Despite recent publicity concerning football injuries and the tremendous growth in soccer, football remains the No. 1 high school sport in the Washington metropolitan area in terms of student interest and participation.
According to many of the area's football coaches, preseason turnouts have been either better or about the same as in past years. At the same time, soccer, especially in suburban Maryland and Virginia, has enjoyed a slight increase in participation.
The high school football season gets into full swing today with more than 40 games scheduled, most at night.
While some football coaches admit that the rise in football injuries, coupled with the youth movement in soccer, has helped boost interest in the latter sport, they insist it hasn't hurt football one bit.
Many of the schools that have been consistent winners, such as Annandale and Theodore Roosevelt, welcomed their usual number of aspirants.
Annandale had more than 180 students try out for the freshman, junior varsity and varsity football teams. About 85 boys and 65 girls tried out for the Atom soccer teams.
"I think there's a place for both sports in high school," said Annandale football Coach Bob Hardage, who is more concerned about tonight's game against defending Northern District champion West Springfield. "I don't think we've ever lost any players to soccer and I don't think soccer has ever lost any players to us.
"Soccer meets the need for a lot of athletes," Hardage continued. "I'm not a great lover of the sport. I just haven't learned to appreciate the game yet. But, then, a person from Colombia or Ecuador wouldn't appreciate football, either."
"If I had my choice, I'd rather play tennis," Hardage said.
All-Met defensive end David Thomas of Carroll said, "I've played soccer in physical education class but that's all. I just never found the sport interesting. It's a good sport and I have friends who play. I don't think soccer is all that injury-free, either. People get hurt out there, too."
Thomas' father, Joseph, agreed.
"Soccer can be just as physical.Football players do have on pads. Soccer players have contact, too, but don't have on anything," said the elder Thomas. "I think football can be good for the kids if they are properly coached and have good equipment. I have no complaints about the game. And no, I don't have any fear for David getting hurt."
Thomas' teammate, DeCarso Ware, said he thinks football players are tougher than soccer players.
"I respect football players more," said Ware, a linebacker. "Maybe it's because I play. Soccer is okay to watch but I wouldn't play it. It's not as demanding as football."
At Roosevelt and the other Interhigh League schools, soccer is still a novelty sport. Only five of Washington's 15 high schools fielded soccer teams last year and not many more schools are expected to have teams this year.
"One reason we don't have more teams is because the soccer coaches don't get paid," said Interhigh Athletic Director Otto Jordan. "Even if we had a big soccer program, I don't think it would have much impact on our football program. Our kids look forward to playing football and basketball more than any other sport."
The District has not had much success pushing youth soccer programs, although the D.C. Recreation Department and Boys Clubs have tried.
In the suburbs, however, it is not uncommon for a high school to have as many or more students try out for the soccer team as for football.
"Soccer is very strong out here," said Dave Scaggs, who has coached Woodward to three straight Montgomery County Class A soccer crowns. "We can't get enough referees. Because kids have been playing for so long, they're coming to high school very skilled in the sport.
"We're cutting kids who could have been starters five years ago," said Scaggs. "We're giving football a run for their money now."
Soccer has been especially popular in schools that have not been successful on the football field.
At Laurel, which went winless last year (0-10) and has won only nine football games the past four seasons, soccer has boomed.
"I don't think we've had good tryouts because the team has been losing," said soccer Coach Dick Urtz. "We usually get 50 or more kids, anyway."
Laurel football Coach Pat Baker said there was a good chance "some kids may have opted for soccer because the football team has not done well lately.
"You might lose a few athletes but we're not competing for kids with the soccer program," said Baker. "We started out with 70 kids last year and ended with about 33.Some went to soccer. We have no friction with that. The natural soccer players will play soccer."
For the next three months, the main topic of discussion will be football, not soccer.
Annandale, the defending Virginia AAA state champion, risks its 14-game winning streak against a well-thought-of West Springfield team at Annandale tonight at 8.
In other top games, T. C. Williams visits Robinson in a Northern District game, Theodore Roosevelt plays Spingarn at Coolidge, Interhigh champion Eastern travels to Woodbridge, Oxon Hill meets High Point at Friendly and defending Maryland state AA champion Annapolis hosts Kenwood of Baltimore County.
"Now that (Tropical Storm) David's past, I guess we're ready to play," said Hardage. "I'm pleased with our team so far.We've done well in scrimmages. Offensively, we may be a bit ahead of our defense. But that's not unusual when you get the middle of your offense back."
Hardage has every reason to be pleased. All-Met center Reuben Weaven will snap the ball to junior quarterback Mark Cox, who fired 19 touchdown passes last year. Cox will hand the ball to backs Jim Hatch or Reggie Wayland or throw in the direction of Kevin Guthrie or Tim Grant, both excellent receivers.
West Springfield has one of the area's best linebacking corps in T. J. Murray, Bill Harvey and David Spencer.
The Spartans' diversified wishbone attack is a concern for Hardage, who considers it one of the best.
Roosevelt, a preseason favorite to win the Interhigh West Division, will have a tough test against much-improved Spingarn.
Spingarn's Green Wave rushed for more than 350 yards in beating Cardozo, 19-6, in the opener for both teams last week.
Running back Gary Mayo picked up 281 yards on the ground and scored all three Spingarn touchdowns.
Roosevelt will depend on its option attack led by slick quarterback Dwight Singleton and running backs Lawrence Adkins and William Redman, and a rugged defense keyed by tackle Wendelle Battle.