Young football fanatics in Eau Claire will now have to wait to buckle up their helmets, throw on their pads and make a sack because Eau Claire YMCA and the Eau Claire school district are abolishing tackle football from youth programs until eighth grade.
"We've seen decreasing amount of enrollment in tackle football at the seventh grade level specifically. We came up with this solution in order to increase safety and to get more indifferent students to participate and try the sport. They will then spend some more time around the activity, learn about it, then add gear and heavier hitting," Eau Claire Area School District Academic Services Director, Dave Oldenburg said.
Oldenburg told News 18 over the last ten years, the school district's data shows a 50 percent drop in the number of kids participating in tackle football in the Eau Claire community. By following this new plan, he hopes to see more kids trying out the sport and to see fewer athletes getting injured earlier on in life.
"Students will then move into the group and transition into the 8th grade level. Hopefully, we'll be able to retain our students and less students are scared about getting injured at an early level because we'll be able to train them how to play football before we add the contact and the gear," Oldenburg added.
Scott Webb is a dad of two football athletes and the president of the Eau Claire Memorial Old Abes Football Club. Webb told News 18 some of his greatest memories were coaching his two sons during their tackle football days as kids.
Webb hopes there is more communication involved between the high school, middle school and youth programs in order to get more athletes excited about the sport. Webb believes now would be the right time to implement a strategy to add additional opportunities for kids to learn more about basic football drills and techniques. He said he's eager to see if this change will bring more excitement to the field not only for youth programs, but also at the high school level.
"We just know the program that was existing was abolished so hopefully along with the Eau Claire administration along with the two football coaches, we can all work together with the junior high and youth programs so they can put together a process," Webb said.
Head football coach at Memorial High School, Mike Sinz, is on board for the changes. Sinz hopes flag football will teach young players additional safety skills so they feel strong and confident going into their eighth grade and high school level programs.
"I think it's a great thing for the city of Eau Claire to go from tackle to flag in fifth, sixth and seventh grade. I think it will help out both high schools and that we'll see our numbers increase. Plus, the safety aspect of it all. I've told this to a number of people, if you have a kid have a bad experience in tackle football when they're young, you may not get them to come out for your high school squad," Sinz said.
Sinz hopes to work with North High School's football program in order to add more chances for kids to learn about football, like additional youth programs. Sinz said tackling techniques can still be developed at fifth, sixth and seventh grade levels and pads aren't necessarily needed.
"There are still so many drills you can do. The game has changes so much that you can now do so many tackling drills without wearing full pads. You have the tackle wheel which we have in high school but it can definitely be used for the younger kids and anything with bags can be used. The biggest thing is to just keep your head up and staying safe. That's one of our number one major reasons why we're going to flag. We just want to keep kids safe so they can enjoy the game," Sinz added.
Surrounding school districts like Menomonie and Hudson have switched to flag football in seventh grade and they said they've seen success with the changes.