal is to get 40 kids to sign up. Benjamin Smolski has been coaching here for the past four years and says it’s extremely challenging. “Our JV program we struggled to run because of numbers last year and the year after that we only had four freshman come out and we were not able to run a full freshman program,” coach Smoloski said.

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The coach says the fear of concussions has led to the decrease in numbers. “Football is a physical sport and the head injury issue is real and that turns people away,” Smoloski said.

Members of the Newburyport High School football team at practice (WBZ-TV)

According to the MIAA, high school football participation across the state has dropped. In 2012, there was just under 20,000 students now it’s down to 18,000.

Senior captains Rob Johnston and Shamus Webster says convincing their classmates to play is not easy. “I think a lot of people are scared with CTE problem and I know it was tough with my own parents,” Webster said. “I wanted to play in the seventh grade but I didn’t play until my freshman year because it took a lot of convincing.”

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Johnston, who has experienced concussions, says people can get hurt in any sport. “I’ve seen a lot of kids in my grade leave the sport and I think it’s because kids are worried of getting hurt in this sport especially if is not their main sport,” Johnston said.

Number of high school football players in Massachusetts (WBZ-TV)

Another big change seniors have noticed is the way they practice. There’s not nearly as much contact as there was four years ago. “My freshman year is so much different. We used to hit three times a week and now we don’t do any full-time contact except for game day,” Webster said.

Smaller teams also forces kids to play both ways. “It’s hard because everyone is worried that they will get hurt and their parents are worried about it too,” Johnston said.

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Coach Smoloski says he will continue to recruit kids to play. “Our goal is 40 we have 38 this year. I’m focusing on the junior high kids and encouraging them to come out and learn a lot about life,” Smoloski said.

Paul Burton